The awkwardness principle: why change rarely feels right

I keep coming back to a line in the excellent book Already Free, by the psychotherapist Bruce Tift: “The practices that carry the greatest potential for transformative change are usually counter-instinctual.” I take him to mean that if you’re trying to get better at life in some way – more patient, or better at listening, or less prone to procrastination or anxiety or self-sabotage – the necessary actions are pretty much guaranteed not to feel especially good. They’re more likely to feel scary, or at least awkward, like wearing an ill-fitting shirt, or writing with your non-dominant hand. While learning to be patient, you should expect to feel restless. As you embark on a long-postponed creative project, you should expect to feel unready. One way or another, change will feel crappy.

 

This shouldn’t really come as a surprise. After all, you’re attempting in some way to be different than you are. (That’s true, by the way, even if your goal is to become more accepting of how things are.) Yet your entire personality, up to this moment, has been one long exercise in getting good at being who you currently are. So of course you’ll feel ungainly and self-conscious when you try to do otherwise. If it feels disagreeable to learn to meditate, or time-block your day, or learn to finish what you start, that’s a good indication that you probably should.

 

The explanation for all this, from the viewpoint of old-school psychoanalysis, runs as follows: due to the normal incompetence of almost all parents, most of us grow up with the deep-seated belief that there are certain feelings we can’t allow ourselves to feel. Maybe you were raised with the message that you shouldn’t depend too much on others, or that you shouldn’t stand out from the crowd, or that you should stand out from the crowd, or that you should always have a clear plan for the future, or that people are out to take advantage of you. (Among my hang-ups, I’ve learned, is the belief that I need to put massive amounts of effort into work and life, to justify my existence – so I do so, then end up resenting it, and going on strike.)

 

For a small child, falling in with these family patterns feels like a matter of survival. So by the time you’re an adult, you’re deeply convinced that easing up on them – that is, by allowing yourself to depend on others, or stand out, or operate without a clear plan, etcetera – would be to invite disaster. No wonder the prospect seems utterly terrifying.

 

The changes you want probably aren't those you need

The flipside of this is that if some new habit or practice strikes you as hugely exciting, there’s a good chance it’s the opposite of what you need – that it’s helping you shore up your defenses, rather than challenging them. For instance, I’ve learned to be skeptical about how thrilled I get by any new book or system for scheduling my work day, so as to achieve untold heights of productivity. That heady feeling isn’t a good thing. It's a warning sign! By contrast, the productivity technique I’m currently finding most genuinely useful – aiming for lower volumes of daily output, but more consistently, rather than working in binges – has felt uncomfortable, because refraining from cramming as much in as I possibly can makes me feel anxious.

 

(An aside: I’m talking here about acting against your instincts, but I don’t think instincts are the same as your intuitions. If you get the sense that, say, walking down a particular alley at night might be hazardous, or that someone you’re dating is bad news, what you’re experiencing is an intuition – a subconscious alerting system that developed over hundreds of thousands of years of evolution, and is probably worth heeding.)

 

And of course the big revelation is that pushing through your resistance and experiencing the emotions you’ve been avoiding virtually never feels “utterly terrifying” at all. (There are exceptions, especially if you experienced serious trauma as a child.) It just feels mildly uncomfortable. You realize that you’d been putting off a project you really care about, or failing to commit fully to a relationship, or holding back from speaking your mind, all to avoid a feeling that you imagined might kill you – but that turns out to be roughly equivalent to sitting on a badly designed chair, or forgetting your umbrella in a rainstorm, or eating an overripe banana. In other words: a little yucky, perhaps. But totally fine really. Nothing you can’t handle.

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