Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes change so difficult. It seems like the default setting for humans is to never change, even when the status quo is painful. Information has never been so easy to find at any point in history. It takes less than one minute to find step-by-step instructions for everything from making ink to shrunken heads, and surely the steps for quitting smoking, getting organized, losing weight, or starting a business are even easier to come by. There is even a market for various devices to help us stay focused on our intentions, from fitness trackers to a scary thing that lets you give yourself a mild shock whenever you feel the desire to step off track. If we want to change anything, anything at all, the information and support are readily available. There’s still time in these last 13 weeks of 2015 to do anything. Register for classes. Get a business license. Unclutter a house, garage, and storage unit. Lose 20 pounds. Pay off a credit card. Make that pesky doctor or dentist appointment. Learn a couple dozen healthy recipes. Learn to play a song on an instrument. A busy person could do all those things in the next 13 weeks.
Probably it won’t happen, though. Almost all of us will still be procrastinating on the same stuff we were last year, next year. Why is that?
I’ve come to believe that there are two main reasons why we don’t change, even when we have formed the intention to do so. The first is that we have contempt for people who do the thing, whatever it is. The second is that we are skeptical of the supposed benefits. We just don’t believe it is really as awesome as everyone says it is. We see change in terms of giving something up. We don’t change unless we want to change, but we don’t even want to want to change.
Maybe other people don’t feel as contemptuous as I did, but it was huge in my life. I absolutely knew that people who go to the gym are vapid and vain. Likewise, I knew that fashionable, attractive people were not just vapid and vain, but also bullies. I knew that rich people were evil. When I would see people jogging in place at intersections, I would sneer at them, “Oh, SHUT UP!” (Now I’m the one jogging in place at intersections). I had this magical ability to read everyone’s mind and size up people’s character at a glance. It was marvelous. Have you ever noticed that, the more successful people are, the more critics they have? Olympian athletes, famous musicians, writers, actors, political figures… Why is this? Yeah, schadenfreude, I know. Where does it come from, though? Still working on this one.
This is part of why we are so easily able to convince ourselves that change isn’t worth it. No need to be extreme. I’m real. I’m awesome the way I am! Wouldn’t want to get carried away, now. Other people will always back us up on this. When I was losing my weight, I got told over and over again, by people who didn’t know each other: “Be careful.” Nobody ever said to be careful when I was gaining weight, just like nobody went with me to the hospital to get my thyroid scanned and find out whether that nodule was cancerous. A little too much truth in hospitals. Change bothers everyone. Change too much and it affects the balance of power. “You’re making the rest of us look bad.” If you really want to see that effect in action, try increasing your productivity at work.
Change is too hard, it doesn’t work anyway, and if it did work, well, it makes you all full of yourself and arrogant and stuff. It may have worked for you, but I’m certain it won’t work for me. I’ve checked a bunch of boxes demonstrating that I did try to change, and look at what it got me. I missed out on my routine and I have nothing to show for it. Better save your energy and just stay the same.
My people have a lot of negative opinions about organization, tidiness, and cleaning. They tend to have a single image of what “clean and organized” means, and it’s always sterile and ugly. Why not a comfortable, beautiful environment that is simply missing the dirt and clutter? Surely at least a few iterations of that are possible? It turns out that my squalor clients don’t really believe in germ theory. They can’t smell bad smells anymore. They scoff at other people’s overly fussy ideas about cleanliness. Meanwhile, I’ve never worked in a squalid house in which all the occupants were not chronically coming down with one respiratory issue after another. Headaches, poor sleep, skin problems, digestion issues… Often the pets have problems, too. The humans don’t see the connections, though. The framework is that “I’m sick, therefore I can’t clean” rather than “biofilm on everything in my house is making me ill.” I’ve come home from several intensive jobs and been sick in bed for a week. Often I have sneezing fits so bad during squalor jobs that I have to step outside for a few minutes. The question of whether a squalid environment contributes to poor health could be resolved scientifically, but many people would wave off the suggestion of such a thing as “not that big a deal.”
Smokers obviously know that smoking is bad for you (and expensive). The warning labels keep getting bigger and bigger, for one thing. For another, it’s not like they haven’t been nagged about it many times. It’s about rebellion as much as anything. “Every time someone told me to stop smoking, it added a year to how long I smoked.” Most smokers will say they have tried to quit – honest, committed efforts too – and they just can’t. Millions of people have quit! There are tons of ways to do it. In some areas, you can even get the patch for free. Heck, if you want to quit smoking and can’t afford the patch, PM me and I’ll pay for it. But it comes down to personal sovereignty, like most things. I’m not doing it unless it was my idea. “Don’t judge :) ” – right? They see it as giving something up; that is, until they realize how much extra money they have and how much better food tastes. They see it as a relief from stress, reverting the moment anything unusually dramatic happens, discrediting the fact that most people use a variety of coping mechanisms that are not nicotine. They haven’t seen their personal lungs or arteries, and underneath it all, they truly aren’t fazed by the purported health risks.
One of the toughest ones at this cultural moment is overweight. There appears to be an inverse relationship between how heavy someone is and how much that person endorses basic concepts of physiology and nutrition. I’m afraid to even put that into print because the Body Image Mafia will show up on my lawn. On two occasions, I have overheard a conversation in which someone says, “My doctor told me I was obese!” (Once with a man and once with a woman). Everyone gasps in incredulity. “He can’t talk to you that way! You should report him!” A credentialed health expert has just given a clinical diagnosis, and everyone takes it as an appearance-based insult. “I’m afraid your leg is broken.” “*gasp* Doctor! How dare you shame my femur that way! I’m perfect just the way I am!” I know more people with sleep apnea and diabetes than I could fit in my house, and even after coping with these conditions for several years, almost none of them are even talking about thinking about losing any weight. Not even ten pounds. We can’t even buy into the concept that being able to breathe without a machine would be worth making a change. We’ve read the brochures and we are not impressed.
I’m an activist for personal change because I’ve experienced so much of it. Anyone would agree that being debt-free is more fun than being in debt. Most would agree that it’s also more fun to be free of chronic pain and fatigue than to suffer it. Many would go so far as to concede that being organized makes life easier than being chronically disorganized, at least if you have the sort of attention issues I did. Few are willing to consider the idea that going from obese to athletic is even possible, much less healthier, and certainly not worth the bother of trying. All I want is to help others to struggle less than I did, with problems I found very frustrating. Once my problem goes away, though, I cease to be a sympathetic character and become the enemy. Get organized and you’re not the ADHD person anymore; you’re Martha Stewart. Get better from fibromyalgia, and you’re not ‘one of us’ anymore; you’re Jillian Michaels. “You don’t know what it’s like.” We write off the very idea that someone in our situation changed and eliminated the problem. It can’t possibly be everything it’s cracked up to be. Can it?
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I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.