making change

At different times in my life, I have done the following:

  • Decided I wanted to work out more and signed up for a gym membership…only to attain new levels of affection for my couch.
  • Decided I was meant to be a professional artist, so I bought a fancy printer, designed a website, and set up an Etsy store…only to find things to do ANYWHERE but my studio.
  • Decided that this class/book/program was the one that would get me straightened out…only to lose enthusiasm halfway through.

I am curious about why some changes stick and not others. When I look at the pattern of things I successfully integrate into my life vs. the things that slip away, this is what I see:

My internal stuff needs to be aligned with the change I want to make, before I try to make it.

(People vary and so this may not be true for everyone. Your experience may be different.)

For a long time, I believed that intention + willingness to “invest in myself” = guaranteed success. I’d sign up for the class, buy the equipment, write an optimistic blog post. I believed that changing my external circumstances would just organically morph my mindset, lifestyle, and habits to match.

What I wasn’t counting on were my internal monsters who were invested in keeping things the way they are, thankyouverymuch. Without talking to them first and being willing to confront their resistance, I find it nearly impossible to make anything stick.

Chip and Dan Heath describe this phenomenon in their excellent book Switch as “the Rider and the Elephant.” With enough will and force, the rider can make the elephant change direction. But eventually the rider gets tired, and then the elephant can do whatever it wants (which is read fiction and eat cookies on the couch, in my case).

Furthermore, I wasn’t really checking in with my internal compass to see if this new plan of action was really what I wanted to be doing. One of the clearest examples of this for me was my attempt to be a professional artist because of [semi-logical reasons that had nothing to do with actual motivation].

I used to think of my brain as having a play-it-safe, socially conditioned side and a maverick bohemian dreamer side that reflected my “true” self. At some point I realized that neither construct is 100% genuine and merely reacting against the play-it-safe half doesn’t guarantee that I’m being true to myself. Forcing myself to try to be a professional artist because some part of me thought I was “supposed” to was just as wrong-headed as believing I’m “supposed” to be an accountant.

I am currently training to be a life coach with Martha Beck. On the outside, it looked like an impulsive decision. “Oh, her training program is starting next week?…Yeah, I think I’ll sign up.” It had very little of the Sturm und Drang of other changes I’ve tried (unsuccessfully) to make in my life. Most of the work had already been done quietly, behind the scenes.

Not that I planned it that way. But: I’ve spent years reading the work of other coaches, subconsciously internalizing concepts, integrating them into my worldview and talking about them with anyone who I thought would understand. It wasn’t until the dissolution of my former professional identity that I was ready to consider taking on this new one. When I checked in and asked, “Is this really what you want?” my entire body felt lighter – and for once, I listened. The groundwork had been laid; the decision itself was easy.

Did all the resistance magically disappear in this case of intention + investment? AHAHAHAha no. The minute I committed to this path, the “Who do you think you are?” monster and the “How could you ever help anyone when your own life is such a mess?” monster and the “But what if you faaaaail?” monster all showed up at my doorstep with their dubious welcome baskets.

The difference in this case is that I was expecting them. Hell, I kind of invited them (might as well if you know they’re going to show up anyway!). Another difference is that working with my monsters is an integral part of the coach-training process, not something I’m squeezing in if/when I can. I was worried initially that it would take soo much time to stop and talk to them, but it feels like a total game-changer now that they’re (mostly) on my side.

Perhaps the most important difference is that I feel like I’m on the right track. My doubt and resistance are around whether I can be good at this, not whether I should be doing it at all. Every time I talk to a client and feel I’ve connected with them on a profoundly intimate level, I know I’m in the right place and that feeling is priceless.

I don’t know if I’ll make it to the gym today. (Probably not.) I don’t know what other changes are ahead of me.

But I do know that I’ll be trying to remember to look (inward) before I leap.

Photo credit: stock.xchng

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