If you’ve ever charted a course toward a goal and quickly gave up, odds are you have an immunity to change. The antibodies to change build up fast and create an impenetrable wall.
Even when it’s a matter of life or death, desire and motivation is not enough. Let’s face it. Change is scary. People stay in bad apartments and relationships far too long due to the fear of making a move. Less than one in 100 stroke survivors meet heart health goals. will be able to follow through successfully! Close to 70% of patients wearing a device to help them breathe at night due to sleep apnea actually give up on the appliance, that helps them BREATHE.
Harvard professors Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey detail this dilemma in their excellent book Immunity to Change, citing beneath our desires lie competing commitments.
Competing commitments are the reason why you procrastinate or try and try and try and seem to be getting nowhere. They keep the brakes on while you attempt accelerating.
As these competing commitments are specific to you, the strategies and tactics you use to work through them does not have a one-size fits all approach. That’s what makes this approach so effective as it is personalized.
Kegan and Lahey detail the differences in competing commitments for someone who continues to overeat despite a goal to lose weight:
“One person might discover that his overeating is a solution for unwelcome feelings of emptiness and boredom. Another person might describe her feelings of being part of a food-loving family, and eating is a way of showing love. A third person might have a competing commitment to appear unattractive as a way to keep romantic interest at bay.”
So how do we identify these competing commitments and what can we do about them?
1. What do you currently do that prevents you from accomplishing your goal?
Do you have a friend who says she wants to find a nice guy to date but continually keeps dating jerks? That’s a competing commitment at work.
Before we look underneath the hood of your mental stories, the first step is objectively looking at the behaviors you do that work against you.
For our jerk-dating friend, it may look like this:
After several broken promises by her partner, she keeps silent until they become overwhelming and results in an argument.
She does not know what she wants in a relationship.
When she is out with friends she is a flirting machine.
For someone who is trying to start a business, it might look like this:
Instead of working on her business, she browses the Internet for articles, reads more books, and listens to more podcasts.
She tells herself that she needs a lot of money to start a business.
She tells herself that she needs the “right” business idea.
2. If you did the opposite, what scary feelings come up?
Once you’ve identified the behaviors that work against you, what if you did the opposite? This is where you dig into your fears and worries. Time to get emotional.
Our jerk-dating friend’s fears:
Speaking up when something bothers her feels it would result in an argument and the relationship would end.
Defining what she wants in a partner feels like she’d be limiting her options.
Stopping to flirt with other people and her boyfriend not getting upset feels like he wouldn't care.
Our wannabe-entrepreneur’s fears:
Moving from reading to action feels scary because the idea she has may not be profitable.
Moving from starting a business with not a lot of money feels scary because she may not be able to to the big idea he wants.
Moving from picking an “idea” rather than the “right” idea feels scary because she fears getting bored and it be not impactful.
3. What are your big assumptions (your deeper why)?
Consider Step 2 your rough draft of your fears. Step 3 takes your fears and moves it a few layers deeper. You’ll know when you hit upon your deep, competing commitment when you go “aha (or ugh)! Yeah, that’s the reason.”
A handy guide here is to take your fears from step 2 and say, “If ______, then ______(insert negative event) happen.”
Our jerk-dating friend’s big assumptions:
If her relationship ends, then she will be alone. If she is alone, she will be lonely. She will feel like a loser.
If she limits her options, then she will feel trapped. She is scared of making the wrong choice in a partner. She needs to be sure she is choosing the “one.” If she doesn't choose the one, she might wind up like her parents, miserable and absent.
If her partner stopped being jealous, then he wouldn’t care. And if he doesn’t care, then she is not lovable.
Our wannabe-entrepreneurs big assumptions:
If her business is not profitable, then she will be a failure. She will not be able to quit her job and her friends and family will think she’s not that bright.
If she choose a “small” idea, then she will be doing unimportant work. If she does unimportant work, thens he won’t matter and have an impact on the world.
If she gets bored in her business, then she will feel like she created another job. She will feel trapped and hopeless like she does now.
4. Experimenting with your assumptions
Steps 1-3 are great, but they are largely intellectual. Emotions will certainly come up, but they are no match for testing your assumptions in the real world.
Testing your assumptions must be safe and modest enough so it does not feel overwhelming and being paralyzed to move forward.
The main point of testing your assumptions is NOT to prove your assumption wrong but rather to gather data. This resembles the approach of cognitive behavior therapy: trying out a new behavior and analyzing whether it serves you or is counterproductive.
Start with a single assumption. Ask yourself which assumption gets most in your way. Which one, if changed or acted upon, would make the biggest, most positive change in your life?
Some of these tests may remain in the gathering research sphere such as our budding entrepreneur looking for people who started with “small” business ideas that became something much bigger or found meaning in the small. Or she could test it by launching a small idea over the course of the next 2 weeks and seeing how it feels.
Our jerk-dating friend may experiment with doing a small errand on her own to challenge her assumptions that she would feel lonely single or be a loser.
Answering these questions will take some time and emotional digging. The authors suggest dedicating 30 to 60 minutes a week for several months to practicing your new habits.
Our failings to take action are not some inherent weakness in our character. They are clues that we have powerful competing commitments at work.
Taking the time to uncover and work through them is the difference between the wind behind your sails or constantly battling the boulder uphill.
You can grab Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey’s Immunity to Change Map by clicking here.