Doing vs. Being : The Hidden World of Our Behaviour
Updated: Nov 19, 2020
[WARNING: The reason that you can't pay attention long enough to read this whole article is the reason you need to. Ain't that always how it goes?] ..
It took me about 5 years to write this article.
No, not this one specifically, about this particular topic. No, it actually took me 5 years of thinking about, talking about, planning and pontificating about, and dreaming about being a writer and having my own website where I would build a library of my best free material.
See, I knew what I had to do -
Sit down, pay attention long enough to write, proofread twice, post it up, and share it with my family and friends on social media. They would love it, be inspired and transformed by my brilliant assemblage of prose, share it with all their friends, and before you knew it, everyone would be reading my little blog and the world would be a better place because of it.
Easy enough, right?
But I didn't do that. I hummed and hawed, procrastinated, and put off ever writing anything substantial enough to publish. A note folder on my phone accumulated hundreds of half-scrawled outlines of article ideas, my e-mail inbox filled with nearly a dozen receipts for registered domains of dot coms that I was going to use for my non-existent website.
I even got so far as starting a few blogs and posted exactly one article on each, followed by never opening them again.
See, I knew I wanted to have articles written (and even a whole book eventually),
I knew that I had to write to do that,
I knew that I could write, and was even good at writing, and I just had to sit down and do it.
But I didn't. I couldn't. For whatever reason, I never got around to doing the thing that I had to do, and even if I did get around to doing it once or twice... I only did it once or twice.
This might sound like a familiar struggle - I've heard it echoed from many others. Friends and clients losing the same 30 lbs over and over again, dieting repeatedly only to regain all their weight shortly after. Someone comes into a sudden windfall of money from a cool business offering, only to have no money - and no business - a few months later. Personal development seminar attendees come out of an event they attended full of focus and motivation, only to experience the same bored, distracted rut that they were in shortly thereafter.
Other times we'll read book after book, watch hours of instructional videos, take personal development seminars, and still not do anything with our tomes of knowledge. We spend an eternity looking at the map without ever stepping out onto the path. Or perhaps even more bizarre, take every step on the path all the way to the destination, only to immediately take an express shuttle back to where we started when we get there.
There's no one single answer to explain why this happens. I'm currently running a coaching group centred around behavioural change and taking control of one's own habits. In the call that we were on recently, we explored a few different layers of what throws a person off from ever taking action (or from falling back to the exact same old patterns again if they do take action).
Layer 1: Lack of Awareness of Physiological Factors that Affect Behaviour/Habits
What do you think of when I ask you who you are?
Maybe you identify with your occupation, you have a craft that you've become accustomed to associating yourself with, perhaps you have values or character traits that you hold as an absolute standard for your personal conduct. Maybe you are personally defined by your relationships, and call yourself a mother/father, or maybe you have a more abstract spiritual affiliation and identify with a divine principle.
What is less likely is that you'll consider yourself an amalgamation of biochemical processes, a cocktail of neurotransmitters and electrical currents generating thoughts and sensations, and subsequently animating a body through the intricately wired nervous system running through it.
While far from being a biological determinist (the idea that biochemical reactions in the brain create the illusion of free will and consciousness, and that we're actually destined to live our lives based on the playing out of the laws of chemistry), I do believe that we have to understand how our personal chemistry impacts the quality of our consciousness, or experience of motivation and energy, and to respect that it's always at play when we are trying to make changes in our lives.
Have you ever had a friend (or have you ever been the person) who has said
"I really wasn't behaving myself when I was drunk"?
The hidden insinuation is that a change in physiology, or brain chemistry could somehow act as a gatekeeper to expressing our authentic selves. If you can act less yourself when you're drunk (or more yourself - some people say that a drunk person's words are a sober person's thoughts), could you entertain the possibility that other things affecting your biochemistry might affect how effectively you conduct yourself?
The Neurophysiology of Unconscious Behaviour
(Disclaimer: I'm not a neuroscientist - duh - and this is a wildly simplified layman's explanation of brain anatomy and function for the purpose of illustration)
Consciousness and Voluntary Action Controllers
Human beings have a unique capacity for complex thought, self awareness, and that mysterious umbrella concept called 'consciousness'. That distinctive dimension of cognition is thanks to a 1.5-5 mm outer layering of our brain called the cerebral cortex (that I endearingly refer to as Cici).
