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I recently asked our readers, “Why do you think humans find it difficult to change habits or patterns—even after trying many times?”
My favorite answer was by Giusu, “That’s how neural pathways work. Our brain always chooses the most familiar thing, even if it’s not good for us. It knows the outcome of that (the familiar) and when we try to create new habits and fail, our ego and inner critic step in, making us feel even worse, and not even want to try. So, understanding how we are programmed and all of this is an important start that can consequently, help us to create better habits.”
In my last article, Why Willpower is Just Not Enough, I talked about how to get off the rat wheel and “change” habits without fear and force—instead by taking a step back to go forward. When I first set out on a journey of wholesome wellbeing, I didn’t think to myself, “I want to change my brain and mind.”
I was seeking peace—period.
In committing to certain practices over time, for the mental benefits, it’s mainly in hindsight that I realize the huge impact it has had on my life.
Riddled with anxiety, periods of depression, perfectionist tendencies, and a relentless drive to “be someone” in the world—I struggled to just be. Present moment? No thanks. I wanted hard, fast, and my entire focus was on the future.
Slowing down was way too scary for me. What if I fail? What if I become lazy? What will people think of me?
I wasn’t content, like ever. Not in myself, not in my life, and certainly not in my body.
However, I found solace in hiking, walking, and nature. I didn’t know what it would lead to in the future, I just loved the feeling it gave me in the now. The more I moved, appreciated the trees and sky, and took long, deep breaths, the more I discovered a whole new world, different from the one I had been conditioned to live. I thought life was meant to be stressful, pressured, painful (growing up as a preacher’s kid, life was full-on from a young age).
These practices showed me there was a different way of living, and my approach to life—the fast lane—was costing me rather than benefiting me.
During a time when I was bogged down by assignments and work and an endless “to-do” list, I decided to go outside for 20 minutes a day and train myself to sit there—and do nothing. No phone, no writing, no internet, absolutely nothing but sitting.
At first, it was excruciating!
My head would be looming with anxiety, fear, and worry. And spiraling with guilt.
How could I just sit and be when there is much to do?
But I had a feeling that maybe, just maybe, I would find something like I did with the walking.
So, I committed to this “pausing” of life. I allowed the world to rush on by, the phone to go unchecked, my assignments to wait.
In these moments, I was amazed at what would come up–things from my past, understanding of my pain and why I was the way I was, and plenty of “aha” moments. Solutions and ideas would also pop into my mind for all sorts of things.
You’ve probably heard of the phrase, “Sleep on it.” It was kind of like that. By stepping away, doors opened to answers, epiphanies shot through, and healing seemed to happen along the way. I was able to hear myself more and more, and this helped guide my path.
After years of studying psychology and mindfulness in-depth, reading a gazillion books and articles, and saturating my mind in (awesome) science and spiritual findings—the thing that has taught me everything and anything there is to know about seeking peace has been the act of being: sitting outside, chilling with my dog, walking in nature, hiking.
It’s kind of funny—all the searching, hunting, and desiring to “know”, and yet, it has been the simple practice of embracing the moment that has transformed my mind (and I would say brain?) to a place I sometimes don’t even recognize; an understanding of stillness, a total and complete love for this very moment. And not much more. It’s simply amazing.
In saying this, everything I learned over time started to connect on a deeper level. It was never a waste to study and learn. With anything, experience generally teaches us more than reading or being told something. It’s in the practice that we learn on a deeper level.
In the act itself, we develop systems within our mind that allow us to form new memories and patterns, therefore constructing new understandings and ways of doing things.
It’s easy to watch videos, read a lot, and then go seeking some more information on the internet, and wonder—why doesn’t anything change?
Action is paramount, well, the action of inaction—the ongoing practice of stillness.
I look at my past and I am the only person who can truly attest to how these practices have affected me. While I can’t show you the journey on paper, neuroscience and wise old teachers will attest to the marvelous accounts of renewing the mind and brain through stillness practices—and how this can positively impact our lives.
A profound moment for me was when I learned about how our brains are developed and shaped from birth to the age of seven. We are impressionable little beings, our brains like sponges, soaking in our environment and how others treat or care for us. The words that are spoken to us, whether we felt safe or not, and the type of “love” that is provided—molds us. (Burton, L., Westen, D., & Kowalski, R., 2015)
Our conditioning from a young age plays out in later years (Burton, L., et. al. 2015). If we were treated with neglect, abuse, or control, we learned ways to survive. We may have also grown to associate these behaviors from others with love. (Hence, abusive dynamics may continue in adulthood). We learn a way of conducting ourselves—generally a survival-based way—and we think that this is living!
While I endeavored to seek peace, I now realize that my journey was about renewing my brain, connecting to my soul, and re-conditioning my mind. I no longer needed to show up to the world in survival mode.
I can simply be.
