What’s Keeping You Stuck

I’m a to-do list type of person.

I could make endless to-do lists. When I was a kid, I used to have a list of things I could do when I was bored. “Making more lists” was on that list. I kept the sheet safely tucked away in my trapper keeper. 

Whenever I move to a new city, a tourist to-do list is one of my first to-dos. Living in DC, I made a to-do list of all the different restaurants to try, parks to visit, museums to walk around. Didn’t matter if I had any real interest seeing the things those boxes represented. It was mostly to make sure that I didn’t miss out on anything. Now that I’m in Uganda, I went through one of the popular tour books, starring all the things I wanted to check out. Lists are my happy place.

I make checklists for everything.

Recipes to try – there’s a list for that.

Books to read – there’s a loooooong list for that.

Places to visit – there’s a list for that.

I even made a list of different workout classes to try at a gym I joined and made it through 15 by the end of the month.

New Years eve has a special place in my heart, not because of all the fanfare, but because it’s a GREAT time to plan out another list of goals. September iis a close second since it’s associated with the start of a new school year – more goals!

There was a time period in my life where I used to write out all of my yearly goals, then my quarterly goals, and even my monthly goals. When I’m really on it, I break those further down into weekly and daily goals. I’ve made and remade these lists a half dozen times, if not more. There’s something insanely satisfying about keeping such a list, and of course, even more satisfying when I get to check or cross off an item on said list.

Yet regardless of how amped I am when I make these lists, that energy rarely carries me through to completion. I don’t know how many times I’ve attempted to get myself to do something, only to find that my motivation was not where it needed to be. Sometimes I lament this fact.

I lay around saying “ugh….I don’t feel like it”. 

“I’ll do it tomorrow”.

“I’m not in the mood”

And that, my friends, is the problem with motivation. It’s like a mood. It fluctuates. It shifts. It certainly isn’t consistent nor is it something that you can count on. It reminds me of a ripening avocado. I mean, maybe you can time things perfectly so that your motivation is sky high right at the moment you’re ready to make some life-altering change. But most changes don’t require a one-and-done mindset. They require sustained effort for DAYS. 

You may be thinking – hah. Motivation is not a problem for ME. I have incredible self-discipline. That’s how I got to be so successful. My bullet journal explicitly details how and when I will achieve all of my goals. This is SO basic.

Perhaps.

BUT.

If this were true, then what gets in the way of being successful in every part of your life?

Motivation for Change

Many of us, myself included, have areas of our lives that come easy. Perhaps you excelled in academics. You figured out the system of studying (or just generally being a genius) and were able to get the grades you needed without too much consternation. Other kids around you would complain and stress and suffer through poor study strategies, but you seemed to figure it out.

But just as often, success in one area doesn’t automatically translate into ALL areas of our lives. While you might have figured out one area, for some reason, another completely confounds you. If your career is on fire, you may find that your relationships are lukewarm at best. Or maybe you have an awesome family life, but you’ve let your physical health decline over the past few years.

What is it about these problem areas that you can’t quite figure out? Why is it that you find yourself facing the same problems at work, at home, in relationships, with yourself over and over and over again? You’re not dumb, so what’s going on?

For many of us, dare I say – all of us, as we go about the world, our minds are constantly providing us with the narrative of our lives. It’s like watching a movie with the director’s commentary enabled. The mind tells the story of who we are and why things are happening the way they are. Sometimes this works out awesomely. Why did we get that promotion? Because clearly we were the best candidate for the job and because we worked way harder than anyone else did. Is that factually correct? Who knows, but the brain has latched on to that as its version of the story.

Sometimes though, this does not work out in our favor. Why do we have trouble in relationships? Oh, it’s because no guy has ever been good enough and chances are they’ll just leave you and break your heart anyway so what’s the point of really letting yourself be vulnerable anyway? Factually correct? Again, who knows, but the brain has latched on to THAT as its version of the story. 

The brain as your narrator

Right this moment, your brain has a full and comprehensive story about how you became you and what challenges you’ve had to face, and chances are, you accept this story without question. Because really,  how often do you review this story for accuracy? For utility?