You can thank ol' Cici for running operations on voluntary behaviour, your ability to decipher complex systems of symbols like language, comprehend nuance and make associations to the extent that you have a sense of humour (if you're lucky), and string memories together to form original thought.
Your prefrontal cortex, the front quarter of the cerebral cortex, is exclusively responsible for your experience of making a decision. It's your will-power centre, the "impulse control" mechanism, and the part of your brain that is capable of planning for the future and predicting outcomes for behaviours.
The part of you that you consider "you" - the sense of personality and individuality - is operated and run by this little layer of grey matter wrapping around the rest of your brain. But of course, there's so much more to "you" than just your conscious mind. There's a lot more happening under the hood.
The Habit Centre
The human brain is the most energy-intensive organ in the body - at only 2% of the body's total weight, it accounts for 20% of the body's energy expenditure. The grey matter that makes up the cerebral cortex is, in particular, the most costly, energy-wise.
Since humans, like all animals, are a species that evolved to be adaptive, energy-efficient, and conservative of calories for the sake of survival, the brain does some pretty cool things to save on juice.
There's a part of our brain called the basal ganglia, a primitive part of our brain's early evolution close to the core. It's responsible for the fight-or-flight response, involuntary behaviours such as breathing and digestion, and inevitably - our habits.
The more that we repeat a behaviour (consciously), the more our brain learns to "chunk" those behaviours down and move them from the conscious part of our brain (cerebral cortex) to the unconscious, automatic part (basal ganglia).
This becomes extremely energy efficient, because when you're performing the routines of a particular habit, the energy intensive parts of your brain responsible for conscious, deliberate behaviours literally shut down completely. While useful for energy efficiency, a little scary when thinking about how much of our behaviours are actually just running on autopilot.
This is an incredibly useful mechanism (could you imagine having to think about taking every breath and running every other automatic bodily function?) - it prevents cognitive overload, and lets us run many biological processes at one. But can easily go haywire when you're automatically running behaviours that really sabotage you, like smoking that third joint, or checking your phone for the umpteen billionth time that day instead of focusing on work or relationships.
You can use the prefrontal cortex to mentally override your compulsive behaviours (like the 6th cookie you want to eat, or immediately opening Instagram the second that you closed the app), but will power isn't an infinite resource that you can call on indefinitely.
In the same way that your muscles get tired and can't contract anymore, your will power and capacity to make good decision can exhaust itself and give in. When it wants to rest, it reverts back to more energy-efficient parts of your brain - IE, your basal ganglia, and whatever habits you've programmed up to this point.
So what determines what behaviours become automatic?
The brain is an incredibly nuanced and intricate electro-chemical machine (and I again reiterate that my own explanations here are incredibly simplified single-pointed versions of otherwise vastly complex mechanisms).
I first read about the concept of a 'habit loop' in Charles Duhigg's book, The Power of Habit:
An external cue will creates a craving, initiates a response through a routine behaviour, and we get a predictable reward as a result.
For example, you could hear your alarm go off at 6 am (cue), you'd get up and immediately go pee, then head to the kitchen to start making yourself coffee (routine response), then melt into satisfaction as your kitchen fills with the smell of Columbia's finest, and you get that boost of caffeine as the black gold works its way across the blood-brain barrier (reward).
What was fascinating to me was no matter what the reward happened to be, there was a similar neurotransmitter response that occurred when you completed this loop.
There is a neurotransmitter called dopamine that I'm sure you've heard of by now if you spent any amount of time on the internet or high school science class. It's a neurotransmitter that is part of your reward circuitry, and is responsible for making you feel motivated to do something - when you're low on dopamine, your brain will cue you to start seeking things out to boost them.
As human beings evolved, dopamine was a signalled strongest as a reward to make things that were beneficial to our survival more satisfying. Specifically, sexual reproduction (propagation of the species), calorically dense food (survival during famine), and social status (protection from the tribe, increasing likelihood of survival).
All of these things were historically hard-earned - you had to hunt for your food, contribute to and earn the trust of your tribe for social status, and display fitness for reproduction to a potential mate. It was rough out there, but when you got it, BOOM, big hit of dopamine that told our primitive human selves "good job, you did the thing! Go do more of it".
