How our thoughts prevent us from taking action
I was recently working with a client who was struggling with tackling the items on her to-do list.
She kept getting distracted and coming up with excuses. This woman is a go-getter: a full-time working single-mom of two kids who is also back in school to pursue new degree and passion. She knows what she wants and where she wants to go and her to-do list reflects that drive. Despite this, she still found herself procrastinating the very detailed plan-of-action she had laid out for herself.
My guess is you know this feeling. As a working parent, my to-do list is often long and unfinished. And like my client, I end up feeling worse when I procrastinate, or as she said “like the past weeks have been one gigantic waste of time.”
We talked about what was preventing her from following through on her to-do list. And it became clear that it was a deeply held thought - a core, underlying belief - that was holding her back. It wasn’t a lack of organization or good intentions.
Her unconscious thought veered towards perfectionism: “I should be able to do all of the things on my list in the manner and order that I have laid out for myself.” This belief and thought pattern was so tightly held that it kept stalling her in her own tracks. If she couldn’t complete a task “perfectly” she couldn’t see a way forward to completing it at all.
This is an important reminder to consider the thoughts behind your actions (or inactions). When I became a new mom and subsequently when I went back to work, I had a host of expectations for how things “should” be. For example:
- My son should be sleeping through the night by 4 months old.
- I should be able to pick up where I left off at my job.
- We should be cooking dinner instead of ordering out.
Some of these may seem innocuous on the surface. But each informed not only how I planned my days, but more importantly, how I reacted to things. When my son kept waking up at 5 months old, I felt stressed. When I struggled to find my footing back at work, I was upset. I’m not saying any of these are invalid. But what I came to realize is that my underlying thoughts were what was driving my emotional reactions to the things in my life.
So if you, like me and my client, are finding resistance in an area of your life, examine what the underlying thought underneath it is, and then choose whether or not you want to believe it. One simple way of doing this is by asking yourself The Four Questions, designed by Byron Katie. It’s a simple process of inquiry that helps you question the thoughts that are causing you suffering.
For this example, we’ll use the following statement, and then break it down via the 4 questions below:
Statement: My son should be sleeping through the night by 4 months old.
Is it true? Is it true that my son should be sleeping through the night at this age? I might initially answer “Yes” because I have read countless books and blogs that tell me this is the case.
Can you absolutely know that it’s true? This forces me to dive deeper. No, I can’t know that this is absolutely true Why? Because I know all babies are different. I know that many babies don’t sleep through the night at this age. I know this from what my pediatrician has said and what my own friends have gone through.
How do you react, what happens, when you believe that thought? When I believe that my son should be sleeping through the night, I feel totally stressed out that he is not. I feel like I’m failing as a mom and not doing a good enough job by getting him to sleep.
Who would you be without the thought? I would be a way less stressed out mom! I wouldn’t feel bad that he wasn’t sleeping through the night yet. I’d be able to give myself a break and know that we will find our way to longer sleep eventually. I wouldn’t feel like his sleep patterns are a reflection of my parenting abilities.
By examining the thought behind my stressed out mom emotions, I am able to see the thought more clearly and what it’s like if I choose to believe the thought, or if I choose to release it. In this instance, I chose to release the thought, which immediately lifted the burden I had been putting on myself about my son’s sleeping patterns. (Side note: he did eventually sleep through the night once we got him out of our room when we moved to a larger apartment, closer to 12 months old! I’m glad I stopped stressing about his sleep when I did...).
And my client? It was a shock to her to realize she had been holding herself to such a high-standard of perfectionism and that in fact, that was what was preventing her from taking action. She audibly exhaled when this came to light. And when I asked her what she wanted to do about it, she immediately responded “I want to lighten up.” And I could hear the truth of it in her voice.
So, where are you experiencing resistance and what are the thoughts behind it? I’m curious to know.