Feeling stuck? Use these 3 key tools to help you change your life
Are you having trouble making lasting, positive change?
How many times have you determinedly decided to make a change in your life, only to, days or weeks later, return right back to the status quo?
Failing over and over again to change your life can be disheartening and downright painful. It can make us feel trapped with what we’ve got and hopeless that we’ll ever have a better life.
But, some people do change. How do they do it?
Below are three powerful tools that can help you make lasting, positive changes to your life.
#1 Remind yourself that change is hard
Change is not easy. Obviously. If change were easy we’d all be our very best selves, rocking the world with our confidence, creativity, and intelligence.
So, what gives, anyway? Why is it that when we want to make a positive change in our lives it can feel so damn difficult?
Here’s the thing: your own biology is going to resist your efforts to change it.
You probably remember the term homeostasis from grade school. It’s the biological mechanism that keeps your body functioning at it’s “normal” capacity. You are going to feel resistance if you want to pull your body and mind outside of its “normal” range of functioning.
I felt this resistance last year when I began a daily writing practice. After a couple of weeks of smooth sailing, I began to feel anxiety and fear. Then, I felt the dread of failing to ever be any good at all.
Thankfully, I had read Stephen Pressfield’s excellent books Turning Pro and The War of Art. In them, he talks about the resistance he felt while trying to begin his writing career. Learning from his experience helped me through this difficult time.
If you want to change, you will feel resistance. Don’t bother fantasizing that somehow you are different — that this won’t happen to you. It will.
And don’t expect inspiration to motivate you beyond the first few days or weeks. Because once inspiration runs out, and it will, all you will have left is resistance.
It’s at this point when you reach a difficult choice: quit or continue in spite of all your emotions telling you otherwise.
So, remind yourself that change is hard, but also that each of us must face this hardship if we want to change and that some have succeeded in changing.
By reminding yourself of this, your reaction to resistance may change. With the knowledge that resistance is a normal biological reaction to change, you may feel less inclined to quit and more inclined to continue to pursue the change you’ve been seeking.
#2 Focus on what you can control
Do you wish that some events of your past were different?
Do you wish you were different — more outgoing, creative, attractive — right now?
Do you wish you had something — a promotion, your dream home, the perfect partner— right now?
Although it seems obvious to focus on what we can control, we spend a hell of a lot of time fantasizing about how things could be different.
The problem is that it’s unwise to dwell on these things, which is the idea the Serenity Prayer is trying to convey:
Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.
We cannot change our pasts. We cannot change our present circumstances. But, we wish we could. And our brains have been granted the gift and the curse of being able to imagine what could have been or what could be.
It’s easy to get caught up in, and be distracted by, this type of thinking.
So, instead of courageously focusing on what we can change, we unwisely focus on what we can’t.
Letting go of what you cannot change
Letting go is hard.
As incredible as our minds are, they often get caught up in patterns of thinking that hold us back from growing.
For example, say you stopped exercising regularly a year ago. Now, you feel out of shape and bad about yourself. So, you set yourself the goal of going to the gym three times a week. Simple, right?
Yeah, simple, except every time you think about going to the gym, you imagine how much easier it would have been if you had never stopped in the first place. You imagine what you would have looked like and compare it to what you look like today. Now, you’re discouraged, demotivated, and sad. You decide to skip out on the gym today.
This is the trap we often fall into when we can’t let things go. We can imagine doing something different, so we think we should have done something different. We blame ourselves for what has happened, and this blame festers in our minds.
This is how our pasts come to haunt us. They quietly make us feel not good enough, which impacts the actions we take today.
So, what can we do about this type of thinking?
Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as telling ourselves it’s unwise to think about the past like this. We have a habit of thinking about the past in this way and we need to change that habit.
Something that has helped me to leave the past in the past is the Buddhist concept of cause and effect (see here and here). In very simple terms, this concept boils down to every effect (you ceasing to exercise) having a cause and a condition.
The cause and condition of you ceasing to exercise are very much intertwined. The cause is the what and the condition is the why. A year ago, maybe your workload at university was demanding and stressful, so you decided you didn’t have time for the gym. Maybe you were working two jobs, so you concluded it was too stressful to fit the gym into your schedule. Maybe you were happy with your overall level of fitness, so you decided that you didn’t need to go to the gym.
Understanding why you made past choices is useful because it gives you a reason to stop fantasizing about having made a different choice. But, you must understand your reasons beyond the superficial. You must understand from your past self’s perspective. You must see how the condition of your mind — your knowledge, experience, emotional state — at the time led to your choice.
In other words, your choice was inevitable given the situation.
Yes, you may not be happy with a choice you made and understanding why you made the bad choice doesn’t miraculously get you off the hook for it. Instead, use this as an opportunity to learn from the past. Don’t allow yourself to make the same mistake again!
