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Why behavior can be so hard to change

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“Behavior isn’t fixed, but it sure can be hard to fix!” – The Brain Cleanup Coach

Photo by Thomas Kelley on Unsplash

Do you have a behavior that you’ve tried to change, over and over again, only to keep having it slowly creep back in and return to the way it was? Why does this happen?

It’s all about energy, resources, and a stubborn brain.


Change and the brain

Your brain love, loves, LOVES the status quo. Well, part of your brain. Your conditioned mind loves the status quo. Why? Because this is the space it works most efficiently in.

Efficiency is the name of the game when it comes to your brain. Every unit of energy you have in your body is precious to your brain. Your mind & body do not like to waste things. In our evolutionary past, energy that we could consume (food) was not always easy to come by.

Now it’s too easy to come by, but our genetic programming is deeply concerned with starvation. According to our past, we shouldn’t have this much energy around us at our disposal. 

So even though right now, for a lot of humans, consumable energy is plentiful, your primal programming is built to assume it won’t last.

All that said, to change the brain takes a lot of energy, and your brain is going to fight you on it, simply because if you’re surviving on this planet, to your brain, that’s good enough. You should just keep using the neural pathways you have and not rock the boat.


Changing behavior: are you really, really sure?

But regardless of what your brain thinks about energy, there’s a part of your brain that allows you to observe yourself and choose to make change; the prefrontal cortex.

This is one of the conundrums of being human. We have the lizard and mammal parts of our brains that develop to create efficient behavior, and we have the human part of our brain, the big ol’ cortex that allows us to observe that behavior and decide we want to change it. As far as we know, humans are the only species on the planet that are capable of that.

When you observe a behavior that you feel works against your better self and try to change it, your brain goes into action to really decipher whether this change is worth the effort. It may acquiesce for a while, this is why you can set a goal and get started on it.

But then, your brain will pull out all the stops to make really, really, REALLY sure this is the best thing to do.


Extinction Burst

So you’re moving along, dealing with all the road bumps your brain keeps putting in your way. You’ve muscled through, and stuck to your guns, and you feel like you’re on the right track to changing the behavior.

And then BLAMO, the urge to fall back into the old behavior comes roaring back. And guess what happens to most people in this moment? They give in, go back to the old behavior, and signal the brain that yes indeed, that old neural pathway should be kept around because it’s still in use.

That moment, where the behavior comes roaring back, is referred to as an extinction burst. This is the brain creating the final, ultimate test. (Do you really want to let this efficient pathway go?) But it only becomes final if you DON’T ENGAGE IN THE BEHAVIOR. Again, this is where people trip up. It’s very uncomfortable to not allow the brain to fully engage that neural pathway through to its normal end.

Brains don’t like to not close neural circuits. But this is exactly what needs to happen for a neural network attached to a behavior to meet its end. If you’re not willing to go through that discomfort, you won’t be able to change the behavior.

But take heart, because just knowing that this is part of truly changing a behavior can allow you to mentally prepare yourself for the tantrum your brain will through. And when you’re prepared, you can weather the storm, and come out on the other side with that old behavior swept out into the sea of the past.


Work with me

Something that can help with creating lasting change is recognizing the thoughts your brain is creating about the change. Thought starts a domino effect that leads to emotion that drives action that gives you your results. If you can recognize and change that first domino, you can change the way they all fall.

Book a complimentary consultation with me to see if we can work together to get those dominoes falling in the direction you want!