So you've fallen in that hole again?
'6 things you need to start doing to be successful!'
'5 easy ways to break that bad habit!.'
'Do these 5 things everyday and your life will be great!'
Sometimes written with a slight sense of superiority, articles like this and their click-bait style headings suggest that changing your life is a simple, drama-free, process of simply following '5 easy steps!.'
For a while I definitely bought into it, but after one too many moments of coming up wildly short, (and realising I am not - and never will be - someone who can hit the gym at 6am!), I came to realise its really not. Making real, lasting, sustainable changes to your life; whether its breaking a bad habit, or taking up a new one - is much less an experience of smoothly moving from A-B - and more like a game of snake and ladders; only you're blindfolded, there's music blaring and you've lost the ability to know which way is up.
Anyway, a friend of mine recently entered the world of therapy. Repeatedly finding herself in the same destructive relationship patterns over and over again, she decided it was time to find out why. One evening I received a rather distressed voice-note; she was becoming frustrated with herself over the current trajectory of a new relationship; 'But I know why I'm always in these relationships now... so why am I finding myself in one again??!!' Am I just doomed?!'
Therapy often creates a new awareness of ourselves - which is great, but this also comes with a new (and sometimes distressing) understanding of the role we may have played in perpetuating certain destructive patterns and relationships. The bit that often surprises us is how hard it can be to change those patterns - it can feel a bit like someone took the blindfold off but then decided to tie our hands behind our backs instead. Our logical brains proceed to start beating us up; 'but if you know this is bad - why are you doing it again you moron?!' and we flounder about confused and enraged at ourselves rather than remembering that we are just a silly human after all - and logic never really prevails anyway.
Alas, this appeared to be the current plight of my dear friend. Surely now she was so aware of her bad choices, making healthier ones would be inevitable? Right?
Hmm well, not necessarily.
Maybe you can relate to such a frustration. The thing we so often forget is that changing long-held habits is rarely a neat and tidy trip of 'I wanted to change, so I learnt some new stuff...then I woke up one day...and I just changed.'
Its a little (ok, a lot) more nuanced than that and the reality often involves a lot more too-ing and fro-ing, tantrums, fear, worry, backtracking, hopelessness - and above all - time. We need time to change for the long-term.
Anyway, my friends' distress reminded me of this brilliant metaphor someone once shared with me about understanding the wobbly road of breaking up with bad habits and moving on. It's a great way of reminding yourself of what that process is actually like, not how logic fools us into thinking it should be.
So you're in that hole again?
Imagine your destructive pattern is the metaphorical equivalent of repeatedly finding yourself in a great big black hole in the middle of a road. Like a sink hole; you can see the sky, you can vaguely see other people walking past - and it may not even be that deep but for some reason you've fallen in.
You don't really know how you got there - you just know other people seemed to walk right past it, but you somehow fell in. Again.
Maybe you smoked a cigarette after giving up for two weeks, or you let someone to walk all over your at work when you swore you'd never let them. Maybe you missed another deadline, overspent your way into your overdraft, ate 5 muffins in front of Netflix instead of going to the gym (again), and forgot to put the bin out for the 3rd week running. Or maybe you're battling something serious like alcoholism or an addiction, either way you'll fallen in that hole.
But at least this time you know you're in that hole. So this time you sit there for a while, maybe look around at the walls, stare at the sky for a bit. Eventually the motivation comes back, you pull yourself out and things are ok...at least for a little while anyway.
Then one day, you're going along the metaphorical road again. You can see the hole ahead and you don't know how it suddenly happens but you look around and you're in it again.
Again!!! 'How am I here again? We promise we'd stop doing this! What an idiot..' .
And our internal chatter berates us again.
Next time you're walking down the same road, you see the hole and you carry on approaching.
Walking around it several times, you look into it, maybe even dangling a foot or sitting on the edge. Then you fall in again - but this time you're angry because you almost didn't, you almost went past it and skipped off along the road. So fuelled by frustration and annoyance, you scramble back out quicker than the last time and it sort feels like a victory. It feels like one because it is. Even it was small, you made progress by taking just a little bit longer to fall in this time.
The next opportunity comes. We stop, we can see it up ahead. We desperately want to go and have a look - but do we really?
"Is this really what you want?" - you ask yourself.
So we walk up to it, briefly peer in - and then suddenly go straight around it without looking back.
We beat the hole.! We beat the hole!... that is until the next time.
We see it, walking straight up to it - and to our own surprise falling right in. Really?? WTF??? How is this happening? Had we not dealt with this!? The anger, frustration and sadness is enough to make us sit there far longer than we want to and everything feels just hopeless.
A few days/weeks or months pass and we're walking along the road again, lost in distraction thinking about what we might have for dinner or if we made sense in that email we just sent. Suddenly its up ahead. There it is. That bloody hole.
But this time is different. This time will be different.
This time, we stop, we look around, we collect ourselves - and decide to walk down a completely different road.
We can't say we'll never fall in the hole again, but we may on some level, have finally learnt how best to protect ourselves from a habit, mindset or pattern, that once caused us harm.
This is the real trajectory of change. Its not a simple checklist. There are no quick fixes, short cuts or magic formulas; human nature is simply not linear and there is often a confusing space between the moment we recognise what we need to change - and actually being able to change it. I like to call this the 'change gap'.
Patterns are difficult to break and the emotional wounds that often perpetuate those patterns need time to heal.
This healing time is what happens in the change gap, and its simply the part where you're going to fall in that hole time and time again before you choose to take another road.
I recognised straight away what my friend was going through because I myself had met with similar frustrations in the past; As liberating as it was to suddenly have all this knowledge of how I'd been standing in my own was, I had to learn that the next part of the story was the process of actually making those changes in real life.
The internet gives a lot of great advice (like this), but it also spews a lot of glossy, edited narratives around the lives of those we read about, omitting bits that don't 'fit' or won't make immediate sense to the audience. Unfortunately, those bits are often the most human bits and if we relied entirely on social media, films, TV, advertising and internet to inform us of the human experience - we could all end up feeling very broken and weird indeed!
Struggling to change something even when you can see how much is needs to change is normal. Falling in the hole throughout the change gap is normal. Comparing your slow progress with the perceived ease of another' victory is also normal too. So with this in mind, next time you start beating yourself up because you feel like you've taken 3 steps forward and 5 steps back - give yourself a bit of compassion and start digging out of that hole again.