Neuroscience shows us that our brains can be rewired and our cells can renew through neurogenesis. Patterns developed from a young age can be altered and an entirely new path created, leading to new ways of living in everyday life.
Jesus was ahead of his time when he said, “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” It’s one of my favourite scriptures. The word renewing shows me that this is an ongoing process—a practice we commit to—so that we can rise above our conditioning (patterns of the world).
I am no longer riddled with anxiety, guilt, and torment. I sometimes can’t believe that I once lived life feeling so bogged down all the time.
If I do find myself revisiting those old patterns of thinking, it’s generally when I am tired, stressed, or haven’t spent enough time with my soul. It’s as though the mind is unguarded and weak. This is when we might be tempted back to old ways. It’s similar to when we don’t exercise or train our muscles; we may lose strength and mass, although, we do retain muscle memory. The brain and mind are alike; as they say, “If you don’t use it, you lose it!”
Except, we don’t need to do more, more, more—we need to practice being still.
It takes a conscious look, a desire to walk in the wilderness of ourselves to uncover these patterns and the conditioning from our youth. This process is always uncomfortable, strange, and unfamiliar. It can explain why we remain the same, forfeiting opportunities to transform.
The unknown feels weird.
Maybe it will help to explore the concept deeper:
When we learn to drive a car, we go through a process of conscious action. It’s not automated at first. We’re focused, possibly tense, trying to avoid mistakes. We have a lot to remember, our mind is taking in information and putting it into place. After years of practice, we may find ourselves driving somewhere and not knowing how we arrived. We can listen to music, have a conversation, and use the same roads daily without using a map—while driving. The process becomes automatic; it’s now a subconscious habit.
In Australia, the driver is on the right side of the vehicle. We also drive on the opposite side of the road compared to the United States. I remember visiting when I was 18 with my dad and we road-tripped from Los Angeles to Mexico and across to Arizona. At first, we were ultra-focused and careful, weary of the fact that this was completely new territory. But we were also on the opposite side in two ways and it felt strange and backward to us.
Australian roads seemed “normal,” while U.S. roads seemed “weird.”
Over the weeks though, we started to get used to it and the journey became more enjoyable rather than daunting. It was one of my favourite road trips.
This is similar to the process of renewing our minds.
When we are young, we learn a certain way. It becomes automatic and unconscious because our brain memorizes. If we were taught that we need to be perfect to enter into heaven (in my case), we learned from a young age to continuously act by what is deemed “good.” If we didn’t, the other option was hell, and who wants to go to hell?
To change this deeply engrained pattern was frightening. You can imagine the challenges I faced when endeavoring to question these belief systems that kept me up at night. “What if I question this and I end up going to hell for even questioning this?”
The unfamiliar path was like driving in America—everything seemed weird. I was weary and careful until I started to discover a feeling of peace that I never felt before. As I continued exploring this new terrain, the fear started to subside and a new way of thinking developed. I was no longer afraid of hell; I discovered a whole new way of seeing God—and love—which is incredible.
Becoming conscious and waking up to ourselves can feel strange at first.
When it comes to change, it is okay to feel perplexed by unfamiliarity. The brain is telling us “Hey, there is an easier way—just go back to the same old habits and you don’t have to learn or try something new.”
We may be tempted to take the easy route. The new road seems weird.
But trust the process, and practice over and over—until you see evidence of the new path unfolding.
23 responses from our readers: Why do you think humans find it difficult to change habits or patterns—even after trying many times?
1. “It’s because we have been conditioned (by our parents, society, others) to be, act, or feel in a certain way and to serve in a prescribed role. This, however, is living in ego. When you are living your most authentic life, there is no ego. In my opinion, it’s hard to change patterns or habits when you have done this your whole life but it is possible if you can see that you are not your thoughts or feelings and let the fear go. A lot of thoughts and feelings we have come from childhood trauma and wounds.” ~Misty
2. “Because we do so much in life unconsciously, thinking about other things, doing things by habit, not present in the moment. It’s like writing with the opposite hand, it feels uncomfortable at first and takes effort but if you are letting go of bad habits and negative self-talk, well worth the effort.” ~ Cheryl
3. “Because the brain is a little too hardwired to let it happen. It’s more complicated than the universe, people say. It cannot allow for things it’s not capable of yet. So, it backfires some of the time. It sort of doesn’t like it. ~ Rebecca
4. “I think humans tend to follow the path of least resistance like a river does. If a river has been flowing in the same path for a long time it just continues to do that. If you want to divert a river you have to dig very, very deep and start the water flowing in that direction and then you can seal off the old pathway to reroute the river. Humans need to dig deep to change patterns of behavior and that can be scary, painful, and difficult. It’s easier to keep doing what we’ve been doing. Change can take place but it takes persistence, consistency, strength, and belief that it’s possible. It also helps to dig deep to identify why and how a pattern originated to change our thoughts, which in turn can change our feelings and behaviors.” ~ Brenda
