Why Healthy Change Is Hard

Were you aware of the process you went through the last time you wanted to make a change for the better? After you initiated the change did you compare where you were with how far you had to go?  Did frustration with the slowness of change cause you to take shortcuts, or go back to what you knew?

The older brain likes to stick with what it knows because of the need for security. Even when what you are doing is not working, the tendency is to reject the new because it is unfamiliar.

Change that lasts usually takes longer–sometimes much longer–than you expect. Impatience is what makes healthy change so hard: The new feels like it will take forever, whereas unhealthy choices feel right because they are so easy. Depending on the risk you are taking, the fear of consequences can stop growth in its tracks.

The Fear of Consequences

Fear of consequences is a powerful tool of oppression, as every tyrant knows. The more you believe you have to lose, the harder it is to take risks. Conversely, the more you believe you can provide for your needs the freer you feel to be yourself.

Let’s say you decide to be direct in your communication, instead of avoiding what needs to be said. As soon as you set new boundaries up comes the fear of loss:  What if I am wrong? What if I do not know what to say? What if I make things worse? What if I am rejected? The anxiety can be so intense you go back to your comfort zone.

At first, you feel relieved. Then you feel depressed. If you use avoidance as a way to cope with anxiety long enough you may become ill. Or you turn to alcohol, food or other distractions to block the energy that wants to be released through direct communication.

Since the brain learns from reinforcement, the likelihood is that the fear of being direct began in the past, when people who had power over you dismissed, ignored or punished you for being honest.

To survive those times, you kept your thoughts and feelings to yourself, adopting a persona that masked the real you. Over time, if this mask hardens, you believe it is you. You are not aware of who you are and what you think and feel.

The gulf between who you appear to be and who you are underneath the façade you erected to protect yourself makes it hard to identify, much less ask for needs to be met in personal and professional relationships.

Peeling Off the Mask

When I started working with clients in 1976 I was not aware that repressed feelings had anything to do with career dissatisfaction. I thought finding the right work was a process of gathering accurate information about the marketplace, interviewing, landing the job or starting the business and moving on with life.

When the same authority issues kept repeating in my clients’ new endeavors I wondered what I was doing wrong. Since writing my autobiography had revealed patterns I needed to change if I wanted to succeed (this remains an ongoing process), I decided to ask clients to write their autobiographies as I had, starting with a description of grandparents’ beliefs about money, work and relationships.

When clients asked what writing an autobiography had to do with their careers, I smiled and said, “I don’t know, just do it and we’ll see what happens.” And they did. As I read through their stories I saw the generational patterns they repeated without knowing they were on automatic pilot.

Writing and talking about family life scripts, as transactional psychologists call choices that always end in failure reduced their power over my clients’ minds. Several years later, I wrote Work with Passion to help readers remove these barriers. But even with the book and my guidance, the tenacity of my clients’ family conditioning remained a formidable force.

Family life scripts are tenacious because they are based on assumptions you take for granted as being true. The behavior you witnessed when it came to money, work and relationships was “just the way life is.”

For example, you were conditioned by one or both parents to believe you are responsible for others’ behavior, no doubt taught to them by their parents and grandparents, and so on, all the way back to the cave.

No matter how out of line another’s behavior is you take it personally. As a result, you are compelled to fix it (Rescuer). When you can’t fix it you feel hopeless (Victim). Or, you get mad and stay mad about it the rest of your life (Persecutor/Victim).

The match for the “it’s all my fault” script is the other person’s belief that everything is your fault. If you study the relationships in your family history, you may discover relatives line up on one or all three sides of the triangle that always ends in stagnation, unless someone changes this script. Then comes the pushback from family members against that choice, another reason why healthy change is hard.

Changing a Life Script

According to neuroscientists, your mind starts to download information in the third trimester in the womb. Day-by-day, week-by-week, month-by-month, and year-by-year your mind absorbs everything from your environment, sights, sounds and smells. Around age seven, the logical faculty comes online, giving you the ability to sort through what you are experiencing.

