Most of us are not fans of resistance. If we have taken the time and energy to build a considerate, collaborative, well thought out and flexible plan, we feel the universe should oblige us and reward our efforts with the intended results. If only it were so. In its simplest form resistance is defined as the refusal to accept a new version or state of something. We see resistance all around us, not just in our lives. It lives in science; whole formulas and calculations are based on it. Resistance is a fact of life, an inevitability. But it does not have to become an ever-present and nagging response to something over which we may have no control.
Sometimes it is not even our own resistance. I worked with a client who wanted to change his approach to leading others, and he made amazing strides in his program, but months into it his staff still didn’t trust him. He was very frustrated, felt that all his progress was useless and of no good purpose when the end results with his staff were still the same. It was not up to him to make his staff choose to trust him; each staff person needed to come to that in their own time and on their own terms. In the end he chose to take his newfound leadership skills and apply them elsewhere, and received the great benefits he was hoping for, but the other team of staff will forever be (for him) an unfinished story. The one that got away. Another client was working very hard to integrate healthful activities into a busy corporate life. She was doing really well too, from an outcomes perspective, but the way she chose to pursue the changes required her to be very vigilant. When resistance found her it was through the inevitable…business travel with a 6-hour time shift and many group lunches, dinners and cocktails…her changes took a beating, as did her feelings of achievement. It was hard for her to pick up the pieces. Anyone who has tried to change something about themselves can likely identify with these two examples. As humans we want others to be able to see what we’ve done; to celebrate it with us, or to acknowledge it in some way. We want to see progress. Often this happens, but many times it is not in our control to have that happen, at least not consistently. Sometimes we are not even able to provide that support to ourselves. Resistance wins, we stop putting effort towards changes. Newton’s Law dictates “For every action there is an equal an opposite reaction”. So what happens when we encounter this reaction? We all have a choice to make when faced with resistance (our own or someone else’s).
In nature resistance is often modeled as an act of resilience – as when a tree grows around an obstacle and thrives anyway. These resilient trees are always eye-caching to behold, the way they contort their trunks to grow around something, or simply absorb what is in it’s growth path, integrating it welcomingly into it’s own woody flesh. Resistance may be an inevitability, but it does not have to be a permanent state; resilience can be ever-present when we chose to nurture it. We may be aware of resistance, and it is good to become attuned to its presence, but to really work with it, like a resilient tree growing despite obstacles, we need to first accept resistance. No change we undertake ever transpires in a straight line, no matter how considerate the approach, no matter how well researched the plan. To use a different context to illustrate this, consider leash training a puppy. Anyone who has tried to train a puppy to walk appropriately on a leash begins with an instruction that goes something like this; when the puppy strains and pulls on the leash, the first thing you should do is stop (don’t pull on the leash, just stop). The first step is to minimize the resistance the puppy is putting on the leash by no longer pulling on it (or contributing to the tension). Then, call the puppy to you and praise it for listening well, thus taking all the tension out of the leash and creating slack. Over time, and with continued training, what will happen is when your dog feels the tension of resistance in it’s leash, it will stop and come to you (or quickly obey your command to do so) making the act of walking together a pleasant experience. The principle behind this series of guidance is that any living thing, when faced with resistance, will strain against it (and that includes us humans). “For every action there is an equal an opposite reaction”. It is a natural response. When we face resistance, the first thing we feel like doing is to put more force into our actions (opposite and reactive force). Even those amazing, resilient trees probably spent the first ten years or so fighting a losing battle of some kind, before discerning a new, more successful and resilient path forward. The illustration of puppy training may seem like a random one, but it has two important concepts in it that anyone can apply when faced with resistance.
The first is to stop; stop and become very present in what is happening, which may include becoming more aware of your hurt feelings, your negative mental chatter, your judgment, anger or feelings of defeat. Stop before you (further) contribute to the resistance you are experiencing by applying misguided effort or force. From this point, a place where you have stopped and become more mindful of what is happening in the moment, you can better determine what will create slack. Slack is important and it is the next step, it literally means to allow more room for movement along a continuum. While in the midst of a living breathing example of resistance you will have no puppy to call to, but you do have many options that give you additional slack, or more breathing room, allowing you to be realistic and compassionate about what is going on. Self-compassion is the first one and a starting place to check-in with yourself. Recrimination, being hard on oneself and expecting near perfection is a great way to create resistance. Being able to say “OK, that didn’t go as planned” and spend some time compassionately figuring out what went wrong (that may or may not have anything to do with you) can help to determine if a change in approach is needed or to stay the course. If you made a mistake, intentionally or unintentionally, giving yourself empathy, instead of a kick in the pants, will enable you to keep going rather than quit. The other great tool you have at your fingertips in the midst of resistance is objectivity. Once paused, you are better able to look at things from different perspectives, to see things in new light, which can go a long way towards helping you understand new things about what you are undertaking and how you are going about it. Being objective, asking questions, becoming curious and increasing communication all help to ensure that you are better able to plan, be flexible and adjust as needed, ensuring you get where you want to go. Not a straight line, but a true one.
