Have you ever felt frustrated because you have trouble making changes that you know will be in your best interest? I know I have.
Instead of blaming ourselves, we can learn why making even positive changes can be really hard – and how we can overcome one of the major obstacles within ourselves that gets in the way of change and growth.
Animals, including humans, have a section of their brain often called “the primitive brain.” It evolved for survival. This part of our brain urges us to:
- be efficient
- avoid pain
- seek pleasure
The result of these three urges is called ‘The Motivational Triad.’
A different part of the brain – the prefrontal cortex – is the “thinking” part. It helps us plan and reflect so that we can make wise choices rather than reacting automatically.
Here’s how The Motivational Triad and these parts of our brain can make it hard to make changes that we know will make our lives better.
Change is new and different. Our primitive brain can’t be efficient when we’re implementing changes because doing something new requires extra effort. This is why our primitive brain tells us to go back to doing something familiar. However, repeating familiar old behaviors often does not help us get the results we want.
When we’re making life changes, it can be uncomfortable. Waking up earlier, eating less sugar, drinking less alcohol, reducing our time on social media, moving our bodies more, spending less money, speaking up for our values, or reaching out to someone new are all changes that can feel uncomfortable.
Our primitive brain wants instant gratification: the seeking of pleasure and the avoidance of pain. Changing habits usually doesn’t give instant pleasure. Plus, the discomfort can cause resistance that stops us from making positive changes that have long-term benefits.
How do we push past our discomfort? Just trying harder to make positive changes often doesn’t work.
This is because our primitive brain will create urges to avoid discomfort and do what’s familiar. Rather than trying to suppress these feelings, we can allow that urge to be there and feel it.
We can then use our prefrontal cortex to make a plan, with the understanding that our primitive brain will try to interfere. Rather than wanting, wishing, or hoping to make some kind of change, we can DECIDE to make that change.
The steps are:
- Make a decision 24 hours ahead of time about something you are going to do differently.
- Allow yourself to notice the urge to do what feels good in the moment while choosing to stay with your plan to do what is best for you in the long run.
- Write your plan down – and maybe tell a supportive person about what you are going to do differently.
- Prepare yourself with encouraging messages to resist the urges you feel so you can stay with your plan, day by day, hour by hour, moment by moment, and second by second.
Urges from your primitive brain are more likely to fade away if you are not fighting against them. You can activate your thinking brain by asking yourself, “Do I really need to change my plan right now? Will changing my plan leave me feeling better or worse?”
Suppose you have a strong urge to buy something new that you really don’t need. You can notice the urgent impulse to buy something right away while still sticking to your spending plan. You can remind yourself, “I have made a plan to wait 24 hours from when I feel like getting something before I buy it, even if it’s on sale. Is this truly an emergency, or can it wait?”
Suppose you feel like driving someplace when you have made a plan to walk. You can feel the urge to get there more quickly and with less effort, and then stick to your walking plan. You can tell yourself, “Right now, I really don’t feel like walking. AND, I know I’ll feel better later if I walk rather than drive.”
What if you really feel like looking at your social media when you have made a plan to get an important project done? You can allow yourself to feel the urge to check out just one post while deciding to resist that wish and stick with your plan. You can tell yourself, “My primitive brain is familiar with the instant entertainment and feeling of connection that social media provides. And my thinking brain knows that I will be relieved and have much more satisfaction when this project is done.”
Resisting urges might seem impossible at first. And, as you keep practicing how to accept these feelings while not letting them make decisions for you, doing this gets easier.
Here are some additional resources that many people find valuable in their self-care journeys.
Published: September 27, 2023 | Last Updated: September 27, 2023