As we gain more awareness of our feelings, beliefs, and behavioral patterns, we see choices where we didn’t before and can begin to feel a new sense of empowerment. We feel smarter. Suddenly we’re noticing things we never did previously. We’re recognizing patterns and calling ourselves out on bad habits. We’re using our incredible inner resources to create new ways of doing things that avoid the pitfalls of our previous attitudes, and suddenly it seems that there’s nothing we can’t do. We’re powerful, unfettered, intelligent, and onto ourselves, and our capacity to handle whatever the world throws at us has grown by leaps and bounds. In these moments of triumph, it’s easy to feel that there’s nothing that can stop us or stand in the way of our fabulous new know-how. Until suddenly there is, and unexpectedly, it does.
Because even as we’re learning to do things that we’ve never done before, there’s a teeny tiny part of us determined to undermine our efforts. It’s sitting in on all our lessons, taking notes, absorbing concepts, and practicing vocabulary, all so that it can better talk us out of our new way of doing things. Or perhaps it pretends to go along with us, gaining our trust but meanwhile co-opting what we’ve learned for its own ends. This is the part of us that’s scared of change, that’s scared of everything, that established our old habits in the first place because it thought they would protect us from the big, bad, mean world. This part of us may be misguided, it may be immature, and it may be inhibiting and unhelpful, but it is also very clever. It gets smarter as we do, and very often it co-opts our efforts to change.
What often happens is that after some initial success, we find that this little part of us has convinced us to approach our new habits or insights from our old way of being. Maybe we’ve decided to work less and take more time for ourselves, but before long we find that we’ve jam packed our schedules with classes, dates, and other extra-curricular activities. A friend of mine in this situation found that little had changed despite her best efforts to do things differently. Or perhaps we’ve realized that our approach to spirituality has been overly focused on accumulating knowledge, so we decide to stop reading more and more books and focus on reading and absorbing just one. One of my clients tried this strategy, and was surprised to find that despite his best intentions, he was still approaching spirituality through knowledge and thinking rather than experience.
I had an unmistakable run-in with this phenomenon when I got ready to go for certification as a coach. One of my instructors from the program leading up to the certification recommended that we put away our reading, theories, and cases in the week prior and focus instead on somatic practices, fun, and self care. This seemed like a great idea to me, though a little bit of a stretch from my historic preparatory ritual of study, anxiety, and obsession. I immediately began to think of ways I could take care of myself, yoga classes I could go to, friends I could call, saunas I could visit, food I could cook, meditation sessions I could attend, and bike rides I could go on. Before long, I realized that I had that familiar feeling of being stressed out…over all the things I thought I should do to not get stressed out.
When we find that that sneaky, clever little part of ourselves has pulled one over on us, has infiltrated our best effort to do something without involving it, the best thing to do is laugh. It’s all we can do, really. It doesn’t mean that we’ve failed; it just means that we’re human. Like the real-world versions of Homer Simpson that we are, we’re bound to trip ourselves up now and then. When we notice that we’re at it again, we can do what we would for the Simpsons: laugh, appreciate the humor, and move on to the next episode.
We can’t get rid of our clever little resisters, nor can we convince them to embrace change. But we can expect their antics, be aware of their efforts, and ask others to help us recognize what we ourselves may be blind to. Profound change that makes a big difference in our lives and our well-being takes time, commitment, and a lot of backtracking. That’s the bad news. The good news is that it’s always possible.