When my client decided that he needed to see if he really had been able to undertake the changes in his leadership style he wanted, he made a choice to do so in a new environment where there were no preconceived assumptions about what kind of leader he was. He did so knowing he would walk away and never know if he could have turned the perceptions of the other team around, but he had taken the time to see that the best path forward for him was one with fewer ingrained obstacles over which he had no control. It was a considered strategy and one that had his long-term best interests at heart. He will always wonder about that other team, but he will do so from the perspective of a healthy and satisfying leadership career with another team who enjoys working with him. My other client took a look at what happened on that disastrous business trip and realized that she had applied her changes too narrowly and didn’t plan for the eventuality of having to modify her expectations of herself in an unusual circumstance. Now, she is much better prepared, and confident, that she can manage the challenges that come with making healthy lifestyle choices during global business travel. In both cases my clients chose to stop, reflect, apply self-compassion and be objective about what to expect from others, and themselves, and because of it they are far more likely to succeed in making the changes they are pursuing.
Resistance is inevitable, but we can all choose to build resilience. Like a tree that grows beautifully around an obstacle, we can pause and take the time to determine how best to adjust to change successfully, on our own terms.
I came across an interesting concept called hedonic adaptation. It is also known as "’hedonic treadmill theory’"…which compares the pursuit of happiness to a person on a treadmill, who has to keep walking just to stay in the same place” (Wikipedia). As life progresses we expect it will either stay the same or be better – it is part of the human condition and a very interesting topic in the field of positive psychology. It also explains why there is so much “work” involved in maintaining the status quo; life is constantly changing and evolving, the one thing it doesn’t do is stay the same. Sometimes we initiate the change and sometimes our environment brings the change to us (welcomed or not), but there is little doubt that the majority of us expects, once the dust has settled, we’ll be the same or better off than we were before. But is this always the case? Even with the changes in life we welcome, sometimes there is less sustained joy, and more confusion, than we anticipated.
As an example, maturing is a welcome change for most of us; we are happier when we know we have achieved a measure of self-determination, allowing us to face more in life, and to do so in ways that feel positive and true to whom we are becoming. Finding our foothold in adulthood is often a relief and a very large part of the shared human experience, we all mature (one way or another). Maturing is a complex process and a confusing time in our adolescence because so much changes so fast. One day you are sitting at the kiddie table and the next with the adults, unable to feel a part of either group. So we are required to constantly re-asses where we are, what is there for us, what feels comfortable and what we want to stretch towards (or leave behind). These are acts of “translation”, taking stock and seeing what holds meaning for us, and why, from a “new” vantage point (being older, more aware, experienced, etc.). Many of us expect that it is a much lighter journey from the completion of our adolescence on (another great example of hedonic adaptation by the way) - this is seldom the case. While the translations we undertake in adulthood may not be as fast-paced or dramatic as the ones we needed to make throughout adolescence, we are constantly making translations, some of them deeper and more complex then ones we’ve had to make in the past.
This explains why something you enjoyed doing in your youth may not hold as much appeal for you now, or you may still be committed to doing it, but for very different reasons. I have a friend who plays piano, and does so beautifully, but he will be the first to tell you he got into it because his parents wanted him to learn an instrument (and he wanted their approval). He keeps doing because he finds the thirty minutes of daily “me” time a “calming island” in the midst of a very busy life. If you think about all the things in your life you have started and stopped (or chosen to continue), you’ve had to make decisions (consciously or unconsciously) about what to do with each of them through several periods of personal evolution, requiring you to “translate” what you were getting out of that activity or connection. From vocations to relationships, hobbies to food preferences, we are constantly evolving and, in so doing, often expecting that everything gets better, or easier.
