Why Change is Hard

One of the most frustrating aspects of personal growth and change is when we see viable solutions, but somehow we can’t seem to action them. We are often left feeling frustrated, aggravated, depressed or stuck, amongst other emotions. Sometimes we even beat ourselves up, too, because our intelligence sees a clear path forward. So what’s the issue?

I’ll reluctantly pull out the old cliche that change is hard. But sometimes we just stop there. At best, we have compassion for ourselves and acknowledge how difficult making changes is, and at worst, we may do the opposite, beating ourselves up for failing to take the steps.

Or something “in between” happens: we tell ourselves (or others) all the reasons for why we can’t do the thing or things that would move us forward. But when we stop at this point, we’re usually just left with a bunch of surface reasons that often don’t relieve our distress or assuage others’ worries about us.

And making matters worse, we often really want to make changes, but it truly doesn’t seem possible.

So in this article, I want to identify and explore some of the deeper reasons why making changes may feel, or even be, impossible at any particular time. And, like any list that comes out of any of my articles, it’s never meant to be exhaustive!

Reasons, Reasons

There are many valid reasons for why we feel stuck to make a change. Let’s use the example of deciding whether to leave an abusive partner, to illustrate some of the complexities that might come with such a choice.

Fear of the unknown once changes are made – Not only can change be hard, it can also be scary. Even when change seems like a good idea, there can be consequences that we wonder if we’re ready for.
Example: We may know intuitively that leaving an abusive partner is the right decision but we may worry about living alone, or wonder if other aspects of our life will get harder.

Increased responsibility once changes are made – Generally, with growth and change comes increased responsibilities. It takes time and effort to learn new ways of being and doing, and frankly, it can be exhausting.
Example: We may worry about having to handle all the things around the house that our partner used to do, in addition to our regular responsibilities, and we feel daunted.

Once seen, we can’t un-see the ways – While it can be empowering to go to counselling, read self-help books, listen to psychology podcasts, take personal development courses and learn new skills/methods, we may feel unable to keep up on, or act upon, all that we have learned—especially when life gets real. And because of our learning we now may have another problem on our hands: we know the new ways of coping and we know when we’re not doing them. While I like to believe that we are all capable of being kind to ourselves in these moments, it’s common to have guilt, or even shame, arise, which adds another layer of emotional difficulty.
Example: We’ve just read a book about assertiveness and we’re determined to open up a conversation about separation. We’ve planned it out. But in the moment we just can’t bring it up and we descend into beating ourselves up emotionally for knowing but not doing.

Childhood issues are blocking us from making changes – Each family culture is unique with values, experiences and messages that shape how we see ourselves, others and the world at large.
Example: Perhaps our parents never divorced, or divorce was stigmatized in the family, leading us to feel shamed if we were to make this choice.

Past or present trauma may be hijacking our nervous system and preventing change – If our body is chronically or sporadically in states of fight, flight or freeze, our nervous system is typically dictating our choices, and it may not be wrong!
Example – If our life has been threatened in a relationship if we were to leave, we may be legitimately at risk for death. In less violent situations, we may hardcore-panic, worrying and wondering how our partner will “survive” without our help.

Fear that relationships with important people will change (they might!) – It’s not uncommon for our relationships with others to change when we make changes, especially if we’re setting boundaries, quitting people pleasing, changing emotional habits or engaging in other ways to make our relationships healthier: As old dynamics and the status quo becomes disrupted, the dynamics of our interactions with others change.
Example: As you become more boundaried with your partner, you may discover that they become more verbally abusive or escalate emotional manipulation, in an effort to get back to the familiar.

If you have a history of being emotionally abused, it may be hard to trust yourself—at least for a time. Gaslighting, lowering your standards long-term, isolation and other forms of abuse all conspire to make it difficult to trust yourself and make new choices.. Self-gaslighting is a common consequence.
Example: You may struggle to know whether your partner is even abusive at all: you might wonder “Is it really that bad?” “Am I being dramatic?” “Maybe the problem is me?” When you’re in the thick of emotional toxicity, it may seem impossible to know what is really going on.