Over time, we learn that certain behaviours result in positive results, and we started to chunk those behaviours and do them more automatically to get more dopamine.
Today's society has basically taken all of the things that we evolved to be chemically motivated to seek out, and made processed, concentrated, pre-packaged, express-delivered versions of them for instant gratification without any of the arduous challenges that we used to experience to earn the rewards.
Why go through the tumultuous process of courting someone to attract a mate when you can get instant sexual gratification from porn?
Why go through the trials and tribulations of personal development and community contribution to earn respect from your peers when you can instantly get a sense of social approval by posting a relatable meme that gets a lot of likes on social media?
Why go through the process of cooking a great tasting nutritious meal when you have pre-packaged, hyperpalatable processed foods that light up your reward centres like a tacky Christmas tree?
Why do any hard thing at all that delays our gratification when we can smoke pot and flood our brain with dopamine instantly?
Dopamine is as easily accessible as water is to us by turning on the tap - we can get it in concentrated doses without really much of any effort at all. While this might seem great at first, there's a problem - chronic exposure to dopamine desensitizes our neuroreceptors to it, we end up needing more and more instant hits of it, and we become chemically resistant to delayed gratification.
Think about a bodybuilder who is exogenously injecting testosterone as a steroid:
if he overdoes it, his once hearty pair of eggs that were swinging between his legs shrink into itty bitty nearly non-existent raisins, leaving him with a sad sack that looks like Santa's on boxing day: fully empty. Because he's getting an external source of testosterone from the steroids he's taking, his testicles no longer need to produce the hormone on their own, so feeling irrelevant, they shrink away into pea-sized obscurity.
In similar fashion, if we exogenously get these big hits of dopamine all the time from instant gratification sources, we stop producing an internal motivation to do much of anything.
The more sugary processed foods we eat, the less we seem to enjoy the taste of fresh, nutritious produce.
The more we get our hits of social gratification on social media, the less inclined we feel to go out and get involved in our community, because we've built a bubble of instant validation from our online sources, trading in the obscure currency of likes and comments with each other.
The more that we swipe on Tinder or jerk off to weirder and weirder porn, the less we want to deal with patiently navigating the personal challenges that come with building real relationships with people. Some men even develop erectile dysfunction and can't get it up when they're having actual sex with actual human beings because they've desensitized themselves so much with the hyper-stimulating and instantly accessible variety of pornography.
Dopamine desensitization is a real thing, and I believe is the root neurochemical phenomenon behind most addictive behaviours. The more we habituate to instant gratification, the more willpower it takes to mentally override it - and because it takes so much dopamine to feel satisfied now, delaying gratification gets harder and harder for us to do.
When talking about good habits versus bad habits, we can think of it this way:
A "good habit" is where the discomfort is immediate and the gratification is delayed.
A "bad habit" is where the gratification is immediate, but the discomfort is delayed.
We don't get a six pack from going to the gym once and eating one healthy meal - but we feel the pain of pushing through our physical limitations and turning down our favourite junk food immediately.
Conversely, we don't get fat and sick from eating a chocolate bar and opting for Netflix instead of our workout just once. But if we repeatedly go for the instant gratification and comfort instead of the challenge and discomfort of hard work, then over time, the consequences of those choices will build up to bite us in the ass.
The main points to take away from layer 1:
- In order to be more energy efficient, your brain runs a lot of its behaviours unconsciously and automatically, based on pre-programmed habit.
- Your willpower has a limited reserve of energy, and once it runs out, you will fall back to automatic, unconscious behaviour patterns run by your basal ganglia
- You can become desensitized to dopamine, the central neurotransmitter in your reward pathway which is responsible for motivating you to do things. The more desensitized to dopamine you become, the more inclined towards instant gratification you are.
- A "bad habit" is something that gives you instant gratification, but has delayed negative consequences. A "good habit" is the opposite - the gratification is delayed, but the discomfort is often immediate.
Okay, so... what do I do with this information?
There are a few things you can do - some are strategic and action-based, and others are invitations to shift your perspective and fundamental beliefs. I'll start with the actionable/pragmatic side of things -
the following are strategies that I've adapted from James Clear's book, Atomic Habits, which I highly recommend as an all-around interesting read and great deep-dive on these ideas.
