On Creating Positive Habits (What’s Pain Got To Do With It?)
Here’s the thing about creating positive habits. As with pretty much everything else that counts, if you don’t get connected to why, very specifically, you want to change or create a certain habit, you’ll end up looking at lists of steps and recs that you either will or will not follow, based on any number of contributing factors. Those that land for you will do so out of coincidence, which is fine, but it’s certainly not the most efficient strategic plan in town.
The real damage though comes every time those prescriptions and directives DON’T land, every time you DON’T follow whatever conventional “wisdom” and expert-given guidance is pointed your way. Because when you’re trying to make change and you find yourself not following what you’ve been told works, it’s dishearteningly likely that you will start to feel bad about it, like you’re doing or being something wrong.
It’s pretty well accepted and widely exploited in common marketing practices that we are more motivated to purchase by the degree of pain we experience in a given area than anything else, that we are driven to relieve pain far more than we are to extend joy, for example. I rail against this belief, though the data around purchase patterns generally seems to show me squarely to be wrong. And I find it worthwhile to consider how this jives with the way we get motivated to create habits.
More often than not, most of us do have to feel bad before we really take action to get better. And not just a little bit bad. We habitually wait until we feel REALLY bad, until we’re DEEPLY ENGULFED by the pain and have been so for far too long to be able to take it anymore. Successive and incrementally-stronger medical warnings until some big “wake up” call drives us to improve our lifestyle. A million different versions of the same conversation until we snap. Revolving hills and valleys that we feel powerless to escape until Life or the consequences of our inaction steer us somewhere else.
It’s only then, when we’re at our rope’s end, that we finally turn our self-care “shoulds” and “know betters” into “dones” and “do betters.” Before we follow through on the things we’ve known forever we need to do for ourselves. (Ironically, we tend to crumble at the weight of what we feel we should do for others well before we allow ourselves to stand strong for what we KNOW we should do for ourselves in service of our own well-being.)
And when our action is motivated from this place of pain, as it so often is, what happens? Think back on some of your own experiences. I’m sure there were times that the result was a rousing success that inspired you and those around you. And I bet some of those results probably stuck. Others might have lasted for a while, for some ultimately finite duration of time until something got in the way or you just slowly lost grip of the thread. It’s highly likely, again, that many more of your experiences were strained, burdensome, riddled with slip ups and setbacks, and marked more by the specter of what you didn’t achieve than by the glory of what you did.
Which makes sense. Because by the time most of us actually do act from our pain points, we are usually so enmeshed in that pain that the journey out of it can’t help but be sticky and tangled, super slow, with plenty more pain along the way.
So yeah, maybe some of us HAVE been motivated by that feeling of doing or being something wrong or somehow lesser, because we wanted to STOP feeling that way SO MUCH that we reached for and kept reaching until we found some secret source of fortitude to force ourselves to do that thing that doesn’t really suit us but everyone says will get the results we want to get. This is an exceedingly common way of going about change, and it absolutely guts me.
Because even when that tack does motivate, it does so at the cost of our self-worth. It totally undercuts our self-trust, self-love and self-care in fundamental, deeply-reaching ways. We sacrifice our self-trust by giving away our own powerful knowingness to everyone who’s telling us the “right” thing to do. We abuse our self-love by selling ourselves out as we agree that we belong in the less-than camp, a position that perpetuates the need for experts and binary structures in the first place. And we systematize the devaluation of our own self-care when we willingly engage in this endless cycle of trying, failing and beating ourselves up over it until we’re so distraught and disappointed that we start all over again.
How can we say this system works when, even if it does, it’s at such a loathsome price?
I’ve got a recently-brewed theory about what actually may be motivating us here instead of pain (and by recently, I mean about 13 seconds before I first typed the sentence. But I’ve been toying with the topic for a long time, so it feels much more formed than that.)
What if it’s not the experience of pain that is the activator, but the proof represented in its existence that allows as to dare act as if we deserve better?
What if we don’t actually need to be in deep pain at all before we’re motivated to act, but we’ve been conditioned to use that pain as a permission slip that tells the world and all our critics (inner and outer) that it’s okay for us to do this thing for ourselves, because we’ve suffered SO MUCH. In that case, our pain allows us to act on our own behalves. Our suffering becomes the currency with which we purchase the audacity to look out for ourselves, the evidence by which we justify the expense in money, time, and attention now diverted from someone or something else to little ol’ insignificant and unworthy us.
If all this is true (and it sure does feel true to me), then changing the way we feel about ourselves, fostering greater self-trust, self-love, and self-care, becomes a revolutionary act that will lead to far-reaching changes in every aspect of our lives and more transformational results than any pain-motivated attempt at something better.
So the next time you tell yourself that your self-care can wait, the next time you feel like there’s something wrong with you for every strategy or tip that doesn’t bring you success, the next time you find yourself justifying something good you’re doing for yourself with some evidence of having earned it with your pain, sacrifice or struggle… Please stop. Just pause. And tell yourself a new story, where your wisdom is honored and your self-care holy.
This is Installment 4 in a writing experiment I’ve been doing, where I asked friends and followers on social media to let me know what they wanted to see me write about. Thanks for this one go to my friend Alicia: “Practices to create positive habits – rebuilding stronger self.”
I’m a big believer in multi-pronged approaches, and while I believe that the deeper macro questions raised in the piece are vital to successful habit creation, I also believe that we’ve got to marry that to great micro strategies and a spirit of experimentation in discovering what works. In service to that, I’m linking to a couple of posts I’ve made that include some more thoughts on the topic along with actionable options. I would LOVE to hear what hit or missed with you, and what you’ve found most helpful in creating positive habits!
Well, that’s all for now. Can’t wait to hear from you!