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Why change is so hard and how pleasure gets in the way of our desires

We have two contradicting internal forces at work and why is it that the owner of our pleasure tends to win over our desires?

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I remember watching Tom and Jerry as a child and there would be the angel on one of Tom’s shoulders and the devil on the other. 

We’ve all at one point or another been in this situation where we feel like we are at war with ourselves and have this internal battle going on.

For example

  • We want to eat healthy and go on a diet, yet we can’t help ourselves to another slice of pizza 
  • We want to stop drinking as much as we do, yet you find ourselves pouring another glass of wine or grabbing another beer 
  • We want to cut back on screen time, yet we justify another episode or keep scrolling through social media 
  • We want a deep connection in our marriage, yet we hold on to resentments or retreat 
  • We want a new career or start our own business, yet we keep making excuses and not taking the necessary action

I can go on and on about ways we can find a war going on inside our heads. This state is often referred to as cognitive dissonance – when we hold contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values, and as a result, our actions goes against at least one of these. 

To understand why this is happening, we need to understand how our brain works. We’ve evolved over millions of years. The reason we evolved to the species we are today is due in part to three driving factors of our primal brain 

  1. Exert the least amount of effort 
  2. Seek pleasure 
  3. Avoid pain 

Denying ourselves the short-term pleasure simply doesn’t make sense to our primal brain. This part of our brain perceives change as dangerous and this part of us will seek out what’s familiar, even if it’s not serving us. 

Then we have our evolved brain. This is the part of us that can think long term, rationalize, and problem solve. This part of the brain is uniquely human. 

This is the part that knows we’d be better off saying no to that pizza, the drink, cutting back on screen time, that relationships take work and that risk can result in reward. 

Yet, when we try to implement these changes we can’t. We can try to “willpower it through” but willpower is a finite resource. Eventually, our primal brain wins. 

There are really only two ways that we can get change to stick. The first way is when we’re in so much pain that staying the same seems like a bad idea even to our primal brain. Change is now a safer option. For example, we’re given a diagnosis and all of a sudden we’re motivated to eat healthier and give up that drink. In this case, we need something in life to happen to us that kicks us in the butt and gets both our brains to welcome change. 

The second way is us taking control of our lives and becoming the initiator of change through awareness and our willingness to be uncomfortable. If we’re willing to accept that our 3 primal drivers will do everything in their power to make us derail our conscious goals, it loses some of its hold on us. It loses even more of its power if we’re willing to stay fully present with the tantrum that follows when we choose not to give in to the short term pleasure it wants. It will make us feel outright horrible at times, but at the end of the day, it’s just a feeling. A feeling that will ease if we put our direct awareness on it. 

I like to acknowledge what feels like a tantruming toddler in my brain, by saying “thank you brain for trying to protect me and keep me safe but I got this.” It doesn’t make it go away in an instant but I can see what’s going on.

We’re not going to get rid of our primal brain anytime soon, so that leaves us with the option of befriending it.  

The more we’re willing to stay present to the uncomfortable experience of change, the further we’ll move to the desires of our evolved brain that’s meant for our greatest good. 

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