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Why People Struggle to Change

Updated: Sep 5

It happens to the best of us. There's a change we want to make, we feel motivated to make it, and it never happens. We're left feeling mildly frustrated and a bit confused. We're fully functioning adults. Why can't we just change things when we want to?

One reason is something I refer to as "safety mode". And most of us are in it. This is one of the most powerful, yet least recognized barriers to change that I see.

You may be familiar with Maslow's heirarchy of needs, a pyramid of needs all humans have that are ordered by importance. The theory is that until the lowest needs on the pyramid are met, the higher ones can go take a long walk on a short plank, as far as your brain is concerned. For example, you're not likely to expend a lot of energy deducing your purpose on earth if you're barely paying your rent. A sense of safety has to be established before you can work on 'higher' things like self-esteem or purpose.

In neuroscience terms, growth and safety are dealt with by two different parts of the brain. Safety is dealt with by a more primitive part, which is very powerful and instinctual, sometimes referred to as the Lizard Brain. Growth, on the other hand, is the territory of the prefrontal cortex (PFC), a much more evolved part of the brain responsible for higher reasoning. If the PFC decides on a change that the Lizard Brain reads as threatening, the PFC will have a heck of a time winning that battle, particularly if you don't understand what's happening. Also, the PFC is weakened by stress.

Therein lies the problem. Many of us are chronically stressed to one extent or another. Our society is built on it and stress has become so normal that we don't recognize it until it gets very out of hand. It's become white noise. But long before it causes drastic problems, it's there in the background, stregnthening the desire for safety and reducing the desire for growth. This is what I call being stuck in safety mode. Many of us are simply not aware enough to realize that we prefer safety to growth, resulting in confusion about why we can't seem to change.

"In any given moment, we have two options: to step forward into growth or to step back into safety." - Abraham Maslow

Without awareness, safety will trump growth every single time and the best intentions of the PFC will be silently vetoed by the Lizard Brain. And what the L.B. may determine to be 'unsafe' can have a wider definition than you think, including not just physical safety, but fear of rejection, failure or simply the Unknown.

Right now as we all are (sort of) emerging from a traumatizing pandemic and into climate crisis, political unrest and financial hardship, people are by and large in safety mode. It's understandable, but it's not super helpful. This world needs people to be awake and aware. There's not much positive change that's going to take place if everyone is in safety mode and there's not much that will change is one's own personal life if they stay in that mode either. No turtle ever made much progress while inside its shell.

The key is to recognize the ways in which you may be stuck in safety mode and then make some moves to emerge out of it. If there's a change you've been unable to make, what is the fear behind it? Once you've identified that, you must make a decision on whether or not you're going to let the Lizard Brain call the shots. That is exactly the sort of journey that coaching can help with. It takes some courage to begin. Ironically, seeking assistance can be one of those changes people are reticent to follow through on!

Growth is actually a great liberator from fears that are baseless or at least unhelpful. Paradoxically, once the journey is begun, many people find it is less frightening to tackle issues and make progress than it is to shelter in place. After all, growth carries great hope. That's something safety mode can never provide.

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