How to overcome resistance to change through mindfulness

Although it’s not a simple, clean process, transformation is the territory of true leadership - and mindfulness can play a key role in change

Although it’s not a simple, clean process, transformation is the territory of true leadership – and mindfulness can play a key role in change, writes Michael Bunting

As a mindfulness and leadership coach, I doubt that many of the leaders I’ve worked with realised what they were taking on when they said yes to authentic, mindful leadership and personal development. They could not have known that the familiar ground they were standing on would be shaken deeply. We like to use the word transformation–but the process of transformation is a whole lot grittier than the advertising. As one of my favourite awareness teachers once put it: “Most of us are not prepared to sign up for transformation, we just want to become a caterpillar with wings. But that is not a butterfly.”

Why we fight change
Being able to embrace our whole humanness, including our fragility and darkness, is critical. But due to a phenomenon dubbed “immunity to change” by Harvard psychologist Robert Kegan, this is no easy feat.

Kegan believes desire and motivation aren’t enough for us to change—even when it’s literally a matter of life or death–because of internal mechanisms that make us highly resistant to change. One landmark study demonstrated the power of these mechanisms, finding that even after developing coronary heart disease, only one in seven patients will change their smoking, exercise or dietary habits. We resist change, Kegan says, because our minds act as a sort of immune system, trying to protect us from the psychological trauma that sudden changes can bring. Unfortunately, this same system that’s meant to protect us from negative changes can also prevent us from making positive changes, by triggering our defence mechanisms and sabotaging our efforts before we’ve even begun. Despite our best conscious efforts, there are deep subconscious forces at play in our transformational journey.

One of our strongest sources of resistance to change is our firmly entrenched self-identity. For example, when heart disease patients stop taking prescription drugs, one reason they cite is the fact it makes them feel old. One patient reasoned, “I’m fifty-eight years old and am in the prime of my life. I’m not an old man with one foot in the grave.” Taking a daily pill threatened his identity as a healthy younger man.

Mindfulness: the key to enabling change
By teaching us to let go of our self-identity, mindfulness is the single greatest antidote to identity-based resistance. As we begin to truly know ourselves, our self-awareness grows as we observe the changes throughout our lives. Through mindfulness, we no longer identify ourselves in rigid ways; we merely observe different phases and states as they come and go. We no longer feel the need to cling to transient, impermanent states and intangible thoughts in order to find security. We develop a flexibility that can come in no other way. We find a peace that transcends all thoughts, identities, and conditions.

So why is transformation so difficult? And how can mindfulness enable us to break through those boundaries?

The reason progress is uncomfortable
When we take on a behavioural change, we are challenging deeply-held habits. Many of those habits (especially the dysfunctional ones) developed as a means to shut down difficult feelings. Take overeating, which is usually associated with numbing feelings of anxiety. If we stop overeating, we are left to deal with the anxiety head-on. If we cannot tolerate the anxiety, we head back to the fridge to indulge in something that will numb it or distract us from it. In other words, when we embrace a healthy behaviour change, we are certain to bump into mild to extreme discomfort and often uncover deeper issues that are driving the dysfunctional behaviour. Mindfulness brings us face-to-face with discomforts we’ve numbed ourselves to in the past. It invites us to face them directly and work through them instead of burying them deeper and deeper within.

 Transformation takes time
When psychologist Jeremy Dean started researching how long it takes to form or change a habit, he encountered the same magic number of 21 days; yet there was no concrete data to back up this widely held belief. He decided to explore the science and empirical data in his book Making Habits, Breaking Habits: Why We Do Things, Why We Don’t, and How to Make Any Change Stick.

Dean explains that in one study, 96 participants were asked to choose an everyday behaviour they wanted to turn into a habit, such as “eating a piece of fruit with lunch” or “running for 15 minutes after dinner.” For 84 days, each subject reported whether or not they’d carried out the behaviour, as well as how automatic the behaviour had felt.

It turns out that generally it takes much longer than 21 days to form a habit. Dean writes: “[O]n average, across the participants who provided enough data, it took 66 days until a habit was formed [with] considerable variation in how long habits took to form depending on what people tried to do. People who resolved to drink a glass of water after breakfast were up to maximum automaticity after about twenty days, while those trying to eat a piece of fruit with lunch took at least twice as long.” The exercise habit proved the most tricky, with ‘fifty sit-ups after morning coffee’ still not a habit after eighty-four days for one participant. ‘Walking for ten minutes after breakfast,’ though, was turned into a habit after fifty days for another participant.”

The results also showed that the early repetitions of an activity are most beneficial for establishing a habit, and that gains gradually dwindle over time. As Dean explains, “It’s like trying to run up a hill that starts out steep and gradually levels off. At the start you’re making great progress upwards, but the closer you get to the peak, the smaller the gains in altitude with each step.”

This is why, to be most beneficial, mindfulness practice must be sustained over time. We can’t be present occasionally and expect to experience significant change. The formal practice of meditation is profoundly useful in this regard, as it allows us to be present continuously for long periods of time. And as we experience that, we’re able to integrate it into our daily lives. These and other challenges demonstrate that changing how you habitually view yourself and your world isn’t easy. The truths you’ll face about yourself through becoming mindful will be uncomfortable—at times, deeply so. And truly integrating mindfulness practice into your daily life will take time and real effort.

Although it’s not a simple, clean process, transformation is the territory of true leadership. The process of reinvention calls for a spirit of adventure. A transformational leader is willing to stay young, a beginner, an adventurer inside and out. But these types of leaders are also ordinary people. The work of real transformation is just that: work. It takes no special talent or skill, but it does take an uncommon determination to face our fears, reactivity, avoidance patterns and insecurities and to keep going.

If you’re looking to mindfulness as a quick way to occasionally de-stress, you’ll be disappointed and will likely abandon it for another just as ineffective quick-fix. But if you’re the type of leader who cares about real transformation, the type that is willing to pay the price to become the best, happiest, most-fulfilled version of yourself, then mindfulness is for you. Give to it your best efforts, and I promise you will be amazed by the results.

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