5. “Often, there is comfort in the familiar. It’s easier even when the familiar is unhealthy; it’s what one knows. It’s their comfort zone because they know how to operate in that zone of familiarity. It may be challenging for some to act, process, and think beyond what is familiar to them. Even those who are successful with changing habits and patterns, usually experience a natural urge to return to what is familiar, but there is a greater push for a change of habits and patterns. I think that push exists in each of us; some fight through it (determined to change), and others take flight (run back to what’s familiar); some have lessons that are more difficult to learn before the change of habits and patterns can occur. Those lessons may provide what they need to fight through the change process. Change may be scary for some, so fear tends to play a huge role in that process.” ~ Dáneen
6. “Because most of us lack focus and consistency. We have so much going on that it is easier to remain the same. It takes approximately six weeks to change a habit. That’s a long time in today’s busy world.” ~ Amanda
7. “Pain and Trauma. Some things happen to us that are unbearable. You can get stuck in a dark place for a long time. When you have been in the dark and cut yourself off from the world, it can be hard to find your way to light again. Have patience with people. Everyone struggles with something.” ~ Tracy
8. “Doing something familiar seems better than moving outside of that comfort zone. The known is familiar, the unknown is not and it can be disconcerting or frightening. Even crossing your arms a different way, it just feels ‘off’ even though there is no pain, no fright, no negative. I had a professor, years ago, advise us to walk backward occasionally, use our opposite hand more often, take a different route just to keep our minds sharp.” ~ Lisa
9. “We are not perfect and oftentimes need to revisit things we need to go through for growth until we learn the lesson and adapt.” ~ David
10. “Anything we think is important to our survival (consciously or unconsciously)—our brain stores these memories and patterns quickly and deeply. A lot of our ‘bad’ habits give us some sort of idea that we are helping ourselves thrive or survive.” ~ Sharon
11. “Habits create neural pathways in our brains. The more times we do or think that habit, the stronger the neural pathway. It’s like wearing a path through a forest. The more you walk the path, the more worn the pathway. When we make a new path and repeatedly walk that path, the old path slowly grows back in with the forest.” ~ Aleya
12. “I am establishing new habits, albeit minor ones. An example of this is I am right-handed. I began by lifting my coffee cup with my left hand. It was very awkward. I kept up with it and now it feels natural. I get out of the other side of my bed. It felt uncomfortable. I did it every day and now it feels natural. These are baby steps. The list goes on and on. It can be done. Start small.” ~ Donna
13. “They fear the unknown and because it is a conscious act to walk new ways.” ~ Nicole
14. “Changing a negative pattern and cycle is not easy and usually comes with a lot of pain and a chance for losing some relationships. It takes a lot of work and pushing through fear. It also requires acknowledgment of our responsibility in the negative pattern. Not exactly a good time.” ~ Mary
15. “They don’t take the time to uncover the root cause, the reason for having developed that habit in the first place.” ~ Michael
16. “We’ve had lifelong conditioning and it’s extremely hard to ever believe that there is a much better way to live life.” ~ Larry
17. “This is a very loaded question, but as a quick answer: bioaccumulation of addictive substances, cellular memories, deep neural pathways, symptom management vs. actual eradication of the cause of symptoms.” ~ Katherine
18. “To change habits people need to experience real benefits of the changes within a short space of time. The brain rewires on positivity. And they’re more likely to stick at it.” ~ Sarah-Jane
19. “Neuropathways. It takes fewer resources (focus, cognition) to do what you are used to doing, what you can do with your eyes closed, than what you need to focus on and think about and might even feel weird in your body, not knowing the outcome. However, if you pair it with kindness and compassion you are more likely to stick with it and you will eventually benefit from neuroplasticity.” ~ Susel
20. “It’s because most of us are running on our programmed subconscious minds and aren’t aware of the unhealthy patterns, habits, or belief systems that formed in childhood. We have to become self-aware first to stop living subconsciously through the mind and begin practicing self-love. Once we love ourselves unconditionally, believe we’re whole and complete on our own the patterns, habits, and old belief systems change.” ~ Danielle
21. “It takes two years to rewire your brain because that’s how long the Papez circuit Dynamo takes to cement the neural circuits from short term cognitive (conscious) thinking in the frontal lobe to long-term autopilot (subconscious) thinking in the subcortex. Papez circuit consists of hypothalamus, hippocampus, and Amygdala, which is in the primitive part of the brain that was present in humans when we evolved from Homo erectus 1.7 million years ago, so no wonder it’s hard to overcome.” ~ Rachel
22. “People are creatures of routine. We always choose comfort and familiarity over change which is scary. Sometimes structures become shackles.” ~ Kevin
23. “I find it difficult to change my routine still now and then I try to make some changes, but the fear of something bad might happen always lingers on my mind so I return to the way my things are. I can’t make a difference.” ~ Khadka