…and what does this have to do with habit change?
Recently, I decided that I want to eat more vegetables. Actually, I want my meals to be vegetable-dominant. This is a new thing. For most of my life, my dominant food group was fried greasy things. When I would tell people that I’m vegetarian, they assumed that it was because I was ‘health-conscious.’ Um, no. The only thing health-conscious about me was…give me a minute, I’m sure I’ll think of something.
But when I went into business for myself, one thing was clear: if there was any hope for me, I had to make some pretty extreme lifestyle changes. I needed to keep my energy levels up. I needed to change my diet.
I was motivated. SO MOTIVATED! My wife Mala and I started driving to farms to buy freshly picked vegetables, we learned delicious new recipes, we put a sign up in our dining room to remind ourselves of this new habit we were cultivating. It was grand. And it lasted for three…two months.
Every now and then, we’d beat ourselves up about not living up to our values and commitments (because THAT’S helpful), tell ourselves that we’re SO BUSY right now finishing a project that we just DON’T HAVE TIME to cook, promise ourselves that we’d start again, and then order pizza. To be fair, we did make sure that we felt really, really guilty while eating it, though.
Self-sabotage, right? Or not? My vote is ‘not.’ I just don’t believe that when I say that I want to eat healthier, I somehow then turn into my own enemy and subvert, on purpose, my ability to do so, in order to achieve the goal of destroying my success. I just don’t think that as human beings, we’re out to subvert our own success. I don’t think there’s any evidence that we do that to ourselves, ever.
What I do think is that there’s something else happening that on the surface bears a passing resemblance to ‘sabotage.’ For the purposes of argument, let’s call this other thing ‘resilience.’
We humans are resilient creatures, survivors. We’ve taught ourselves a lot of skills, built up a lot of survival mechanisms, over the course of our lives. When we’re confronted with pain or struggle, or with something that feels unbearable, we’ll naturally reach for the closest tool at our disposal, the one that’s always worked for us, our best bet back to safety. That’s a really good thing! To be able to rely on our strengths to lead us back to safety in times of duress — who could argue with that?
The problem is when we over-rely on outdated tools even though everything’s changed.
Let’s break it down:
PHASE ONE. We define the new thing that we want so badly.
We all have a piece of a shiny new future that we’re aiming for. An interview for our ideal job. An invitation to give a presentation in a venue that could really break it open for us. I say I want to build my endurance so that my new business can succeed. I know that part of building that endurance is moving toward a more vegetable-centered diet.
Our motives are pure, our desires strong. What could go wrong?
PHASE TWO. It all goes wrong.
Here I am, intending with every fiber of my being to have veggie stir fry over quinoa for dinner. And then somehow, there on my plate sits a microwaved Deep’s paneer tikka masala pizza pocket.
Or you, intending to get a full night’s sleep before the major interview for the perfect job, find yourself sending one last completely unrelated and totally non-urgent email as your clock ticks away — whoa, 4:11 a.m.? Could that be right? <checks iPhone> Dang. It really is 4:11.
It’s common to act in ways that seem contrary to your interests or values.
You destroy your relationships by betraying the other person’s trust, over and over.
You just can’t decide whether to move, or apply for a job, or apply to college, until the deadline passes and the opportunity’s lost.
You under-prepare for your make-or-break presentation.
Why do we suck so bad?
PHASE THREE. We take a step back and discover that we don’t actually suck so bad.
When I was in grade school, I was one of those kids who had a knack for learning in the way that schools taught. So I did pretty well academically. Athletics, though: different story. So I built a solid wall between my mind and my body. I used to think what a pity it was that human beings had bodies at all. I wistfully imagined us as free-floating balls of energy, and how amazingly happier we’d all be in that scenario without our pesky bodies being a hindrance.
Maybe, when I was a child, it was necessary for me to minimize the value I placed on physical fitness in order to survive the mean streets of grade school. Maybe I was told that I was incapable of being physically fit, so it was ridiculous to even attempt a health-conscious diet. So maybe my very rational line of defense was to scoff at healthful diets and brag about subsisting on fried greasy things. I built protective armor around my psyche.
When you act in ways that you or others might label ‘self-sabotage,’ that might be a sign to reexamine your toolkit. What survival tool are you using right now? Can you mine your brain to find the deeper explanation for, say, staying up too late before your interview? It’ll probably be two, maybe three layers deep. It could start with realizing that you’re so nervous about screwing it up that at least now if you screw up, you can blame it on lack of sleep. (But wait! There’s more! As a bonus, you can experience the satisfaction of self-flagellation!) A layer or two beneath that, you might find the survival tool you’re relying on now.
This might take some sitting and thinking. It’s likely not going to be the first or second thing you uncover. Sometimes, it’ll dawn on you in a burst of lightning; other times, you’ll have to ponder for awhile. It’s worth sticking to, though. Shining a light on it destroys its power.