Sometimes when we have grown we end up unintentionally leaving some things behind, like friends or professional pursuits, and this may bring a measure of angst and confusion. Sometimes we can clearly trace the shift in direction we undertook in our past that seemed to change everything, and made it all seem… harder, baffling, unclear, etc. Perhaps when we feel like this we haven’t finished that journey and the good stuff is yet to come, but in the midst of it you are confused, lost, untethered. This is not a comfortable feeling, but it is a necessary one. That “lost” feeling signals that you are transitioning your awareness around some part of your life (large or small) – you are right in the messiest part of translating something, even though you may not know what it is. Think of it as cognitive growing pains as you stretch into something new. In order to restore your equilibrium it takes time, and self-compassion; rush it and you risk contracting back to where you were before (which may also be the right thing to do, depending on where you are in life). This process is designed to help you maintain well-being by providing a path to consistently re-gain equilibrium over time. It is also a way to adapt to unchangeable circumstances. This very subtle and on-going assessment that comprises translation helps us to figure out what we are motivated to pursue (or not pursue) even when faced with circumstances not of our own making. In mentally healthy individuals equilibrium consistently returns when the unchangeable happens, and often does bring tangible benefits with it in time. This evolution provides new perspectives and ways of seeing the world that allow you deeper access to your own goals, helping you to identify what you want and need in life, driving your potential while in the midst of change. Sometimes the act of being “found” first requires us to be “lost”. Happy translating.
Want to learn more about the power of positive psychology? Check out this TEDTalk by Shawn Anchor. https://www.ted.com/talks/shawn_achor_the_happy_secret_to_better_work?language=en
When was the last time you played Battleship? Yes, the game you may have played when you were a kid. It’s a strong metaphor for how we learn through not succeeding. Throw your mind back to when you last played the game…you placed your ships on the board, as did your opponent (you cannot see their ships of course, nor they yours). You each (in turn) gave a coordinate (i.e. D9) and were told if that coordinate is a “hit” or a “miss”. Misses get a white peg inserted at the coordinate and hits are red. Inevitably in this game you will end up with more white pegs on your board than red. Unless you’ve figured out how your opponent has placed his/her ships, you will be feeling around in the dark for a bit to find them all. It’s all part of the game.
However, when playing with a little person, all those white pegs can be quite discouraging. It’s a game of resilience, requiring you to learn something after each “miss”. It is a great way to look at missteps, even failures, because each one of those is not so much a “black mark” on your score card as it is a white peg signifying an attempt yielding new data. That didn’t work as you wanted it to, so what did you learn? For most of us (in the game of life) we tend to take adult mistakes and missteps to heart, giving them heft and weight that they accumulate by looking at them as failures. They then create their own “gravitational well”, especially if we are experiencing a series of missteps and failures, continually pulling us down (if we let them). It plays with our minds and makes us feel discouraged, even angry or shameful and is one of the reasons why we cannot sustain changes we are trying to make in our behaviours, lifestyles, etc. Unless we are mindful about re-framing, mistakes can make us re-assess not what we have learned, but why we are continuing to attempt something in the first place. It gives us reason to feel like a failure, discouraged at all the white pegs then like someone who is learning and able to see that each peg teaches us something. The game board is a metaphor for objectivity allowing us to re-frame events in our lives in a healthier way.
As adults we each have the ability, and choice, to look at things in new light, to see what we’ve learned in something that didn’t go as planned, rather than sinking into the feelings of misgiving, and possibly shame (it’s OK, possibly inevitable, to briefly visit with misgiving and shame, but not a good idea to make them room mates). Take a recent failure you’ve experienced. Beyond thinking “I am never going to attempt that again”, spend some time reflecting on what you learned. Breath deeply, center yourself and stay with the (less than welcome) feelings that come with replaying what was not your finest moment. Look at it with self-compassion (after all a mistake is not something we intended), play it like a video in your mind and find the invisible value in what went on – what did you learn? You may have learned more than one thing (or learned something and been reminded of a few other things you forgot). Once you have plucked the wisdom from this item, put your hand on your heart and say “I learned something new that I can take with me anywhere” and let go of the negative feelings attached to this memory. Re-frame it into what you learned, rather than what you screwed up.
They say the definition of insanity is “Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”. It would be like calling out the same exact coordinate over and over again in the game of Battleship and hope, with each turn, that miraculously the peg will turn from white to red. Not only will that not happen, but you are loosing potential each time by forgoing your option to try something different. However, we only tend to get to that state when we are moving so fast that we are not learning anything from our mistakes. Einstein has said “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” and so the end to insanity (as it is defined above) is to first acknowledge our mistake. Take a moment to acknowledge, possibly even celebrate it a bit, and say “There you are!” because there is more value in acknowledging a mistake then ignoring it (as much as our nervous system would have it otherwise). To see the problem fully, cognitively, and to hold time at bay for a few moments to look at it as objectively as possible requires acknowledgement, not feeling shameful about it, but a sense of wonder, maybe even relief for being able to see it at all. Then, if you can (and this may take time), accept it (since you can’t go back and change it). Acceptance allows us to breath, to engage curiosity and to better see what lead to this point, because the thing we have to remember is we are not always the author of our own mistakes – sometimes life creates mitigating circumstances and we had no way of knowing what was going to happen. Still, we have to live with the consequences (both the ones we create and the ones we are given). Acceptance is the path of least resistance; it demonstrates we have learned something and that we don’t have to do the same things over and over again.
