Why is Change so Damn Hard?

A couple of nights ago I was watching the movie The Shawshank Redemption starring Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman. It had been many years since I had last seen it and I realized there was a lesson in the movie that I didn’t notice the first time I saw it. The movie is told through Morgan Freeman’s character’s (Red) eyes and portrays his experience of serving a lifetime prison sentence. Toward the end of the film, Red, now in his sixties, is released on parole after being in prison since he was a teenager.

One scene in particular depicts his experience of his new life outside of prison. From an observer’s point of view, Red is a free man. He is no longer behind bars and no longer has to deal with the restrictions, monotony and violence of prison life. Red works as a bagger at a local grocery store and lives in a modest apartment. However, internally Red is filled with anxiety and dread. He is so uncertain about how to manage in life outside of prison that he contemplates what he can do to return to return to prison. He considers intentionally committing a crime to violate his parole and go back to jail. He even thinks about taking his own life as a way of escaping the crippling fear he is experiencing.

When I first watched the movie years ago, I thought to myself “Why can’t he just enjoy his freedom? What the hell is he thinking?” I struggled to understand why he would want to return to prison and lose his freedom. It then dawned on me that he had been in prison for over 40 years, the vast majority of his life. And then I realized that this extreme experience of freedom after decades of imprisonment is not much different than the human experience in general. We are addicted to what is familiar- we cling to what we know- even if it does not serve us, even if it results in misery, illness and even death.

We can be consciously making the most positive change in our health, relationship or finances and it is likely to result in uncertainty and fear and cause us to retreat back to what we know- our old way of being. Why is it that most New Year’s resolutions, diets, exercise programs, and changes we want to make in our life don’t succeed? It is not because we are lazy, worthless or inferior but rather we simply don’t understand the nature of change. We lack an understanding of how our nervous system was designed- with survival in mind. This is the great paradox of change. If we try to change all at once, our nervous system will freak out and we will experience a degree of panic, anxiety and fear. Our body operates on the principle of homeostasis so that we can stay alive. By introducing a radical change, we are unknowingly telling our unconscious mind and our nervous system that we are in danger- even if the change we are intending is healthy and productive.

Therefore it is essential to introduce change very slowly, so we can gradually become familiar with what is unfamiliar. As it is poetically stated in The Shawshank Redemption, “all it requires pressure and time”. In this case, time is the gradual exposure to something new, something unfamiliar, until it becomes familiar. Pressure is the emotional intensity of our learning- rooted in our experience, emotions and behavior. While our conscious minds can theorize and imagine the drastic change we want in a matter of seconds, our bodies and unconscious mind must learn through experience, time and adaptation. I can read every book on how to play basketball, but until I get out on the court and have the experience of dribbling, passing and shooting, it will only be a good idea in my head. Change is tied to our experience, not our intellect.

Learning is a slow process. It requires compassion for one’s self, understanding, patience and humility. It is not immediate nor is it a straight path. It requires the ability to manage discomfort and uncertainty. It demands the resolve to bounce back when things don’t work the way we want or expect them to.

Author Portia Nelson wonderfully conveys this in a poem she wrote. When challenged to write her autobiography in five short chapters, she came up with the following:

Chapter 1: I walk down the street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I fall in. I am lost. I am helpless. It isn't my fault. It takes forever to find a way out.

Chapter 2: I walk down the same street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I pretend I don't see it. I fall in again. I can't believe I'm in the same place, but it's still not my fault. It still takes a long time getting out.

Chapter 3: I walk down the street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I see it is there, but I still fall in. It's a habit. My eyes are open. I know where I am. It is my fault. I get out immediately.

Chapter 4: I walk down the same street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I walk around it.

Chapter 5: I walk down a different street.

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