Why Change is Hard: The Existential Point of View
Existentialism and Existential Psychology are great topics to bring up if you want most people to have their eyes roll back and fall asleep. The existential topics of mortality, change, purpose/meaning, and self-actualization are very difficult to focus on due to their massive implications and lack of connection to everyday life. As a fan of Existential Psychology, even I as a counselor had to learn that the techniques and concepts in that area of psychology are not applicable in many of the things that people seek therapy for. However, there is one universal challenge that people struggle with where understanding of existential concepts is beneficial: the challenge of change. Change is a simple concept in itself, but it obviously is one of the hardest things we ever face in life. If change was easy than most of us would be problem free. Most issues we face are simply needing change in our behavior or emotions, or both, and yet we feel paralyzed to make the changes we know would benefit us. Another lesson that being a counselor has taught me is at least 90% of people who are seeking help have at least some idea as to what their problem is, and what would make it better. It is fairly rare for a person to be completely ignorant to the source of their distress in life and be totally at a loss for anyway to relieve it. If most people are aware of their problems and possess the mental strength to figure out what changes are necessary, why do we struggle so much to handle our problems? I believe that the existential point of view is useful in explaining this phenomenon.
Change according to Existentialism
Existentialist thinking believes that change is one of the few, if not only, universal things in existence. There is nothing else that can be guaranteed in our lives except that things will constantly be changing. This is why many existential philosophers do not subscribe to other schools of thought that claim to hold universal truths that are always applicable to any situation. Any “one size fits all” type of idea is rejected by existentialism due to the belief that something that solved a problem before may not be helpful in the present due to the unavoidable change in circumstances in the environment and the people in it. Existentialism promotes the idea that since change is unavoidable and constant, the correct way to exist in life is to be open to taking each individual challenge in its own context and avoid trying to hold incidents over time to the same unchanging standards. To bring this idea into a real world example, imagine that 5 years ago you were having a disagreement with your significant other over whether you both should move out of Florida. Your partner wants to due to career opportunities and a more mild climate, but you argue that both of your families are located in Florida as well as cost of living being more in your partner’s desired destination. You end up agreeing to stay in Florida. Now, in the present day, your partner presents the same desire to move. Your family is still here in Florida, and the location your partner has chosen is still more expensive than where you currently live. Logic would dictate that this disagreement would simply be a repeat of the one 5 years ago with the same conclusion. Existentialism would counter this by saying that if any time has passed, let alone significant amounts of time, too much has changed for the decision to simply be a repeat of the previous one. Note that this is not to say the same conclusion can’t be reached, but it is a call to recognize that time always creates change and there is no way the process of reaching that conclusion can only be a matter of the previous factors that were discussed 5 years ago. This idea is summed up in the metaphor, “you can’t step in the same river twice”.
Why Change is so Hard
So, existentialism says change is constant. That doesn’t seem to answer why it is so hard for us as individuals to change. I believe this is best explained by a combination of existential thinking with basic neurobiology. Let’s take the existential information first.
Existentialism tells us that the absolute greatest fear all individuals have is that of death. While this may not be a novel idea, existentialists take it more literal than the general idea that death is scary. The idea is that avoiding death is so important to us that it motivates us to do most of what we choose to do. Death anxiety may not be always clear in the conscious mind, meaning when you make a choice to turn left or right you are not having a thought of, “Which one will avoid death?” However, it is an overarching theme in the course of our lives. Why do we choose to do something as seemingly unrelated to death as wear clothes? Existentialists would argue the deep and intense thought that not wearing clothes would lead to being ostracized by our friends, family, and society. After being ostracized we would be alone and uncared for. Eventually, something negative would happen to us. No one would be there to help. We would die. That seems somewhat silly and even a bit dramatic, but there is no arguing that there is some basic truth to it. Try sometimes to follow that rabbit hole of thinking about why you do simple things like taking a shower, sleeping, getting a job, finding a partner. You may find that if you follow the logic trail long enough, death anxiety is at the end.
The neurobiological part of why change is hard is essentially where we see this philosophical thought be translated into animalistic terms. There is a very primal and very powerful part of our brain that is simply dedicated to making sure we survive. There are multiple circuits and parts of area of the brain involved in this task, but they make up a powerful region that dedicates itself solely to survival and avoiding death. This brain region is not exactly super smart. It is however, effective. It is the part that takes full control in true life or death situations: near car crashes, being physically attacked, identifying toxins/poisons. Unfortunately, this part of the brain finds change to be extremely scary. Think of it in these very basic terms- Whatever you have already gone through and are currently going through, this basic part of your brain says “well, clearly we aren’t dead, so this isn’t too scary.” But, when you move into the unknown world of making changes this part of the brain says, “I can’t be sure this change won’t kill me, so I’m not okay with it.” Even positive and safe changes scare this part of your brain. Losing weight and improving physical health are the opposite of dangerous but this part of your brain still looks at things like this as new and unknown, therefore possibly deadly.
So when we are struggling to make changes, we need to realize that we are having to reteach a very ancient and powerful part of our mind. Existentialism’s concept of constant change can be a reminder that we are capable of overcoming this circuitry, and when it feels impossible to face making a change, we can remind ourselves that we are always managing change on small levels every moment of everyday. Do not feel that the struggle to make changes is a sign of weakness or a character flaw. Usually, it is the result of fear from our primal brain of the unknown.
If you are struggling to make positive changes in your life, please contact Life Enhancement Counseling Services today at 407-443-8862 to schedule an appointment with one of our experienced mental health counselors.