When I browse through self-help psychology and business sections of the average bookstore, it’s interesting to see how many of those books are at their core books about change. Shelves are packed with messages about how we can change to something “better”- how to become someone different, to improve yourself, “upskill” and so on. However, there’s a trap that we can unconsciously fall into when we buy into this seemingly positive idea about change.
If we are not careful, when we are reading or thinking about change, we’re actually implicitly saying that there’s something wrong with our current way of being. Thus, as we move along this proposed journey of change, we can carry along a painful passenger that is telling us that we’re not good enough as we are. Then as we push down with our right foot on the accelerator, our left foot is pushing down on the break. The more we engage with the process of change, the more we risk awakening the feeling of defectiveness in our current state. Then we start to avoid this “positive” new behaviour or skill development because it makes us feel, deep down that there is something wrong with us.
You can see this constraining, self defeating view about change in all areas of life. I have talked to many people who feel they should exercise or mediate to “deal with” their depression (Read: Treatment Options to Manage Depression). However, whenever they think about actually doing so they feel vaguely uncomfortable or avoidant, often because it triggers a whisper of a reminder of their feelings of current defectiveness. Thus, they procrastinate and avoid. Then ironically, this same voice criticises them for not being able to follow through on things!
How can we develop and grow without falling into this trap? One way is to look at the process of development that we’re engaged with from a different perspective. When we’re in a state of being dissatisfied with our current level of functioning, skill or behaviour, emotions such as anxiety and shame constrain our freedom to act. A socially-anxious person might want to change- to become more confident or socially-skilled or develop some other quality. But perhaps their desire to avoid embarrassment and anxiety ends up constraining their behaviour and narrowing the experiences they take part in. They might want to step out and speak up more often, but fear of messing up and feeling shame makes it that much harder. Feelings of deficiency brought about by a “need to change” end up stifling them and limiting their ability to have their need for change met.
Rather than thinking about needing to change, what if we thought, instead, that we’re really trying to expand our choices in any particular situation? Perhaps there’s absolutely nothing wrong with us right now, except being imprisoned by our constrained choices. Perhaps the desire to change and improve ourselves is defeating itself by making us experience negative, unpleasant, or terrifying emotions that we feel we need to manage. Maybe there’s absolutely nothing wrong with us, and never has been. Could that socially anxious person be better off if they didn’t focus on how deficient they are, and instead focused on creating more choices to try?
Re-framing our goals as opening up new avenues of thought and choice, rather than obsessing over a need to change can reduce the feelings of anxiety and the avoidant behaviours that come from feeling inadequate. Once we can open up to the ability to have more flexible choices in any given moment or context, then our lives open up and meaning grows. We will talk about how to do this systematically in a future blog!