How to make a change when change feels impossible
Commitments can be tough. One day you’re doing well, and you’re motivated and inspired to make a change. You take the first steps, and maybe even notice small improvements.
Then, however, you have an off day. You’re hit by disappointments, you slip up, and – slowly, but steadily – you spiral back into your old ways of doing things.
Moments like these can be crushing. Not only did you not achieve your goal, but your previous efforts and struggles were seemingly for nothing. You begin to think your progress was “just an illusion”, or maybe even that real change is “just not going to happen.” At least not for you.
Chances are, this wasn’t your first attempt. You have failed before, so why would it be any different the next time? And if it’s going to be more of the same, why even bother going through the effort yet again?
Any change has two sides. On the one side there are desires and dreams for a better life – a life more in alignment with our goals and who we wish to be as a person. On the other side, however, are doubts and fears that real change is just not in the realm of possibility.
When breaking a commitment, there is something self-soothing about buying into a story that a life worth living is beyond us. Somehow we are broken and not to be trusted. Better just to admit it. At least we get to be right about how screwed up we are.
When these doubts take over, they can suffocate every hope of change, and pull us into self-destructive habits. Yes, we get to be right, but the cost is too high.
How can we loosen the grip of self-doubt? How can we make a change when deep down we don’t believe change is possible?
If we want to escape the downward spiral, and finally see the change through, we need change how our own thinking works. We need to change the stance or set we bring to our thoughts, our pain, our situation, and the role of our commitments. Let’s call that stance a “mindset”
Mindset #1 You Are Not Your Thoughts
Let’s do a quick experiment. It will only take 20 seconds, and all you need is yourself.
Then please repeat after me, “I can’t lift my arm”.
Say it again, and again, and again (“I can’t lift my arm, I can’t lift my arm,…”). Try to really buy into this thought, and imagine your arm getting heavier and heavier.
Do this for twenty seconds. And when the time is up (and your arm feels sufficiently heavy), slowly raise your right arm.
How did it go?
Chances are, you were fully capable of lifting your right arm, no matter how much you tried to convince yourself otherwise. You were able to do this, because you were noticing your thoughts and that same part of you that noticed can still direct different actions. Just noticing your thoughts, and then noticing who is noticing, helps put you in control of your actions, not your thoughts.
This is a subtle, but very important distinction, and it’s at the heart of every struggle with difficult thoughts and beliefs.
You are perfectly capable of holding a thought like “I can’t do this”, or “it was all for nothing”, and STILL do whatever is important for you (just like you can lift your arm, regardless what your mind tells you).
This may be obvious when it comes to simple thoughts like “I can’t lift my arm.” It’s much trickier, however, when the thought touches on sensitive subjects like our deepest yearnings or our sense of self-worth, and when they sneak up on us unaware. Suddenly we seem to forget who we are and who is choosing to act.
Don’t be fooled!
A thought can be extremely sticky and convincing, but it is is just a thought. It doesn’t have any power over action unless YOU allow it. If you want to live, you have to respectfully decline your mind’s invitation to live life according to how it dictates. You are a whole conscious person. You are not your thoughts.
Mindset #2 Your Pain is Not the Enemy
Whenever we break a commitment, we are almost guaranteed to be met by a mixture of emotions. We may feel guilty, because we broke our word, and feel we didn’t put in enough effort. Or we may feel sad, because we didn’t succeed yet again. And maybe there’s even some anger in there, or some shame, or any other kind of hard emotion.
In the middle of all these painful feelings, we are quick to seek escape. We don’t like feeling bad – nobody does. And so we distract ourselves by eating junk food, doing drugs, watching TV, or using any other outlet.
And it works!
Sort of. For the time being, you no longer think about the guilt, or the fear, or the sadness, and you can get your mind off your worries and fears. That is, until the plate is empty and the TV is off.
The moment we stop distracting ourselves, our difficult emotions quickly come back, and hit us even harder than before. Avoiding our pain is not a great strategy, because it doesn’t solve anything, and most often only compounds hard feelings.
Instead, it’s much more helpful to get in contact. Breathe in the pain, and notice where (and how) you are feeling it. You are big enough to hold your pain, so allow yourself to hold it close like you would a frightened child. Notice your pain, without resorting to avoidance tactics. Your pain is not your enemy. It is an indication that something is at stake.
Mindset #3 You Are Not Alone
There are over 7 billion people on this world. If you add all the people who have ever lived in the scope of human history, we arrive at roughly 100 billion people. That’s a whole lot of people.
It’s so big of a number, if you would want to meet every one for only one second each, you would need more than 40 lifetimes. Even if you only count the people who are currently living, that’s still more than 3 lifetimes.
The point I’m getting to is this:
Whatever obstacle you are facing, and whatever hardship you are currently experiencing, you are not alone. Uncountable millions (if not billions) of people have faced these moments before you, alone and afraid.
This doesn’t mean your struggle is invalid or insignificant. But it does mean that your pain is part of the greater human experience. Your struggle doesn’t isolate you from others. We are the social primates who invented this wonderful and awe-full thing called symbolic thinking.
It allows us to reason, invent, and create in ways literally unimaginable to other creatures, AND it means we carry our pain with us and can recall it in any moment. We will always live with self-criticism, self-blame, and self-doubt. That’s the kind of monkey we are.
Let that connection sober you, ground you, and humble you. You are not so special. Your pain is not so grand. Your self-blame is not unique. You are one of us. You are not alone.
Mindset #4 Your Change Process is Never Over
Too often people have a strange conception of commitments. They think it’s a one-time promise you make towards yourself, and then keep – come what may.
This is a very rigid idea of commitments. Reality, however, is much more complex and chaotic than this. We get thrown in unexpected environments, and face complex challenges that require a flexible approach, rather than a rigid one.
And sometimes, despite the best planning, we simply slip, just because. Life is messy, and commitments won’t always stand the test against reality. And believe it or not, that’s okay.
Commitments are not a one-time action, but a choice of an ongoing process. At its deepest level a commitment is a choice of a pattern. It is a choice to act in a certain way without a slip, AND if there is a slip to act in that certain way again. It’s BOTH.
So yes “commit” means “commit without slip.” It ALSO means to choose “commit — slip — commit” over “commit — slip — quit.”
It’s your job to turn your eyes forward and pay attention to the direction your heart yearns for. And when you are clear on a direction, take all of your fears, your self-doubts, and your overly critical mind. Breathe into the pain, your struggle, your disappointments, and your hopes. And then, as an act of love towards yourself and all of those who suffer with you, take a step forward.
And if you do slip, it is your job to do it all again.
That is commitment; that’s how growth happens.