PHASE FOUR. What do you want to do about it?
It’s useful to have lots of tools in our personal survival toolkit. They’ve served us well, and brought us to now.
Over time, though, conditions change. Contexts change. And some of the tools that used to work so well for us might not be so useful anymore. Now as a grown-up, my grade school turmoils no longer confront me. Now, in these times and conditions, the psychic danger you used to face that supported not preparing for a presentation, or getting too little sleep before an interview, no longer confronts you.
You know what does still confront us, though? The cue that activates our old tool. So when the conscious, rational me is encouraging myself to move toward a vegetable-dominant diet, I confront the cue of preparing a meal. Boom, the protective armor goes up: “I’m not going to let other people tell me what to eat. This piece of fried greasy thing is delicious and I’m just going to keep eating more and more of it.”
You might take a moment right now to consider: what cue is activating your protective armor or survival tool? And is that tool moving you toward your goal?
If the answer to this questions is “no,” what would you like to do with that information? Are you ready to open your hands and let that survival tool go?
PHASE FIVE. Just because it’s simple doesn’t mean it’s easy
So, you’ve dug deep to find the survival tool that masquerades as self-sabotage. You’re aware of it, you’ve examined it, you know it’s no longer serving to move you toward your goals, and you’re ready to let it go. Take a moment to acknowledge yourself for this. Confronting our psychic demons is never easy, so YAY you!
It’s a habit change, though, and therefore by definition something that our brains are highly trained to NOT do. Our brains will be on overdrive to implant thoughts designed to lead us back to the safe haven of our old habit. You’ll find yourself facing thoughts over and over again that encourage you to stay in your comfort zone.
- Your brain could try to wheedle you with temptation: “just this once, because it’s been such a hard day, I deserve to have onion rings with a side of fries for dinner, oh come on, just this once, it’s not like I do this all the time.”
- The excuses. The Excuses! THE EXCUSES! “Look, I’m still hungry because that damn vegetable-heavy meal was so dissatisfying. But hey, at least I tried, so it’s totally OK for me to finish my meal with a heaping bowlful of potato chips dipped in a jar of melted cheese.” “But my friend doesn’t visit that often; I’m really going to have salad instead of enjoying a fine meal with her at our favorite restaurant?” “The holidays are coming up. I’ll give myself a pass until they’re over.”
- Your brain could try to convince you why it’s a bad idea: “look at how cranky I am. Is it really worth it to punish everyone close to me? If eating vegetables makes me this cranky, I’ll be doing my business a favor by sticking to fried greasy things.”
- This one’s deadly because it’s silent. Your brain could just go numb on you: “I can’t hear you I can’t hear you Ican’thearyou. What’s in the fridge? Oh, there’s a hunk of cheese and some leftover pasta. Lalala I can’t hear you. Pasta with cheese it is.”
Luckily for us, these are just thoughts. In the moments — that will at first occur over and over again — when our brain is luring us, we can intervene with alternative messages:
- Stop the wheedling! “I see you, thought luring me back toward my no-longer-desired habit. Buh-bye.”
- No more excuses! “It’s OK, brain, I know you’re uncomfortable with habit change. So let me pause for a moment to notice this thought and set it free, and to remind you, brain, that even more than eating fried greasy things, I want to build my endurance.”
- Say goodbye to resistance! “Thanks for trying to protect me, brain, with that old armor. But you know what: I’m good.”
- When your brain goes numb, your challenge will be to pull yourself back to awareness. This is the bad news and the good news. The bad news is that it taxes your vigilance, and sometimes you just don’t have it in you, or you genuinely forget. The good news is that once you do pull yourself back to awareness, it’ll probably be easy to steer yourself back onto the track you want to be on. Here’s where a posted sign might come in handy, on your mirror, on your fridge, at your desk, next to your bed. You could also try giving yourself a pep talk every morning to keep your brain from going numb to begin with — what some might call Daily Affirmations.
- Or the all-purpose, multi-use Swiss Army Knife of messages: “Superpower negative self-thought zapper: ACTIVATE! You’re toast, negative self-thought!”
Find your go-to alternative messages and give this a shot.
PHASE SIX. From self-sabotage to self-determination.
If you keep at this, and I know it’ll require some vigilance at first, and you’ll sometimes give in to the siren song and get discouraged and wonder why you even bother. But if you keep at it, then my promise to you is that your new motivation will edge you past your old survival tool. If you’ve ever learned how to ride a bike, it’ll feel like that moment when you realize that no one’s holding on and oh hey wow, you’ve got this! And when that happens, then the change you’re aiming for will no longer be the struggle it is right now. You’ll amaze yourself by just naturally doing what you’re committed to doing, and you’ll marvel that this was once a constant battle.
Stop and feel that for a moment. Feel that freedom from your old tool and your negative self-thoughts. Feel yourself moving confidently into living your value. That’s what I’m talking about. That’s self-determination.