1. Give up dwelling on “If only…”
Most of us have goals, both big (go back to school and get a master’s degree) and small (pare down that pile of junk mail). What keeps us from meeting our goals? Why are some goals successfully achieved, while others remain on our to-do list, nagging us for months or even years at a time?
I’ve written before about how to set goals that are more likely to be met. And though a few tweaks to your goal-setting method can have an immense impact on your likelihood of meeting those goals, for many of us the problem lies not so much in the goals we set, but the ways we prevent ourselves from meeting them. You might have the most functional, realistic goals in the world, but if you engage in self-sabotage, then guess what? Your chance to meet a goal is gone before you even begin.
With my clients, I consistently see the same behaviors keeping them from taking action. These methods of self-sabotage can prevent them from getting where they want to be, fixing what they need to fix, and becoming the person they would love to be. You may know what you want and be pretty sure of the path you need to take to get it, but it’s not uncommon to be stuck in a rut of self-sabotage.
Do you recognize any of the following behaviors in yourself?
1. Dwelling on “If only….”
We all have regrets, whether they’re about something we did (if only I hadn’t dropped out of college), or something we didn’t do (if only I’d stood up for myself more in that relationship). Sometimes we play the “if only” game about things that we can’t control, but that we wish were different: If we had grown up with different parents, if we were more talented, if our partner could fundamentally change in some way.
These thoughts can follow us around for decades, and the problem with them is that they don’t lead to action. Repeatedly revisiting “if only” fantasies when they involve things we can’t do anything about keeps us idling in neutral. Given our lack of a time machine and the inability to overhaul people other than ourselves, continuing to indulge in these thoughts brings nothing but further frustration. These thoughts don’t spur action, inspiration, or problem-solving. And worst of all, dwelling on them keeps the same patterns going (ruminating on how you wasted your 20s socially may make you less likely to go out and seek good friendships in your 40s; dwelling on imperfect aspects of your partner builds resentment that makes your relationship worse).
Try turning “if only” into a different mindset altogether by accepting what’s done, but using this fact to influence your future actions. Such as, “X is this way, but Y can be that way” or “I can’t undo my past, but I can influence my future” or “I have learned something from X, which is Y—and here’s how I plan to use it to improve things.” Each of these is a new, more functional spin on the “if only” mindset.
2. Being afraid of your thoughts.
One of the easiest ways to ensure that a thought will have power over you is to try your hardest to suppress it. Sometimes we do this because our thoughts terrify us: “This is the third argument my fiancee and I have gotten in this week. What if it was the wrong choice to get engaged?” Or because we feel guilty about having them: “My coworker is just not pulling her weight on this project. But she’s a sweet person and a good friend so I shouldn’t rock the boat.”
When you suppress a thought, though, you have no chance to process it—to understand it, feel it, and perhaps eventually decide that it doesn’t make sense. Ironically, walking around afraid of what your brain has to say gives your thoughts far too much importance. This is a hallmark of people who struggle with obsessional thinking. These people are locked in a battle of trying desperately to get a sticky thought to go away, mainly because they’re so overly distressed by having it in the first place. But getting trapped in this battle doesn’t move you forward. Try not to think of a rhinoceros in a bikini, and bam—there she is, and she’s wearing quite a hot number!
The more you battle your thoughts, the more you deny yourself the opportunity to work through them, and the more you keep yourself locked in a negative pattern. Try acknowledging your thoughts and facing them, emphasizing that they are just thoughts, and labeling them as such. For example: “I’m having the thought that it was a mistake to get engaged. That’s probably because I’ve been stressed out. I don’t have to be afraid of this thought; it is human. I will get a bit more sleep, get over this bad week at work, and see if I feel differently. If I don’t, I’ll think things through further.”
