Why is Change so Hard?
So now we know that we get triggered into unhelpful brain patterns that link our thoughts, feelings, physical sensations, and behaviours. But if we know about these unhelpful patters, why is it still so hard to change them?
Well…I happen to know this concept intimately and first-hand, so I’ll take you through my own experience to illustrate.
I started off just like a lot of other little girls…kinda cutesy, kinda soft. I lived in a tiny little hippie town in the mountains of Canada….the safest place in the world. Then something really really scary happened...
My mom and I were driving my brother to kindergarten. I was really young - still in a car seat. We stopped to pick up my brother’s friend along the way. And my brother (because he’s such a sweetheart) was in the backseat so that his little friend could sit up front. His friend was walking towards our car and stopped for a moment to tie his shoelace….and BOOM the front passenger seat of the car blew up. Yeah. Dynamite. If my brother hadn’t saved the seat for his friend, and if his friend hadn’t stopped to tie his shoelace, we would have been one kid down. My mom called my dad a few minutes later who was across town, and his response was: “THAT was our car??” It shook the whole valley.
It didn’t stop there. A few months later my house was bombed.And then it was bombed again. And again. And again.
This happened 5 times over a period of a year and a half. It was all over the newspapers, the whole country was totally confused by it. No one knew why, no one ever figured out what was going on, and somehow no one was able to make it stop. We just lived in constant fear that something terrible was going to happen…that we were literally going to be blown to bits. Crazy.
What my little brain learned was that it was totally unsafe to be this cute soft little girl in this awful, dangerous situation. I had to be tough. I had to adapt to survive in an extreme situation. So I morphed into something that my brain figured was more likely to survive. My first act of protection was making my parents shave my head when I was four.
That began a long journey of masking my fear, hiding my vulnerability behind a "tough" external wall.
I got so used to this mask that when I was older, I operated as if I had no fear at all. My brain did such a good job of covering over the sheer terror that existed inside of me, that I literally couldn’t feel fear. And when you don’t really feel fear, you can certainly get up to a fair amount of mischief…I rode motorcycles, jumped off cliffs, travelled alone, and put myself in a whole host of incredibly vulnerable positions. I had no measure for understanding what was going too far, what was dangerous. I was constantly living on the “edge”.
Other people used to tell me I was brave….but that wasn’t it at all, I was simply so cut off from my experience that I didn’t know what I was feeling.
Then when I became an adult, this pattern of cutting off from my emotions started to create a train wreck out of my life. I was constantly getting myself into situations, jobs, lifestyles, and relationships that weren’t working for me, but I never had any clue until they blew up in my face. When you’re not really FEELING your reality, you have no way of knowing what you like and don’t like…it’s all a jumbled confusing mess!
It wasn’t until I repeated this pattern enough times to see that the common denominator was ME, that I started to realise how much I was hurting other people, and could see that I had made such a mess of things that the only option was to get my butt into therapy and begin to do something differently.
And finally, I learned to slow down. Learned how to feel that quiet place inside of me. The place where I feel safe. Where I can relax. And then I could start to feel again...Basically, I "thawed". Getting cats helped. Nothing like a kitten cuddle to make you sit still and feel your experience :)
So why was it so hard to even begin to change this pattern? To even see it? To my brain, changing this meant putting myself back in a life or death situation with no protection. This pattern was formed in a traumatic environment, and so my brain could not separate the pattern from its context. To my brain, I was still that helpless vulnerable little girl, and no way was I going to survive unless it held onto this lifeline!
Now, not everyone has gone through something quite that scary...but to little kids, a divorce can feel like the world is exploding...a parent who gets angry can feel like a bomb going off...getting lost for an hour can feel like a total abandonment. When we’re young, we’re so dependent on the world around us, that many of our minds are programmed into a certain set of pathways in order to literally keep us alive whether or not there has been an objective threat to our survival.
That is why we find change SO hard…to our brain it feels like a matter of life or death!
For most of us, it takes something really massive, something that once again feels like life or death - to actually highlight those early pathways and show us the need for change and growth.
But you don’t have to wait for that. All you need to know is that change IS hard, it’s normal for it to feel hard. It can feel impossible, like it’s something that you will never be able to rise above or shift or move through. That’s why we often need support along the way…but just because it’s hard doesn’t mean we can’t do it!
Want to see more of my story and learn about the impacts of childhood trauma? Check out my Youtube episode on this topic here.