Think of a problem that has plagued you. What are the stories your brain tells you about this problem?

For example – I self-identify as an introvert and for a long time felt that I was socially awkward and did a poor job of making friends. Now, imagine walking around with a brain banging a drum about how you’re so weird and socially awkward. Would you guess that it would be easier or harder to be socially successful? Answer – HARDER. If your brain is yelling at you that every social interaction is going to end in failure, why on Earth would you ever bother making an attempt? But that’s the crux of it – when you buy into these messages, your behavior changes in response. When I believe that I’m socially awkward, I’m more likely to not interact with others, to turn down social invitations and to perceive every interaction as awkward. Does it matter that my brain might not be right? Nope. Do I stop to question the assumptions my brain makes for me? Nope.

But…what if your brain is RIGHT you ask.

You know, it may be. There are times when I AM socially awkward. There are times when I DO find it challenging to make small talk with others. But my brain would have me believe that BECAUSE I’m socially awkward, I should give up all socialization. My brain wants me to believe that socializing is hard and uncomfortable so I should avoid it. In the short term, that may feel a little better, but in the long term, I’m not able to form the relationships I ultimately want because I’m too busy avoiding the things that feel uncomfortable in the present moment.

So… does my brain hate me you ask.

Your brain doesn’t hate you. If anything, your brain is agnostic about you. It’s in survival mode and unfortunately, survival brains are wired to find threats. They aren’t wired to easily find joy and satisfaction, so we can’t get pissed off at Brain just because its doing its job. Instead, we need to shift focus to change what CAN be changed. That’s where YOU come in. Your job is to question the narrative. If your brain is making assumptions about life, don’t you think you should check in with those assumptions to see if they’re at least on the right track?

It’s not something we often do, and certainly wasn’t something I often did until I immersed myself into the world of psychotherapy, self-help and personal growth. Now I think about my thoughts all the time. I question whether they’re accurate or whether they’re helpful. I question where they came from. Sometimes I tell them to go away. Sometimes I tell them “Right on!”.

With my own social anxiety, I didn’t always feel awkward, so what changed for me? It’s hard to even pin-point a specific something that my brain responded to, but instead several situations occurred over a few developmentally important years that left me questioning whether I was okay. What started as subtle self-doubt morphed into a practically paralyzing fear of social rejection, and here I am 20 years later, still needing to challenge those beliefs that my 10 year old self first latched onto for who knows what reason. I can choose to let those beliefs direct my life, or, I can see them for what they are – beliefs rooted in my personal history that may or may not serve me in my present.

How do you write a new story? By first acknowledging that you want a new story AND that there’s a part of you who is afraid of what it might take to be the hero of that story. When you think about this recurrent problem in your life – what are you afraid might happen if you take the steps necessary to confront it?

I want to be in a relationship with an equal partner who loves and respects me for me, but that might mean I have to show who I really am, which leaves me feeling exposed. 

I want to meet new people and make friends, but that might mean putting myself out there and risking rejection.

I want a promotion, but I fear that I’ll risk failure and humiliation if I go for it.

I want to have a healthy relationship with food and my body, but that might mean I have to give up the previous ways I’ve dealt with feeling lonely, upset, uncertain, or afraid.

I want to have kids, but I fear what doing so will do to my relationship with my partner, not to mention my body.

I want to be closely connected with my family, but I fear that might mean confronting hurts from the past which may create new hurts or tension.

I want to leave my current relationship, but I fear having to let go of the stability I have now.

I want to move somewhere else, but I fear making a bad decision and getting stuck somewhere worse.

I want to start exercising and getting in shape, but it’s going to take so much time, energy and effort, I fear I’ll just give up, so why start.

I want to be able to bond with my kid but she is ALWAYS pushing my buttons and we both just end up mad and frustrated with each other, so maybe it’s better if I just let her be.

The closer you get to actually making a change, the stronger the narratives become about why it’s going to be so hard/a disaster/not worth it. So if you really want to make a change – you need to be able to address and challenge those messages your brain is trying to sell you on.

My goal is to continue writing and speaking on the subject of change, motivation and emotional avoidance. If you have a question related to these topics – I’d love to hear it.

