Written by Kerrie Clarke 

It’s easy to do. You decide you really want to go to the gym in the morning, finish your website, stop being a control freak at work, give the new guy the support he needs to do a great job. But when that moment comes, you roll over and go back to sleep, say ‘yes!!’ to all work except your website (I know this one personally!), insist on having the final decision in the team meeting, and leave the new guy to drown on his own. And then you feel bad, frustrated and as far away as ever to achieving the new way of ‘being’ you had hoped for. Then, just like the cycle of broken new year’s resolutions, it starts all over again, and again, year after year.

Let’s say that the desired behaviour you’ve targeted is in fact appropriate for the outcome you want. By that I mean it’s well considered and real for you. (I say that because working out what you ‘actually’ want can be a whole process in itself … but that’s another conversation.) So then it appears that what you need to do is straightforward and obvious. You want to go to the gym in the morning? – get out of bed by 7am. Finish your website? – just do it! Get your team to take ownership for a project? – let them determine how to move it forward. The new guy needs to learn company processes? – just give him some one on one time and attention. Too easy! So, why isn’t it?

The reason you’re not carrying out these ‘easy’ tasks, is because your commitment to doing the opposite is stronger. It’s an age old inner battle that your new drive has little chance of winning. Without unpacking this dynamic, you’re unlikely to make progress on that change you want. To be clear, we are talking here about the changes you’re not achieving – those you’re winning at are not caught up in this inner contradiction, so you can look to these as evidence that you are actually capable of making changes.  When you find yourself saying you want one thing and then you do the opposite, you have a dilemma that needs deeper attention than creating a list of ‘must do’s’. Even the strongest will won’t create lasting change when this dynamic is in place.

Perhaps it’s a straight forward, low risk dilemma, but it can just as easily be the block you’re facing to creating a whole new direction.

Recognising what you’re doing (self-awareness) is always the starting point. What is the outcome you want, and what are you doing that stops you getting it? Your contradictory behaviour is highly strategic – rather than being a flaw in your nature, it is part of your fabric. There is method in this madness, it has good reason – it’s just that you may not be aware of it.

What you are doing is ensuring that something else doesn’t happen. So what is the something else? Maybe, by not helping the new guy (let’s call him Bob) you’re ensuring that he doesn’t do things better than you. That new website you’ve been wanting for the last 12 months (and you just don’t give it the time it needs) is going to mean you will stand out and be seen.

The truth is you’re more committed to preventing these risky outcomes. You’re not mad, you’re simply and powerfully protecting yourself from a fear worse than death itself.

You may be committed to not helping Bob so you continue to look good. To not being seen so you don’t make yourself vulnerable. To making all the decisions so you continue to be valued. And the gym? Maybe you don’t want to share body sweat! The reasons will be very personal.

And then what? If this risk actualizes, there will be consequences. If I am seen, I may be judged as inadequate. If Bob does things better than you, you might not be the star performer any more. If you don’t make all the decisions you may not be valued as a leader.

It’s a set up. Kegan & Lahey call it ‘Immunity to Change’. It’s our fail-safe approach to failure. 

It’s like your head is saying one thing, but your heart is saying another. And we know which one wins (even if you think you’re in control…). Emotion in action may not be entirely logical, but it sure is powerful!

Anyone who has tried to placate the raw emotion of a 3 year old in a tantrum knows who is going to decide the outcome. It is much more effective to be in relationship with the resistance and find a way where everyone can win, than to force control in an attempt to shut the expression down. Any overpowering response would be a short-term solution at best.

This commitment to avoiding certain stresses in our lives was carefully cultured after a disturbing experience which may be in recent times or way back in our early years. We formed assumptions about our safety and wellbeing if we didn’t protect ourselves from these experiences. We developed behaviours to protect us from harm, hide our vulnerabilities and keep us seen in our best light – safe and loved. While these strategies were no doubt successful at the time (we are still alive!), they are clearly not working for us when they prevent us from moving forward in the here and now.

Managing to get our way in a 3 year old tantrum, doesn’t make this an effective adult strategy for getting what we want. High performing adults need much more effective and grown up strategies.

Hal & Sidra Stone (Embracing Ourselves) provide a powerful exploration into the many parts of us that emerge as our adult protectors. They suggest we get to know them intimately, even name them, and embrace the powerful offering they provide, while maintaining control in when they are allowed out. A bit like a conductor in an orchestra.

So how do we make progress?

Firstly, we need to become clear about the behavioural changes in ourselves that we want. Then be honest about what we are doing instead. If we can then deepen the thinking about the outcomes we are more committed to, we will gain insights into how our evasive behaviours serve and protect us, and what we are protecting ourselves from. When we can answer the question “what is the payoff for my current behaviour?”, we will indeed make progress. The assumptions about what would happen need to be reality tested with a current day, grown up perspective. Then we can focus on the more progressive and interesting dilemma … ‘how can I achieve this new way of being, while taking care of my vulnerability?’.

This reframing of an old question opens the playing field.

The challenge is to become more self-aware of our conscious and unconscious patterns. Next time you feel frustrated about meeting that same old brick wall, start asking questions about your motivations and what the payoffs are in not doing that thing you say you want.

And if you miss it, don’t worry it will always come around again and you can dive in the next time, or the next …. or the next.

Happy diving!

It can be tricky gaining a deeper perspective on yourself. That’s where the right coach can help. If you want to know if I am the right coach for you, call me for a chat.

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