The Psychology of Self-Improvement: Why It’s So Difficult To Change

By AAwosika07 | Uncategorized

Sep 08

There’s one phrase in the self-improvement industry that pisses people off more than every other phrase combined.

It pisses you off because it’s not true. If it were true, then everybody in the world would be successful and every self-improvement guru would be out of a job.

What’s the phrase?

“If you want it bad enough, you can achieve anything you want.”

Who doesn’t want to live a better life?

Who doesn’t badly want to live a better life?

I’m certain you want some shape of a better life and you probably want it badly.

Want is the wrong word to use. Human beings are wanting machines with endless desires. Yes, desire can shape your decision making and help you improve your life, but it’s only one small part of the equation.

The process of changing your life is difficult. If it weren’t we wouldn’t have a masses of men and women who are living lives they don’t want. So either the vast majority of people in society are too weak to change, or change is hard.

Everybody knows what do to. The steps to self-improvement are obvious – find something you might be good at, work hard on it, battle the ups and downs, give yourself time, and you’ll get great results.

A quote from Morgan Housel about the finance industry applies to self-help, too:

The finance industry talks too much about what to do, and not enough about what happens in your head when you try to do it.


What are some of the common psychological hurdles that get in your way when you try to change, and what can you do about them?

Let’s talk about it.

Elephant vs. The Rider

Imagine a human being riding on top of an elephant. Due to the sheer size of the elephant vs. the rider, you can imagine how hard it might be for the rider to control the elephant.

Many famous psychologists and writers like Jonathan Haidt and Robert Greene have used this analogy to describe the battle between the part of your brain that does long-range planning and critical thinking vs. your older brain that makes subconscious snap decisions.

To improve your life, the rider has to have at least somewhat of a handle on the elephant. It’s hard.

You can look at many of the problems in your life as an evolutionary mismatch:

  • Fear of social rejection – Your mind thinks your life is at risk when you’re put into situations where you can face rejection and embarrassment. Lowered status in the tribe meant isolation and death.
  • Dieting – Your caveperson brain still thinks sweets and fats are scarce, which causes you to crave them when you see them, even though they’re abundant now. Have you ever felt possessed to eat these types of foods, like you couldn’t control the urge at all? Exactly
  • Survival and reproduction – Your subconscious mind doesn’t care whether or not you succeed, only that you live and make babies. I’ll let you fill in the various applications of this issue.

How do you learn to tame the elephant and let the rider take control?

First, you have to find a way to trick yourself into breaking the initial barrier of your doubts, fears, and negative urges long enough to create positive feedback loops that make new habits stick.

Over time, you create an upward spiral based on the momentum you can from new positive pieces of evidence. The longer you continue to add positive feedback, the easier it is to delay gratification even more to reach bigger goals.

Confirmation Bias: Man With a Hammer Syndrome

Your past experiences shape your worldview, and your brain will filter out new evidence based on what you already believe.

This is why some people genuinely can’t see upward mobility. Their life story is shaped by failure, so if they’re failures and they’ve never moved up in the world, then every ‘average joe’ is being held back.

People in poverty suffer from circumstantial and psychological roadblocks. Theoretically, people in poverty can lift themselves out of it. Many do. But it’s harder for them because they see nothing but evidence of why they’ll never make it. This leads to them repeating the cycle and passing it onto the next generation.

You are telling yourself a story about the world. Even if you’re not a full pessimist, you sell yourself short because you constantly filter out future possibilities based on your past experiences.

You might need to change many beliefs to improve your life — beliefs about money, politics, the nature of other people, success, luck, and meritocracy, just to name a few.

But most people will filter out beliefs that could help them because they care more about maintaining their sense of self and worldview than they do change their life.

Once you attach your identity to a belief system, you’re fighting an uphill battle. And you see people living lives of insanity because they keep repeating the same mistakes to conform to their story.

How do you overcome this?

Attempt to be dispassionate, examine the stories you tell yourself, and analyze whether or not they’re true or useful. Deep down, you already know which stories are coping mechanisms and lies. But bringing them to your conscious awareness and resolving to change them can help.

Hyperbolic Discounting

You prefer immediate rewards vs. long-term gains. You have a hard time delaying gratification because immediate gratification was a survival tool.

It can still be a survival tool today. In some situations, it makes sense to value the immediate. This is a problem poor people tend to have as well. They can’t afford to save money.