3. Burying your feelings.
A close cousin to avoiding bothersome thoughts is trying to bury or mask feelings deemed unacceptable. Many people think that to fully acknowledge feelings means yelling obscenities in the grocery store, or hysterically wailing at their next staff meeting. But letting yourself feel things is not the same as unleashing emotions onto the world at large. In fact, you’ll be less likely to unleash feelings in inappropriate ways if you’ve actually acknowledged them and worked through them in the first place. Often times we bury feelings out of guilt: “I’m angry at my sister for making that comment about my weight. But she’s a sweet person and does so much for me. I have no right to nitpick.” Or fear: “If I let myself feel sad about my breakup, I’ll get so depressed I won’t even be able to function.”
But feelings, when hidden, grow bigger and bigger. And they are prone to corroding people from the inside out. Emotions don’t tend to go away on their own just because we try to keep them in. It’s similar to repeatedly slamming down a lid onto a pot of water that’s boiling over. You know that if you let the water get a little bit of air—set the lid so that it doesn’t completely cover the pot—you’ll soon get a calm, smooth boil instead of a frothy, rattling mess. Acknowledging your feelings doesn’t make them spin out of control, but putting the lid on them does.
4. Habitually starting tomorrow.
So, you’ve eaten a third sleeve of Girl Scout cookies before noon, or you’re completely frustrated that it’s three o’clock in the afternoon and you’ve gotten little work done. Many times, the natural reaction is to abandon the rest of the day and visualize the beautiful blank slate of tomorrow. But it’s never tomorrow. If you spend so much time saving until tomorrow, the habits you want to pick up and the changes you want to make will always be beyond your reach, because tomorrow is a constantly moving target.
If you are someone who must have a “clean slate” to get motivated, it need not be tomorrow. Why not have that clean slate start in one hour? Or fifteen minutes? This helps stop the surge of all or nothing thinking that can lead you to write off the rest of the day, getting you farther and farther from your goals. Even better, instead of arbitrarily declaring the slate clean because the calendar flipped over, create a true and meaningful clean slate through your behavior. Take a brisk walk. Do a brief meditation. Have a quick chat with a friend. Do some breathing exercises. Allow yourself five minutes of a video that makes you laugh. Each of these things can help reset your mind and your productivity much better than the vague “tomorrow,” which, when you think about it, is never actually here and never really puts you in the driver’s seat.
5. Letting inertia harm you rather than help you.
Inertia is fantastic when it’s on your side. If you pick up a healthy habit and maintain it for several weeks in a row—making coffee rather than buying it, taking the stairs rather than the elevator, sorting your emails as they come in—it becomes much easier to continue it. But too often, inertia applies to habits we don’t want to have, and activities that make us feel unproductive and unhealthy. This is the reason why the psychological clean slate discussed above can be so powerful. We desperately crave the ability to be free from the things we already view as tainted: A busted diet, a soured relationship, or a pattern of motivation-killing habits at work. We don’t want to salvage any of it. We want to start fresh because it’s a much more attractive option.
Here’s the thing: Just like in the physical world, we are prone to staying in motion—or in place—by this force of inertia, and no one can change it but ourselves. The calendar flipping to a new year, feelings of being “fed up,” new workout gear, or public promises can all (briefly) jumpstart new behaviors. But they don’t address the underlying inertia, which is truly needed to change long-term behavior. You must build the right day-to-day structure in order for new habits to take hold. Otherwise the inertia of the old habits never really goes away. Yes, those new workout pants are fabulous, but if your gym is still too far away or too incompatible with your work hours, then you haven’t done anything to address the inertia that prevents you from going to the gym. Focus not on the jumpstart, but on the overhauling of the battery to get inertia working for you, rather than against you.
Andrea Bonior, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist and speaker. She is the author of The Friendship Fix and an upcoming book about the psychology of everyday life (stay tuned!), and serves on the faculty of Georgetown University. Her mental health advice column Baggage Check has appeared in the Washington Post Express for more than eleven years. She speaks to audiences large and small about relationships, work-life balance, and motivation, and is a television commentator about mental health issues. Join the conversation on Facebook or Twitter!