So, the next time you find yourself fantasizing about having made a different choice in the past, pause for a moment and remind yourself of the reasons you made that choice to begin with. In time, you might find this gives you some peace of mind, which is exactly what you’ll need to make lasting, positive changes in your life.
#3 Have self-compassion
When there’s something about your life that you want to change, that means you dislike that aspect of yourself, right?
So, whether it’s reaching out to your friends and family more, getting more exercise, or eating healthier, you want these things because you don’t have them now. And, if you’re like everyone else, you are really good at hating yourself for being where we are and not feeling good enough.
Some people think that self-hatred is the best way to motivate change. So, they talk down to themselves, tell themselves how shitty they are, that they’re worthless, that they’ll never amount to anything.
Sometimes, you see this mentality in parenting when a child makes a mistake. If you’ve seen this before you know it’s heart-breaking.
But, if that’s heart-breaking, then it’s also heart-breaking for us to talk to ourselves in that manner, too.
It’s also not useful.
As Shawn Achor describes in The Happiness Advantage, negative emotions cause us to perceive the world through a narrow and selective lens. We ignore vast amounts of information and focus only on problems.
However, positive emotions cause us to widen our perspectives, allowing us to perceive more information and more solutions. Positive emotions expand our ability to be creative and problem solve.
When you get mad at (or worse, hate) yourself for failing to be where you want yourself to be, this is counterproductive. You are not only closing your mind off from possibilities, but you are also making yourself feel like shit.
Besides, how has hating yourself been working so far? Has it gotten you the results you wanted, or are just more miserable than ever?
But, what’s the alternative? How do we motivate ourselves to perform better and to be better without beating ourselves up?
It’s simple: we practice self-compassion.
Compassion is an often misunderstood word. Without even bothering to understand its meaning, people think that being compassionate demands being weak. That couldn’t be further from the truth.
I’d suggest that it’s weakness that causes us to feel anger and hatred toward ourselves for making mistakes. These emotions are too easy to feel during these times — they’re child-like temper tantrums. They’re automatic reactions that we don’t even question.
On the other hand, compassion contains both rationality and emotion. Whereas anger and hatred blame and name-call, compassion’s goal is to understand.
At the centre of compassion is the understanding that suffering and dissatisfaction is at the heart of all human experience. We suffer when we fail. We suffer when we succeed and the thrill wears off. We suffer when we don’t get that promotion. We suffer when we do get that promotion and we have a new role to learn. We suffer when we’re in a romantic relationship. We suffer while we are seeking a romantic relationship.
The suffering and dissatisfaction we experience is boundless, and it shines through in all our actions, every day, whether we intend it to or not.
The law of cause and effect that I talked about earlier can evoke compassion for ourselves. When we look at our pasts and realize that we really couldn’t have made different decisions given our states of mind at the time, we begin to see our own suffering from a different perspective.
Although it seems like we are in complete control of our lives, the law of cause and effect helps us understand that there are some things we cannot control. As a result, we start to perceive the suffering we feel as an inevitable part of the process of living. It can’t be helped, as unfortunate as that is.
Which, by the way, is not to say that we can’t reduce suffering moving forward. It’s just that we are only able to make decisions that reflect the sophistication of our thinking at the time the decision is made. Since we are constantly changing, it’s easy to look back on past decisions and think of them as stupid. But, when you look at those same decisions with compassion, you see that those decisions arise out of conditions you couldn’t have controlled.
This is the situation in which we find ourselves.
So, instead of feeling hate and anger toward yourself, have compassion for yourself. You are a suffering creature, and that is unfortunate. It’s unfortunate that anyone suffers, yet no one escapes this fate.
Try to see your life from this perspective and you will see that change is easier. Self-compassion gives you the space in which to make change because self-compassion wants you to feel better rather than worse. Self-compassion wants you to succeed rather than fail. Self-compassion wants you to be happy rather than miserable.
So, stop feeling so much anger and hatred toward yourself. It’s not useful.
Instead, choose self-compassion. Once you are able to feel compassion for yourself, your resistance to change will lessen because in your heart you will know you deserve a better life.
People do change, but it’s never easy. Some things, however, will make change easier.
- Regularly remind yourself that change is hard. This will prepare you for the resistance you will inevitably feel.
- Let go of the things you can’t control. Your past and present circumstances arose out of a set of conditions you did not have complete control over. Understanding why you made the decisions you did can help you stop fantasizing about a past or present that doesn’t exist.
- Develop self-compassion. I can’t overstate the importance of this. If you are on your own side, it makes change a thousand times easier. Stop beating yourself up for failure. That strategy doesn’t work.
Give these points a try. I truly believe they will help you make the changes you’ve been looking for.