Inadequate resources or supports to make the change – You may be facing significant structural and systemic barriers that block change or make it significantly more difficult, such as racism, poverty, cultural barriers, lack of family support/no surviving family, homophobia/transphobia, sexism, ablism, fatphobia, gender discrimination or any combination of the above.
Example: You may feel ready to leave the relationship but have not worked outside the home in years and wonder how or if you will be able to support yourself.

You may not want to let go of other behaviours or lifestyle considerations that are incompatible with changes – You may have to change neighbourhoods, have significantly less money, have substantially less time for leisure, or other changes. The losses may seem too much.
Example: Going out on your own sees may mean you have to downsize considerably and leave the neighbourhood you love. And because you don’t drive and your partner would have the car, getting places won’t be so convenient anymore.

The environments you live in would not support the changes you are trying to make – You may have the will and the motivation to make changes but you can’t get the backup you need to make the changes permanent.
Example: Your family has turned on you and taken your partner’s side. They say that they will never support you leaving and in fact if you do, they’ll cut off contact with you. You don’t have a lot of close friends and you don’t know what you’ll do without your family’s support.

There seem to be no solutions available or proposed solutions may work better for others – Try as you might, you can’t see a clear way forward, or you feel that the strategies that you’ve read about won’t work for you.
Example: You notice that a lot of the psychology influencers come from privileged backgrounds and your reality feels waaay different. Their “solutions” might not work for you.

Change messes with routines and everything that’s familiar – Let’s face it, routines can have a profoundly stabilizing influence. We call it “getting back to normal” for a reason: we feel like ourselves again. Sometimes when making changes, nothing feels normal, only chaotic. Such experiences can be a riff on fear of the unknown, however not having a routine to adhere to can be a nightmare for many, especially for many neurodivergent people.
Example – You’re highly anxious most of the time and you know that routines play a massive role in regulating your anxiety. Knowing that leaving your partner would throw your routine into chaos may just feel too much.

Choices, Choices

Now that I’ve made a case for why changes are hard, does this mean that changes should not be made?

No! But readiness are realism are keys for success. Evaluate the above factors, or other factors not listed, to see if the risk of change is worth it. It is also my hope that loved ones, health professionals, government officials and others contemplate reasons why such changes can be very hard if they believe that someone they are involved with should be making changes.

Questions and Comments for Contemplating Change

  • Who is in your support system and do they support the changes that you are trying to make? You may need to select carefully!
  • What infrastructure of support do you have beyond family and friends?
  • What is your stress level right now and what is going on in your life? Is there enough space for change?
  • Are there internal parts who are afraid of change and need support and reassurance from you in order to proceed?
  • Are you in an environment where you can safely make changes? Are you resourced well enough (including financially) to make such changes?
  • Have you fully understood your reasons for making changes and have you concluded that proceeding with a solution is the right thing? If not, more exploration or different alternatives may be warranted. Additional support from a therapist could help.
  • Are you rested enough to make changes? Chronic lack of sleep or burnout can make the change process very hard.
  • Are you self-caring in a way that makes success with changes more attainable?
  • Do you need to be out of a triggering environment for a time to gain perspective on your situation and decide your next move?
  • What strategies do you use to calm your nervous system?
  • Would you benefit from others’ perspectives to help you make changes, such as a support group?
  • Do you feel that you need professional support to make changes? This could include support around deliberating change, enacting change or working on historical issues in your life that would benefit from being better understood before making changes.

Wherever you are at in this process, please be kind to yourself! It’s not as easy as other people may think!

Further Reading

The book links on this page are Amazon Associate links; if you choose to make a purchase through them, I may earn a small commission which I use to fund my low-cost counselling resource lists. Your support is greatly appreciated.

Scaredy Squirrel by Melanie Watt (2006)

Children’s book with excellent adult appeal. The story about how a squirrel inadvertently faces his fears, with positive results.