Control your environment to preserve your will-power.
If your external environment is full of cues for you to engage in compulsive, instant gratification behaviours that are not conducive to your goals, then change the cues in your environment. An alcoholic won't go hang out at a bar and not drink. Someone trying to lose weight wouldn't hang out at a bakery or their favourite donut shop. If you can become aware of your cue-response-reward cycle for behaviours that are taking up all the time you'd rather be using for working towards your goals, then you can work on making the environment you spend the most time in more conducive to your success.
Make the "bad stuff" harder to access My biggest vice for bad habits is compulsive smartphone use. While writing this article, I probably checked it 12 times in the first three paragraphs alone. I had to put it in the other room, hidden underneath a bunch of books, with my door closed, so that if I got the urge to check it (and it is an urge, like an otherworldly magnetic force that takes over all my better senses), then I would have to walk away from my work desk, go all the way to my room, open the door, walk to my far shelf, carefully remove the books I put on it, and then unlock my phone and see that I still don't have any pressing emergency notifications that require my immediate attention. When it comes to weight loss, I've done things like keep only foods that I have to cook and prepare in the house so that the gratification is always delayed, and there are a few steps between me and my tendency to overeat. Don't confuse this with being a control freak. This is recognizing that you have psychological tendencies based on your human biology, and you're working with and around them. You're preserving your limited amounts of will-power for important tasks like focusing on your passions by eliminating distractions and cues that would otherwise send you into a dopamine-frenzied indulgence in instant gratification. As an overweight, video-game obsessed teenager, I used to be confused about how anyone could actually enjoy going to the gym - years later the highlight of my day is often the burning feeling I get in my lungs and the sting of lactic acid burning through my muscles as I grind through a Crossfit workout with my training partners. I'm gaining XP and levelling up in real life instead of the games that I used to play, and I can't get enough of it. By managing your environment you're deliberately limiting your exposure to things that would desensitize your reward pathways, simultaneously cultivating your capacity (and appreciation) for delayed gratification and hard work.
Make the "good stuff" easier to access The obvious opposite to the first point is to make the good habits that you're trying to replace your old behaviours with as easy as possible. I have my desk and laptop set up to do my two hours of writing first thing in the morning - the writing project is already open when I wake up, I have no other tabs open, no other visible apps tempting me with their shiny buttons. Next to my computer is a coffee cup which I will fill with coffee after I've completed the other parts of my morning routine (a satisfying reward that gives starting my work a taste of instant gratification and gets me going). From there, distraction-free and just me and my laptop, I take the next logical step, which is: write, write, write, and don't stop until those two hours are done. You have to understand that I have been diagnosed with ADHD and used to not be able to so much as read a few sentences in a book before getting derailed and distracted. Two hours of undisturbed work feels like a superhuman feat for me and my "natural tendencies" - but because I've identified all the external cues and distractions that derail me, I've been able to set up my environment in a way that I've been able to cultivate and build up to that level focus. That same weight loss aspirant avoiding the donut shop might pre-plan and buy a week's worth of food to meal prep in a single shot, making the right dietary choices throughout the week becomes a no-brainer. It won't require will-power depletion (because the decisions were already made in advance), and everything is right there ready to go. A little bit of planning in advance to make the right choice set up in advance can make behaviour change easy, obvious, and will-power free.
Go on a dopamine detox
This is an extreme version of controlling your environment. It requires a total elimination of all instant-gratification vices that you are currently exposed to and that have short-circuited your reward pathways. You ditch your phone, eat deliberately bland/plain unprocessed foods, drink nothing but water, shut off the TV/laptop completely, keep your hands off your genitals, and basically remove anything fun for your life for a few days.
This sucks, but it sucks on purpose. If your baseline is an wildly stimulated, over-saturation of dopamine that has you chemically resistant to delayed gratification, then taking all of that away is going to make you beg to do something - anything - that will give you that experience of accomplishment.
Here are some things you can expect to experience if you choose to go this route:
Firstly, you're going to bored. Like, really, really bored. If you're used to always peeping at your phone and scrolling through memes, binge watch endless seasons of Netflix originals, always have snacks on hand, jerk off a few too many times per day, or otherwise have your own version of easy access to that sweet, sweet hit of dopamine, you're not going to know what the hell to do with yourself when you take it away. You're going to be exposed to something you might not remember: empty space and time.