The Battleship metaphor has one last bit of wisdom for us, and that is to keep trying. One strategy in the game is to divide the game board up into a series of quadrants and check coordinates in each quadrant systematically to see what you can find on your opponents board. It is a considered and strategic approach, which is what most of us strive for in life too. However, after a mistake, many of us are drawn into full retreat. We quickly stop our forward momentum, maybe return to a past behavior (“insanity”) to lick our wounds. When we do this it is because we cannot see (in that moment) the other opportunities that are within our reach – we cannot see the other quadrants on the board. When we chose to look at our mistakes, not as irredeemable black marks, but instead as a white peg on a board offering us many other options inviting us to try again, we can more quickly figure out how to access more of our potential in a moment of disheartenment and look for success in whatever we are undertaking.
P.S. If you are really stuck, play a game of Battleship with someone in your life; it may help you to see your own “game board” more clearly.
“We learn wisdom from failure more than from success: we often discover what will do, by finding out what will not do; and he who never made a mistake, never made a discovery.” Samuel Smiles
It is a brand New Year! Perhaps you’ve been reflecting on the past year, or you’ve been thinking about what you would like to see in 2016 – these are all things that inspire changes in order to ensure you meet your new objectives. We’ve all been here (and will be here again in the future) as it is part of the human operating system to set goals for ourselves, to evolve to meet our changing needs, taking information from the past and present to apply it to the future. We conveniently use the beginning of each new year to do this, but it is not the only time…milestone birthdays or another type of change that is thrust upon us sometimes creates an imperative – giving us cause to pause and reflect, to assess what we want from ourselves, from life. Whether your goals are specific or more ethereal, simple or life altering one of the first things you need to affect real change is willingness.
“Where there is a will there is a way.” (An old proverb)
Notice that the quote does not say where there is willpower there is a way. Ever wonder about that? It is not because the word “willpower” hadn’t been invented when that phrase came into use. There is a vast difference between will and willpower, a gap we all experience. What follows are some of the broad tenants of both willingness and willpower to get you started on how these impact your ability to make sustained changes as you embark on your own path of evolution.
If you think about it, will is something that we do…well…willingly - without much effort or resistance. It is important to find examples of things you do you willingly to better understand how this concept (an act of willingness) supports you; this awareness helps in planning sustained change. Using myself as an example, having my first cup of coffee each morning is something I do willingly. I never miss it (when I am at home); I enjoy knowing that the reward for getting up early each and every morning is that I have a wonderful cup of coffee waiting just for me. Now, it is not just the coffee that has the willingness attached to it (although that is at the center). It is also the circumstance of the coffee…I am able to drink that first cup in silence each morning, at a leisurely pace, savoring every nuance of it’s rich flavor. I enjoy selecting the capsule, the cool feel of it in my hand…putting it in the machine, sensing it slide effortlessly into it’s perfectly designed compartment, the curious rubbery feeling of the “brew” button as I press it. I anticipate the machine going into action, the “grrrrring” noises it creates as it forces hot water through the capsule, hearing the hot liquid hit the bottom of the cup and the watery noises it makes as it fills. The rich smell of coffee hits me as it floats through the air soon after it’s release and all the sudden I have a cup ready to taste. I anticipate feeling the warmth of it against my hands and face as I lift the cup for that first sip. Ummmmmmm. It is the sights, sounds and smells I anticipate; a ritual, something I do without thinking, without having to plan or put effort behind it. It just happens in mere minutes every morning and I would miss it if I did not have this small touch point in my life. There are not many things I can think of, that I do everyday, that are effortless…but this is one. Contrast that to an act I feel SHOULD to do daily…like taking my vitamin. This is something I know is very good for me to do, I’ve read and understood the science behind it. I know I feel better throughout my day when I take it (hence the “should”). However, there is something about the NEED to take that vitamin every morning that requires planning and effort on my part, and it is the first thing I abandon on a morning when I am busy or late. I engage an act of willpower to take that vitamin, and while I return to it (re-engaging my willpower) to do it periodically I would not call my multi-vitamin consumption consistent. I can tell because out of a Costco-sized bottle with 365 pills in it I am entering year two of that same bottle…it is over a quarter full. Not consistent. Why the difference? Coffee is not necessarily bad for me (in moderation), but its nutritional value certainly does not rival that of a multi-vitamin. Since becoming an adult I have never missed a morning cup of coffee in any of the mornings I wake up in my home (and most of time when I am traveling although that one comes from a coffee shop) – it’s like a reflex (it is also non-negotiable). Yet I have to plan to take my vitamin each day (it is a choice, every time, one I don’t always choose to make). One is done willingly and the other by willpower.
