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How To Make Lasting Change

It’s the end of January, which means the majority of people have given up on their New Year’s Resolutions. Only to try again next year. Why is it so hard to change?

This next blog series will address the anatomy of change:

  1. First-Order vs Second-Order Change
  2. The Stages of Change
  3. How you can align yourself with the kind of changes you’re actually willing to make
  4. How to improve your willingness to change.


The most important thing to remember from this blog post is that all creatures want to maintain a sense of safety and security, balance and maintenance. Family therapy theory calls this “homeostasis”.

What is homeostasis? It’s the unseen, inexplicable gravitational pull that calls you out of your New Year’s resolutions and into a pint of ice cream; or out of your intentions to be more of a team player, and into a yelling match with your co-worker. Homeostasis is the driving force behind all “falls off the wagons”.

In order to make lasting change in areas of our life that really matter, we need to confront and combat homeostasis, the pull towards what feels familiar and therefore safe.

All of us have experienced the exhilaration of the beginning stages of change, only to be sidelined with extreme doses of “F***-it-All” Syndrome, vowing that we’ll work on making those changes another day. That’s homeostasis at its best. Those changes that seemed so exciting but were inevitably doomed to fail are known as “First Order Changes”.

First-order change involves making minor improvements that restore balance in the system. These are changes that help relieve our guilt or stress. We feel relieved when we make goals and work to achieve them; we do more or less of a certain behavior, and that results in minor improvements in our life or relationships. These changes don’t change us or our relationships fundamentally, but keep things calm for a time. But First-Order Change isn’t lasting because it wasn’t ever core-deep.

Second-order change, by contrast, involves a fundamental shift. It is a new way of seeing things completely. It requires new learning and involves nonlinear progression (aka, two-steps-forward-one-step-back). This kind of change is a transformation from one state to another. People who experience second-order change come to behave, think, or feel differently.

Example of First-Order Change & Second-Order Change in a Relationship

A husband and wife come counseling because the husband has “anger problems”. He is, for the most part, a nice guy, if a little reserved socially. He is pragmatic and does not dote on his wife, but expresses his love from time to time. He assumes his work to earn an income to support the family, as well as his periodic expressions of affection, amount to an understanding that he is completely committed to his wife and her well-being. But his periodic anger outbursts suggest a different story to his wife. At times, when their discussions turn heated, he can become belligerent, while she shuts down. Then, in an attempt to “work things out”, he gets louder and more forceful. He even goes so far to physically “insist” that his wife sit in a chair and keep the discussion going.

As you can imagine, the husband’s behavior does not encourage his wife to want to talk. After years of such angry, yelling, belligerent behavior, the wife decides she has had enough. And she leaves.

First-order change 

Through counseling, the husband learns ways to manage his anger so it doesn’t get the best of him. He learns coping strategies to calm himself down, and to take breaks so his anger doesn’t get explosive.

At this time, the couple is experiencing a FIRST-ORDER CHANGE because the underlying angst, frustration, and annoyances are still there, even though (thankfully) the anger outbursts have stopped.

What’s the problem with this picture?

The problem is that the underlying volcano is still brewing, and at anytime the husband’s anger could erupt again, either in a fit of rage, or in a diverted behavior like drinking, excessive working, or avoiding his wife altogether.

His wife has also not completely bought in to the idea that her husband is yet a “new man”. She can sense the brewing volcano, and braces herself for an inevitable eruption. She edits her actions for fear of setting him off, limiting her outings and other activities that she knows will anger him.

Second-order change 

In order for this couple to experience lasting change, more fundamental shifts will need to occur in their relationship. This would be a longer and more tumultuous process, precisely because it requires each person to look at their own contribution to the problem, and to make fundamental changes within themselves.

The husband will need to feel remorse for how he’s hurt his wife, acknowledging her pain and opening himself up to how he can bring his better self to the relationship. The wife would need to undergo soul-searching as well, in a process of noticing how her meekness and avoidance of difficult topics reinforces her husband’s anger. She would learn to be confident and assertive, and would learn to set healthy boundaries so she could retain her sense of worth, regardless of how her husband reacted.

If this sounds complex, it is because it is. Real and lasting change in areas that matter most are not easy because they involve us confronting our weaknesses, and drawing our confidence to step into our better selves.

What this means for you 

If you have had an “on-again-off-again” relationship with any of your New Year’s Goals, perhaps you have been approaching them with a First-Order Change mentality. You have been trying to change the behavior, without examining the underlying feelings, motivations, or meanings that influence that behavior.

You are not deficient or a hopeless case. You probably just need additional support (preferably from a trained coach or counselor) to help you navigate your way to more sustainable, fundamental change.

A new you is not only possible with the right tools; it will help you achieve more connected relationships, and a more fulfilled life.