Dopamine detox extremists will ditch books, creative activities like drawing, and anything else that might otherwise entertain or occupy your attention. The only thing that is allowed by the most hardcore detoxers is a journal and something to write with, because when you don't have any distractions, you get to be confronted by all the things you've been distracting yourself from.
Any uncomfortable emotions or situations that you've been avoiding in your life will bubble up when you aren't hiding behind the veil of never-ending entertainment. You'll be face-to-face with sometimes years of suppressed shit that you've been subconsciously hiding away and managing with whatever coping mechanism or comforts you've become accustomed to.
You might be hit with the realization that you're deeply unhappy with your life - or the even less comfortable realization that it's your own damn fault. That the choices you've made up to this point haven't been motivated by authentic desires, but by people-pleasing tendencies or the need for comfort and security. You might feel a wave of regret as you're suddenly aware of all the time you've frittered away with your dopamine-dependent distractions instead of cultivating your craft or pursuing a dream that you know that you have the potential to actualize.
These are all things that I went through on a 3-day dopamine detox. It sucks. It's hard. But holy shit does it ever light a fire under your ass and give you new perspective. It quickly handles the the physiologically rooted lack of motivation, and makes you re-think how you're going to reintegrate things like social media and entertainment back into your life afterwards.
It will give you a lot of perspective on how you might want to manage your environment to be more conducive to your goals and your higher desires and drives. It will be incredibly productive - but it will suck. Beyond that, it won't even guarantee lasting change, because you'll easily be able to go back to the same indulgence and compulsions that have been wired into your brain over a longer period of time. In order to make use of it and not just go through a few days of entertainment-less purgatory, you need to go back to your "normal life" with consciousness and deliberation.
Throwing in some delayed gratification activities as your first boredom cures will help ease your way into a new flow with your behaviours. You'll feel more motivated to actually work on stuff.
The benefits are tremendous if you can manage it, and not just go back to overindulgence in fast hits of dopamine immediately after you're done the exercise. But it sucks. A lot. You've been warned.
Deepening your understanding of who you are
I want to revisit the analogy of alcohol making you behave "more or less like yourself". How often have you snapped at a loved one because you didn't get enough sleep the night before? Have you ever had a hard time being empathetic or patient because you're so damn hungry? How difficult is it to be present and focused with damn near anything when you're sick or you've hurt your back, etc?
We often give ourselves a "pass" when we act out of alignment with our character when something is physiologically out of whack. We recognize that we might need more rest to be our best selves, that we have a hard time focusing because our blood sugar is low, or we're in too much physical pain to think straight. We even give ourselves a pass when we do stupid things when we're drunk or high.
It's almost as if there's an awareness of a higher version of self that reveals itself when our physiological conditions line up just right - or perhaps more accurately, our physiological conditions act as a dimmer switch that allows to act more or less in integrity with our values and character.
When it comes to our habits and willpower, however, we don't often give ourselves a pass. We don't recognize decisions and habits as physiologically affected phenomenon, and instead view lapses in resolve as a character flaw, adding an emotional and personally invested story of how we suck, we're weak, and can't ever do anything right.
If we can recognize that our will-power is limited, and that there is a predictable play of physiology involved in our behaviours, we can be more detached, take our slip-ups less personally, and allow ourselves to be more rational and objective about working with our course-correction.
If our phone-checking habit isn't about us being a shitty technology addict, and more about a dopamine desensitization problem, then we can work on that instead of beating ourselves up. If our sugar addictions doesn't become an excuse to label ourselves as fat, lazy, and will power-free, and instead is recognized as broken reward centres influencing our motivations and desires, then we can be detached and objectively deal with them appropriately.
It removes a layer of personal, emotional flagellation, and allows a rational, detached perspective of how you operate as a human being - not as a person or character.
This non-personal detachment is a great segue into another layer of this grand puzzle of personal transformation.
Layer 2: Not Addressing Identity-Level Beliefs
Embracing the Witness
Taking a step back and looking at your behaviours as neurochemical phenomenon is pretty interesting. It requires you to disidentify with your character and your behaviours, and view it from a point of meta-awareness.