From birth until the end of your life, you go through stages of development that are designed to bring you into full bloom, just as a flower becomes itself when it goes through stages of growth. If a stage of development gets interrupted the skills of that stage are what you need to develop today to reach your full potential.

Identifying an arrested stage of development will probably take professional help. You are too close to your story to be objective. Just knowing what happened back there in time–what really happened–can set the flow of life energy back on track.

Erikson’s Eight Stages of Individual Development

How do you know which stage of your development got interrupted? Developmental failures show up in the choices you repeat that do not work. Whether it is a problem with money, work or relationships, it is as though you are in the movie Groundhog Day. Like the character in the movie, you repeat the same day over and over again, until you change the script.

According to a review of Eric Erikson’s stage theory (posted on WebMD, June 15, 2021 by Dan Brennan, MD), Erikson was a German psychologist who theorized that there is a specific psychological struggle that takes place through the eight stages of your life. These struggles contribute to your personality throughout your development.‌

Erikson provides insights into both social and psychological development. The framework of his thinking assesses the context of relationships in your life at these life stages.

As you study the eight stages listed below, think of the key relationships that influenced you at the time. This will help you to see when, where and why the unfolding of your personality got interrupted.

 Erikson’s 8 Stages of Development

Erikson’s theory suggests that your sense of self develops throughout your entire life during eight specific stages:

  • Infancy – Basic trust versus mistrust
  • Toddler – Autonomy versus shame and doubt
  • Preschool-age – Initiative versus guilt
  • School-age – Industry versus inferiority
  • Adolescence – Identity versus identity confusion
  • Young adulthood – Intimacy versus isolation
  • Middle age – Generativity versus stagnation‌
  • Older adulthood – Integrity versus despair


Ericson says that each stage is a building block that is crucial to maturation across the span of your life. These stages do not end with one and begin with another. As Erikson suggested, these stages may overlap.

A stage you do not complete may extend into other stages later in life, as when lack of identity development (adolescence) blends in with stagnation and despair (middle and older adulthood).

Stagnation and despair are the challenges I see in my clients’ stories. When members of previous generations did not live their lives to the full, my clients believe at a deep level it is wrong to live life fully. To remain part of the family, they (unconsciously) sabotage all attempts to live their own lives.

The task before my clients is to face the fear of becoming who they were designed to be. In mythology, this is the hero’s journey, the balance to strike between the need to be part of the group and to be an individual.

The way is long and arduous, but victory comes when the hero conquers the dragons that guard the hidden treasure. Each stage of development has its own dragon to slay, as shown in the list above.

Slay the dragon

Becoming Whole and Complete

Completing a stage of development is similar to what an actor does to prepare herself for a new role. If her character needs to complete the autonomous stage of development (Toddler), as an example, she learns everything she can about being autonomous. Then she acts as if she is autonomous, giving herself the support she did not receive at that stage of development.

Autonomy means you are curious about the unknown. When a choice does not work you try again until you get it right. You do not shame or punish yourself (dragons of that stage) the way you were as a toddler. In time and with practice, your brain completes the autonomous stage of development.

As you become more self-directed your confidence spills over into where you are now. You may come up with a service you provide to others in your age group, as one of my older clients did. Rather than be ashamed of the struggles she went through, she uses what she learned to help others navigate the challenges she mastered.

To make sure your middle and older years exemplify what Ericson describes as generativity and integrity, go back and find the stage where your story got interrupted. If you need help, ask for it. Slaying the dragon that blocks that stage of growth will open the door to a productive, fulfilling present.


Nancy Anderson is a career and life consultant based in the Sacramento/San Francisco Bay Area. She is also the author of the best selling career guide, Work with Passion, How to do What You Love For a Living, and Work with Passion in Midlife and Beyond, Reach Your Full Potential and Make the Money You Need. Nancy’s website is workwithpassion.com.

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