“Change is constant. That’s the truth of being alive.”
– Alison Bonds Shapiro, American author
of Healing into Possibility
“I don’t understand it,” he said.
I was speaking with a friend about some deep-level changes he was hoping to make in his life. Though he had started his journey of self-esteem building with great zeal, he now found himself running dry on motivation and backsliding.
“I know this stuff,” he said. “And I have a sincere desire to change.”
“So why the backsliding, right?” I responded. “Why the resistance?”
“Is that normal?” he asked. “Does everyone struggle like this with change?”
“Mostly,” I explained. “For a long time the old way of being was normal for you.”
“And my life just wants to return to normal — to the old, well-worn routines.”
“Precisely,” I replied. “To the old, dysfunctional way you were.”
Some experts in the field of personal development blame our confounding return to a previous state-of-being on homeostasis.
Homeostasis is a term typically used in biology. By definition, it’s the ability or tendency of an organism or cell to maintain internal equilibrium by adjusting its physiological processes.
Essentially, to stay the same or, if change is introduced, to eventually return to the same. Our bodies continually seek homeostasis but some experts suggest that the process also affects us on a psychological level.
It may help to think of homeostasis like the thermostat in our home that keeps temperatures within a certain range.
Let’s call this range our comfort zone. In order to learn and grow, it is necessary to step out of our comfort zone, yet every time we do homeostasis kicks in, drawing us back into old set patterns.
As we advance confidently in the direction of our goals, we’re likely to encounter homeostasis. For example, let’s say we’re considering a career change, but shortly after a new opportunity presents itself we’re wracked with uncertainty and begin to second-guess ourselves.
Am I really qualified? Do I want to move to a new city? What about my friends and family? Fear of the unknown prompts a hasty retreat to familiar territory.
Of course, there may be underlying issues and we might be sabotaging our best efforts. If such is the case, we will need to unearth the cause and come to terms with the fallout.
However, we can be in magnificent mental and emotional health, free of self-limiting beliefs, and still find ourselves clawing to maintain hard-fought-for ground when homeostasis engages.
Here’s something to keep in mind: homeostasis shows up regardless of whether the change is positive or negative, wise or reckless.
Homeostasis is a value-neutral, automatic response to change. It is not the result of a deep desire to fail but rather a natural tendency of the system to keep things the same.
The intensity of fear and resistance is related to the size and pace of the change, not to the quality (positive, negative, wise, unwise) of the change.
In Mastery: The Keys to Success and Long-Term Fulfillment, author George Leonard writes about the role of homeostasis in learning and perfecting new skills and techniques.
“Homeostasis resists all change,” says Leonard. As an example, he suggests, “after 20 years without exercise, your body regards a sedentary style of life as normal.
The beginning of a change for the better is (therefore) interpreted as a threat.” Think of New Year’s resolutions. As homeostasis engages, we’ll find every reason imaginable why upholding the resolution is unnecessary.
Notes Leonard, when we change, those around us must also change. Our desire to bring about profound personal change might trigger a homeostatic reaction from our family, friends and co-workers.
Thus, we may be dealing with both internal and external resistance. The push to return to a prior and predictable state-of-being can seem practically irresistible.
“Still, change does occur,” says Leonard. “Individuals change. Families change. Organizations and entire cultures change. Homeostats are reset, even though the process might cause a certain amount of anxiety, pain and upset. The questions are: How do you deal with homeostasis? How do you make change for the better easier? How do you make it last?”
Given the importance of homeostasis, it is often better to negotiate with it rather than try to overwhelm or prevent it. To that end, Leonard offers some simple yet effective strategies.
l Break change into smaller steps, thus reducing the intensity of the resistance. Homeostasis increases with the size of the change, not the nature or value of the change.
l Pace yourself, making change a gradual process rather than an all-at-once event.
l Analyze the actual risk. Fear magnifies danger as it minimizes your competence.
l Set milestones and celebrate each as you attain it. This will provide you with a history of successful change and make further treks into unknown territory less daunting.
l Build a support network of empowering friends. Avoid people, places and things that undermine your learning and amp up your fear.
While getting stuck is occasionally inevitable, this stuck state is easier to transcend with support and encouragement.
l Reframe setbacks and accept homeostasis as a natural aspect of personal evolvement.
For the longest time, I worked hard to maintain homeostasis — I wanted my life to remain the same or, if change was inevitable, I wanted that change to be small so I could more easily accommodate it.
Over time I discovered that permanence was an illusion.
Change is the only constant. Our bodies are constantly changing.
Life is constantly changing. Without change there is only stagnation. As we accommodate new information, we are also developing new restore points for homeostasis.
When I began to lose my illusion of permanence, I began to see all that life was offering me – possibilities that had been there all along. I had simply never looked.
“To learn is to change,” writes Leonard. “Lifelong learning is the special province of those who travel the path of mastery, the path that never ends.”
As I explained to my friend, expect resistance and backsliding as natural aspects of change. Take these signals as a positive indication that your life is changing and that’s good news.
Murray Fuhrer is a self-esteem expert and facilitator. His new book is entitled Extreme Esteem: The Four Factors. For more information on self-esteem, check the Extreme Esteem website at www.theselfesteemguy.com.