What are your rituals? Your acts of willingness that you look forward to each day, or do consistently (maybe several times a week) without thinking or effort? What are the things that just naturally happen with consistency that you would miss if they were not present? Take some time to mentally walk through your day, or your week, and find these hidden gems that you may not be aware of. Write them down. You may have one or more and they will likely be different than my example above; they may also be things that take a longer time to do (like a daily run). Then, think about them for a moment, what is the context under which you fulfill these rituals for yourself (or perhaps it is something you do for others)? What does it give you? What is it on behalf of? How does it feel when you are not able to do it? These are important aspects to capture about your acts of willingness so you better understand them as they come into play to help you support sustained change in other areas of your life.
Now, take some time to do that mental walk again and pick out the things you do by willpower. Keep in mind there are things we do by will (not willpower) that are “adaptive wills”. Things like getting up with your alarm clock to ensure you get to work on time. Things we do ritually, but not effortlessly, to ensure we conform to what is needed in the here and now (getting to work on time so we will not be admonished or fired). These are good to be aware of too, but they are not the same as the things we do by willpower. Find an example of something you are doing by willpower in your life and ask yourself the following questions. What effort does it take to perform this act of willpower (i.e. not showing exasperation with other people in your life)? What is going through your mind as you contemplate this choice? What has you abandoning it? What is this on behalf of? How does it feel when you make the choice? How does it feel when you chose not to do it?
Understanding the difference between what things look like when they are a willing act for us, versus an act of willpower is important. I’ll always remember what a wise support group leader once said about willpower. Willpower acts like a muscle, and because it acts like a muscle it can get tired, just like any other muscle in your body. This explains why, at the beginning of the day, you are better able to make the right choices (no demonstrations of exasperation), but by 10:00 PM you may not be able to flex your willpower (several demonstrations of exasperation…maybe even some yelling or expletives). When your willpower muscle is tired you may do something you vowed not to do…like stay up late to watch one more show on TV…or go on-line to do some work from home during family/you time. It is not that you don’t have any willpower (it’ll be back up and running after it gets a break) or that you are failing. You’ve simple tired that muscle out and now it can no longer support you…and if it is your only support when trying to make a change then you are at risk for repeating this outcome. If I had assigned the time right before bed each night to take my multi-vitamin, that bottle would still be full. An act of willingness supports us, an act of willpower has the ability to help us see what making a change would feel like, and you do need willpower to stick with it to really explore something new. However, relying on willpower alone to sustain a change that you would like to make for a long period of time (or over a life time) is setting yourself up for failure.
Having a better understanding of your acts of willingness, and why/how they support you, will help you to see what types of feelings, practices and outcomes need to be in place for you to make a sustained change. To break this down, here is something else interesting about acts of will – when you look at what you do willingly there are usually 3 things tied to it that allow it to support you, encouraging you to keep doing it. To use my morning coffee example, three things are: 1. Knowing this is consistently time just for me (brief as it is). 2. A small structured ritual (the actual making of coffee) that I find comforting. 3. I get something tangible out of it – a consistently great cup of coffee that delivers wonderful flavor, aroma and caffeine. Dissecting this, I know that if I had to make coffee each morning with my family under foot, this would not be effortless. I know if the coffee taste experience were not reliable, I would not do it. Without those two pieces in place, the small ritual of making coffee would not be enjoyable – at all (all work and no pay-off). The constancy of these three things is what provides benefit to me. Pull one away and the other two may not be enough to sustain it. Go through and look for the pattern of three in your willing acts. Knowing this about yourself and your willing acts can help you to look for, plan for, and provide these same small structures (rituals or other supports) in your new changes, moving you off of willpower (after you’ve used it for exploration) and into willingness - giving you a far greater chance of sustaining the changes you want. You can sustain any changes you undertake when you make the right changes for the right reasons.
Need more inspiration? Here is a great TEDTalk from Jane McGonigal that takes this concept a bit further in a different context. https://www.ted.com/talks/jane_mcgonigal_the_game_that_can_give_you_10_extra_years_of_life?language=en