You may find that you get stuck trying to change your narrator. If this is the case for you, seeing a therapist could help. One of the roles I play is as an objective observer to your process, so that we can identify any blindspots in your that may be keeping you stuck in a set of unhelpful beliefs.

The Gold Star: Micro Steps Towards Progress

“Snake!” I yelled. The over-sized green mamba swung its head to look at me. No one else in the 7-11 seemed to care.

“SNAKE!!” I yelled louder, holding my left foot in the air as if I were the Karate Kid preparing my crane kick. Sure, that would take down a green mamba. Again the patrons ignore my pleas and debated Cool Ranch over Spicy Nacho Doritos.

Why was no one as freaked out about this as I was? Why was the green mamba single-mindedly focusing on me? The mamba U-turned and reared up its head. I darted its head at me, trying to strike while I batted it away with my foot. It dove again, this time connecting with my flesh.

Tap tap tap

Something sharp and cold poked my forehead, but I can’t say it’s what I expected from green mamba fangs.

Groggily, I opened an eye to see my 5 year old standing in front of my fully dressed in a pair of pepto bismol pink shorts and a turquoise blue shirt with sparkly dinosaurs all over it.

“Mmmprg. What time is it? Is your lady bug green?” (Lady bug is actually not a lady bug at all but an OK to Wake alarm clock that looks more like a little green alien than a lady bug).

“I think so. Lizzie is awake too. Can we have breakfast now?” I hear my husband stir and shift out of the bed.

Oh thank goodness. A free pass to roll over. This is unlike me. I’m generally an early bird. I prefer waking up before the sun, before the kids, and having that moment to myself to do whatever I want. It’s like starting the day with a gold star because you know you did something good for yourself.

But instead of that scenario, each night this week I go to bed jittery and alert and every morning I awake feeling as though someone squirted Elmer’s in my eyes.

Jet lag is a bitch.

My family and I flew back to Uganda last weekend from the US. It was relatively direct as far as African travel routes go, but still , there’s nothing easy about 36+ hours of travel with two little kids. Despite my efforts to shift my body to its new schedule, my brain is just not wanting to cooperate. I’ve found myself staying up into the wee hours without a single yawn urging me to bed. I end up working out at 11. Skimming through marriage therapy texts at midnight. Meal planning at 1am.

So back to this morning. My husband lured my daughter away from my bedside with promises of warmed banana bread for breakfast, and while I could have taken that opportunity to attempt to resume my dream, I didn’t.

Instead, in the words of Anna (of Frozen II fame), I did the next right thing. Which in this case was to drag my butt out of bed and jar myself out of my groggy stupor.

But how was I to function in this state? My head slowly scrolls through the information I accumulated over the years about behavioral change.

State. I need to change my state. I need to think opposite thoughts and do opposite actions.

I chugged a bunch of water. Shook my head vigorously a few times. Eighties danced around my room while unpacking one of my still unpacked suitcases. And I frankly pretended that I wasn’t nearly as exhausted as I felt.

And you know what? It kind of worked. Go figure. As it turns out, the whole Cognitive-Behavioral paradigm of changing your mental state and your behaviors as a way to change your mood played out. Thanks CBT! Secondary credit goes to Alfred Adler for his ‘Act as if’ mantra.

While I was proud of myself for not caving to the sleep fairies, I won’t pretend that I felt like my toddler the other day after she lapped down her first DumDum lollipop (Flavor: strawberry. A reward for surviving her COVID test), but I was able to get through my day without napping. And that’s what it’s all about for me. Not napping.

Kidding. What I mean to say is that making these small changes in our day may not feel like much. They may not feel like something to celebrate or even something to acknowledge. But often, progress does’t come in big swoops and leaps. More often, progress comes about through those tiny little nudges that shift the needle ever so slightly towards our own unrealized potential. So when you notice yourself challenging your own status quo, make sure to give yourself credit for it. Maybe even a gold star.

Exercise: What small progress have you made in your own life? Did you give yourself credit for it? If you can’t thinking of something, what small step could you take right now?