In your case, it’s hard to imagine such a large future payoff by forgoing an immediate one. This is why people don’t invest. This is why people spend time on activities with a guaranteed immediate reward, e.g., a paycheck, and have a hard time doing delayed work that pays little upfront but tons later.

How can you develop long-term thinking? Not only that, how can you match your behavior with your thinking? You can train yourself to delay gratification. This goes back to the elephant and the rider. You have to develop the reasoning skills to see far into the future.

Visualization doesn’t cause success, but it helps. When you look at the lives of many successful people you’re seeing someone who saw the future before it happened.

In other words, you need faith.

You can combat hyperbolic discounting by reducing the risk. You can reduce the risk by attempting projects in your spare time. When I was working on my writing, for free, outside of my 9 to 5 job, I wasn’t losing money. The paycheck was still there.

I mustered the energy to sacrifice time. Again, reaching the traction point is key. You want to get some feedback that things will pay off in the future. Feedback loops are the central theme of this article.

You’ll go through up and down swings in life. Your response to them will, partially, shape the outcomes to get.

Kantian Fairness Tendency

I’ve said this in many articles. “Should” is the most dangerous word in the world.

To be successful, you have to understand that life isn’t fair. You need to learn the difference between the way the world works vs. the way you think the world should work.

Often, people call my work harsh and abrasive, but a reader left a comment describing what I do and why I do it:

It’s funny–not once have I found your articles mean or aggressive. There’s a difference between honesty and abrasiveness. You don’t harshly tell the truth, you merely expose the harsh truth

People who suffer most from Kantian fairness usually have utopian visions that can never be met in real life.

In general, your tendency to hope life should be fair doesn’t account for:

  • Blind luck – Is it fair that I was born in America while others are born in Africa? People start out in different places due to luck. Luck shapes your success, too, even if you try hard. Sometimes you’re just at the right place at the right time or vice versa
  • Human nature – You’re going to need to persuade people to be successful. To persuade, you need to understand what drives people, including the darker parts of their nature. People with Kantian fairness tendency give too much credit to the rider and not enough to the elephant.
  • Characteristics – Is it fair that LeBron James is 6 foot 9 and I’m 5 10? Sure, he works hard, but he makes hundreds of millions in part due to genetics he didn’t earn. Tough cookies.

Life isn’t fair mostly because there are too many variables involved for it to be fair.

Once you understand this deeply, you’ll stop comparing yourself to others as much. You’ll stop beating yourself up when things don’t go your way due to luck. And if you’re smart, you’ll realize luck plays a role in your success, which will keep you from thinking you have the ‘golden touch’

Over Optimism Tendency

Humans are weird. On the one hand, you doubt yourself. But, on the other hand, when you daydream about your success, you imagine things going well with no hiccups.

You think your business will make you a millionaire. You think your book will become a best seller. I see this tendency in many aspiring writers — they think their work is supposed to be successful just because they wrote it. I’ve read books by some writer colleagues that really sucked. And they were shocked when sales fell flat.

You have to balance this thin line between confidence and self-doubt.

This quote from Sam Ovens describes the process well:

It turns out that for all their diversity, the strikingly successful groups in America today share three traits that, together, propel them toward success. The first is a superiority complex — a deep-seated belief in their exceptionally. The second appears to be the opposite — insecurity, a feeling that you or what you’ve done is not good enough. The third, impulse control.

Trait number three keeps you from being overly optimistic and lets you create sound strategies.

This is why I talk about making little bets — low-risk ventures that have a known downside and a high upside. You can continue to try these strategies over and over without going bust.

You have to find the intersection between what you think you’re good at and what the world wants. You’ll have to handle the feedback you get in a positive way. If you succeed, you move forward knowing the mix between luck and skill. If you fail, you have to understand the same mixture, too.

Groupthink & The Madness of Crowds

You tend to conform to the crowd. Often, becoming successful involves living a contrarian lifestyle.

If you decide to embark on this self-improvement journey, you’ll come to find that you disagree with a ton of conventional wisdom in society.

You’ll feel crazy at times because you’ll believe the exact opposite of what the masses believe to be true. People who study self-improvement live in a bubble. We’re a small percentage of society.

If you want to get outcomes other people can’t get, you can’t think like them. To think differently, you’ll have to fight against your ‘monkey see, monkey do’ mindset.