On one hand, there is the compulsive, instinctual, primitive parts of you that are running on pure biology which is trying to conserve calories and seek dopaminergic rewards. On the other hand, there is the experience of your character, your values, your personhood and all the things you stand for and aspire to. They are both there, doing a dance with each other, almost playing a tug-of-war with your existence.
There's a third party joining the fray though, and that's the consciousness that is observing both of these phenomenon coexisting and battling for dominion over your life. In many eastern religions like Buddhism, you are taught to cultivate a sense of identity with this dispassionate observing consciousness, as it is the "true you". Some people call it the higher self, others call it the rational mind, the witness, or the meta self-awareness that is uniquely formed from a human brain. Whatever you want to call it, it's there, and it's incredibly useful to identify with it when trying to make behavioural change.
While the personal self might get emotional about eating a cookie when trying to diet, and tell itself a story about how it has no willpower and is a failure, the witness can take a bird's eye view and observe the physiological and psychological phenomena that led to that lapse of willpower without any judgement attached to it.
What's more is the witnessing consciousness can observe the stories and emotions that are brought up by the personal self, and help it make more sense of those as well. In this way, identifying with the witness can help you rationally manage both the unconscious physiological aspects that drive your behaviours, as well as the psychological identity-based stories that you tell about yourself that inform your behaviour.
If all this talk about a meta-awareness witnessing your behaviour and personality seems too abstract or woo-woo for you, you can try this experiment and experience it for yourself.
Put your right hand out in front of you and look at it.
Open and close your hand over and over, and don't stop until you've cycled through these perspectives:
Watch your hand open and close, and pay attention to you being the one who is deciding to open and close your hand
Watch your hand open and close, and pay attention to the fact that there are electrical impulses being sent through your nerves from your brain to contract your muscles to open and close your hand
Watch your hand open and close, and see how there's 'someone' that you call you that is able to observe your own behaviour - both the ability to make a decision, and to witness the phenomenon of opening and closing your hand as a physiological/bioelectrical process.
There's the part of you that's making the decision, and then there's the part of you that's aware that you're making the decision - THAT is the meta-awareness that I'm talking about. It's a real, experiential fact of human consciousness, and it's the cornerstone of many mindfulness practices.
Allowing yourself to identify with the dispassionate observer, the one who is aware of decisions and behaviours you're making, allows you to navigate them without the heaviness of emotional investment.
It also allows you to objectively observe your personality and self-perception in a more profound way, beneath the surface of just thoughts and actions.
I've already referenced the book Atomic Habits once, and I'll do so again; one of the paradigm shifts that James Clear illustrated so well in that book that when we set goals, we need to think about becoming the person who could achieve them, not just doing the things that will get us the result.
"The goal isn't to run a marathon; the goal is to become a runner. The goal isn't to write a book; the goal is to become a writer". He goes on to tell a story about a friend of his who lost over 100 lbs, because she asked herself "what would a healthy person do?" before she made any decision.
If you're wondering what the difference between taking action to achieve a goal, and becoming identified as the type of person who could achieve the goal is, think of it this way:
You could train to run an entire marathon, run the marathon, and then go back to sitting on the couch and eating Cheetos all day. You could write a single blog article for a website then never write a single thing again *cough cough*. You could force yourself to hide away from your friends going out drinking on the weekends, drag yourself to the gym, muscle through a diet and lose 30 lbs, only to go back to your old eating habits and sedentary lifestyle again right after.
In simplest terms, doing is not being.
If you don't have a fundamental shift in your subconscious beliefs or identity, then you will still be the same person even after taking all that action that you took towards your goals. Tony Robbins has a great quote about this when he says "if you're counting the days since you had your last cigarette, you're still a smoker".
If you are planning on eating an entire pizza to relieve yourself from the pain of dieting after you hit your weight loss goal, you haven't changed at the level of your identity. If you're planning on getting piss-drunk on November 1st after enduring the entirety of Sober October, then you still don't have an identity-level integration of health and sobriety as a value.
The mental shift moves away from trying to get something, and moves towards learning to become somebody.
I've experienced this countless times when in various professional roles - I'm always more fit and eat healthier when I'm active in my role as a personal trainer. I always seem to write more music when I have shows planned, or start dating someone who I met in the context of being a musician. Hell, even right now as a coach in a program that specifically centres around habit psychology, my habits, routines, and capacity to focus on my goals has been amplified exponentially, because I'm bought into the materials that I'm teaching.
