I was recently chatting with a professional life coach about her industry. Curious, she gave me a jump-start version of her client ‘homework’. By day three, I was completely overwhelmed. Rather than feeling more in control of my life and developing any sense of balance, I was actually feeling more anxious about things. I found myself questioning if I was focused on the right tasks, even previously organized areas began to slip. Turns out, that’s kind of the point with this type of coaching.
Change is difficult, no surprises there, but what specifically makes it so daunting and complex? Much of the reason people repeatedly make the same bad choices, even when faced with immediate and devastating consequences, rests in our need to remain comfortable. Not necessarily “comfortable” as sitting on a posh recliner; comfortable in the sense of familiarity and predictability. Drink too much and risk a hangover, but this doesn’t necessarily cause most people to stop imbibing. The hangover either incorporates into their concept of ‘normal’ over time or people learn to regulate intake.
Think about the last time you tried to make a significant, long lasting change in life. The first few attempts are achievable, maybe almost easy, then what? Something made you stop. The question is what and, more importantly, why?
I started looking at this coach’s instructions, which included defining not only what I wanted to change, but why. As I dug deeper into the “why”, it became uncomfortable. Fundamental change requires a shift in thought, which later drives action. When the body becomes anxious, our first instinct is establishing stasis. The urge to maintain stasis can prevent us to from changing by shutting down the action as soon as it triggers any negative feelings. You decide to be more healthy, your mind says “this is hard, I like cheese”, and eventually you cave right into a pile of brie. Rarely is the act of caving in a conscious decision based on the reasons you tell yourself.
The feelings of anxiety I was experiencing during the day 3 exercise are actually an expected part of the process. Uncomfortable, but perfectly normal; this is how things expand and grow. As children, it’s all part of developing into the next stage. Learning to tie your shoes was frustrating as well, but once the skill is mastered that feeling fades. Adults forget what progression feels like, and begin to resist at the first itch of this essential part of personal evolution. Coupled with bigger egos and more at stake, we become so accustomed to deflecting exposure to discomfort that it eventually becomes part of our own narrative. “I’m shy”,” I’m not good at networking”,” eating a pound of brie really isn’t that bad for you” – all of these thought cycles proactively keep us from moving forward. Even when working toward something we want or that’s ultimately in our own best interest.
So, what to do?
First, be aware of when you start getting in your own way. When I had missed an entire week of scheduled workouts at the gym, I started writing down each day’s reason in my notebook. Looking at one common theme (something at work going wrong), I traced back through my day from the missed workout to waking up in the morning. It was startling to realize each of these instances were directly connected to thoughts early in the day. Something would go sideways, a last-minute meeting for example, and my first instinct was to skip the workout ‘just this once’.
Unsurprisingly, each ‘once’ resulted in skipping seven days in a row – which lead to more negative self-talk, and furthered my narrative of being a bad athlete. Skipping was now justified by my crappy day at work, when the true underlying factor was that I had been dreading the gym since the alarm went off that morning.
Understanding when your mind is desperately looking for reasons to avoid the action needed to get your life change creates space for self-reflection. Swish that one around in your mouth for a while.
How this manifests in your daily life can vary drastically. Example, if a fear of risking public failure prevents you from moving across the state or changing career fields, the internal dialog might center on a litany of tasks that need to be completed before you’re “ready”. Some of these tasks could be grounded in reality, but others might be derived from your mind seeking out things to keep you from setting a plan into motion.
The trick is to evaluate each barrier as it surfaces in your consciousness. Going back to my gym example, that last minute meeting could actually prevent me from leaving the office when I intended. Does that necessarily require me to completely pass on any workout? Is there a later class? Can I run laps at a track later on? Once you start poking holes in the “all or nothing” illusion being floated by your mind (which wants you to avoid the uncomfortableness involved with change in the first place), these reasons often start to crumble.
Now that you are present and mindful of real reasons versus internal claptrap, interrupt the cycle. It starts with evaluating each thought as they appear. Once ideas are closely scrutinized, especially the absolutes or unrelated cause/effect (bad day at work means I have to skip the gym….might as well go eat a birthday cake by myself), you’ll notice trends.
From there, develop a toolkit of counter offers and follow up questions (bad day at work means I have to miss the 6 p.m. class . . . is there a later one I can do?). Doing this pivots your mind to problem-solving, rather than avoiding the action. After enough times, you will stop surfacing the thought because it no longer works to prevent the action. So, start getting out of your own way and get on with life already.
Remember, it doesn’t get easier…you get better at it.
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