How? For me, I decided that living the way most people live just wasn’t going to work for me. And I’ve learned to be okay with people thinking differently than I do. I just accept that most people are going to live with the ‘normal’ mindset. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

I was okay not being a part of that group. You’ll have to be okay with not being a part of the masses. This will make you feel lonely at times. You can find refuge in other like-minded people and form new groups.

Again, once you get enough feedback in a positive direction, you’ll care less and less about what the group thinks because the difference in your outcomes will make it easier to do so.

Your ability to think for yourself and analyze whether any form of wisdom is true will shape the way you behave. The way you behave, mixed with luck and circumstance, will create your outcomes.

Society is diving deeper into a toxic groupthink pit of quicksand. And it’s only going to get worse. Step outside the matrix altogether.

Pain Avoiding Psychological Denial

Most people won’t change because they have to face the reality of their life head-on.

You use rationalizations to cope. In some areas of your life, you’re in denial to avoid pain. Maybe you’re in denial about your job, telling yourself that it’s temporary when you know deep down you’re deeply stuck in your profession. Maybe you’re in denial about your relationships.

You’re likely in denial of the role you play in your success. Blaming something or someone outside of yourself for your problems is the ultimate form of denial. We all do it to different degrees.

If you want to face your life head-on, again, try to think longterm. You have to ‘rip the band-aid.’ If you don’t, you’ll accumulate more total pain from living below your potential than you would have by facing things upfront.

I’ll use a relationship analogy: Have you ever stayed in a bad relationship for months, or even years after you knew it was over? Did waiting make the breakup easier or harder?

If you don’t make the decision to change your life now, you’re just going to get more stuck. Your denial will create more and more inertia until you give up. You see this often with the “I’m content” types.

No, success isn’t everything. But often, people who say they’re content aren’t content at all. They have to tell themselves that story to cope with the fact that they’ll never change.

You can live a decent life in denial. It’s not the end of the world. But if you want to succeed at a higher level, you have to tell yourself the truth.

Loss Aversion

Imagine two scenarios:

  • You start with $100,000 and gain $10,000 for a total of $110,000
  • You start with $1,000,000 and lose $880,000 leaving you with $120,000

You’d choose scenario a, even though you’d have more money in scenario b.

Losses hurt way worse than gains feel good. In life, period, people are usually more afraid to fail than they’re inspired to succeed. Why? I could go into the deep psychological explanation and talk about your evolutionary wiring, but I’ll sum it up this way.


You hate losing and it affects you in multiple harmful ways. Most obvious, you don’t try something because you’re afraid to lose.

Also, though, you can double down on a bad idea because you want to recoup your gains.

You see this happen in poker when someone is ‘on tilt.’ They lose a few close hands and they’re down a bunch of money, but they’ll start playing sloppily and more impatiently because they’re trying to close that gap, which causes them to lose more, which sends them into a tailspin.

So, you’re left with the psychological dilemma perfectly summed up by Kenny Rodgers:

You’ve got to know when to hold ’em
Know when to fold ’em

That, combined with the idea I told you earlier about finding areas with low downside and high upside, is the key to staying the course. Once you lose a few times and it doesn’t kill you, you do build an immunity to it. You build an immunity to all these little biases the more you attempt to overcome them.

The Lollapalooza Effect

I was going to list 20 items, but I kept it to 10 for the sake of brevity. I could write a list of 100 or more of these.

And that’s the biggest problem. If you had to deal with these one at a time, it might not be that hard. But you’ll often experience many of these problems all at once.

This is known as the lollapalooza effect. I learned this term from Charlie Munger in his talk called “The Psychology of Human Misjudgment” I swiped several biases straight from his list. Charlie says he avoids auctions because of the combination of the biases is so heavy that it causes people to overspend.

You’re experiencing the equivalent of that, a giant lollapalooza effect, every single day of your life, constantly. I don’t have an easy answer for you. I never try to provide them.

You can find solace in the fact that there’s not something wrong with you because success isn’t easy for you. You think people who succeed have this magical ability that you don’t when really they have a better understanding of their psychological blindspots and deal with them better than you do.

Working against your biases and mental defects is a life-long journey that you’re never able to perfect. But you don’t have to be perfect. Just get the slightest edge over most people in society and you’ll do well.


About the Author

Ayodeji is the Author of Real Help: An Honest Guide to Self-Improvement and two other Amazon best-selling titles. When he's not writing, he enjoys reading, exercising, eating chicken wings, and occasionally drinking old-fashioned's.