The more invested in a role or identity I play, the more I seem to embody the traits and behaviours of those roles, but more importantly, I believe in the values and virtues of those roles, and thus will continue my behaviours in accordance with that.
There's no end-point that I'm trying to get to (even if I have "goals within roles") - it is simply becomes the person I am.
Success coach and consciousness researcher, Frederick Dodson has an interesting analogy for the mind, subconscious, and consciousness:
The conscious mind is likened to the surface of the ocean,
The subconscious mind to the ocean itself,
And consciousness the unmoving floor of the ocean itself.
Thoughts of the conscious mind, and actions motivated by thereof are operating on surface level, and will do very little to change the flow of the tides - you might make a few ripples.
Working on the level of subconscious beliefs/unconscious neurochemistry is going to be more effective, because you are moving the depths of the ocean itself, and that will start to make some waves.
Operate at the level of consciousness itself (which for the purposes of this analogy, we'll call the meta-awareness/witness that we've been exploring), and you shake the foundation, the very container of the ocean - and when you rock the foundations, you cause a tsunami that might wipe out everything that you thought you knew about yourself.
Layer 3: Fear of Loss of the Old Reality
Comfort comes in many forms. Yes, we talked about dopamine desensitization and how it can acclimatize you to a level of distraction from less pleasant realities. But how about the comfort of who we think we are? The stories and justifications we have for our circumstances, the little passes that we give ourselves for not living up to a higher version of our potential...
Maybe we experienced a deep trauma earlier in our lives and we crafted a certain identity around it to cope and operate in the world without being overwhelmed. Maybe we're afraid to admit our unwillingness to confront the hard work of transformation and chasing our goals, and create a story about how we're happy to settle and be grateful for what we have.
In the same way that we can use entertainment, food, drugs, etc, to distract ourselves from our deeper emotional discomfort, we can use stories and justifications to protect our personalities from psychological pain.
I've avoided using the word 'ego' up until this point, because it's gotten a really bad rap. The ego is our personality construct - that version of ourselves that we experience as an individual, the story that we make up about our identity, in relationship to the world, other people, and our own values.
In mainstream conversation, however, the ego is made up to be an aspect of personality that is the root of all self-absorbed, narcissistic, self-preserving tendencies and the cause of all mental suffering for self and others in relationships.
Our egos are the psychological boundaries that we erect to make sense of and relate to the world around us. It's an essential structure of character and self identity. The problem is, when these boundaries of belief and identity attachments become a prison that inhibit you from stepping out of line with who you assume yourself to be.
When you put your ego up as a wall to protect yourself from the discomfort of uncertainty, or confronting deeply rooted psychological issues, when your character becomes inflexible as a protective mechanism, that's when you become what people refer to as "egotistical".
That lack of flexibility also inhibits you from making meaningful, lasting change in your life.
So often we get so wrapped up in how nice it would be to have reached our goals, to be at the pinnacle of success, to have the rockstar status, the million followers, the fat bank account, the slim athletic body - we become fixated on, and romanticize the end point, but when it comes to the reality of committing to the process required to reach it, we can freeze up.
The reality is, if we were to become a rockstar, it would mean that we would have to be someone different and give up who we think we are now. There's a mental separation between where we are now and where we think we'd like to be - if there wasn't, we wouldn't feel the desire or drive in the first place. And sometimes, the devil you know is less scary than the devil you don't. Better to stay as you are and have the excuses and justifications that protect yourself from emotionally confronting suppressed guilt, fear, shame, or sadness.
From "Self Sabotage" to "Self Protection"
This is a subtle, often subconscious motivation; because our personalities/egos are trying to protect themselves from being hurt, they won't immediately reveal what they're trying to hold on to, or what they're trying to protect themselves from. Whenever I set goals with myself and clients now, I'll ask these two questions to start probing around any self-sabotage/self-protection mechanisms that might come up.
What is the downside of achieving your goals? This is an interesting one to dig around into - if you have goals of financial abundance, you might have a conflicting belief that people who have a lot of money are greedy and dishonest. Because honesty and generosity are core values to you, making lot of money and becoming greedy might be a hidden downside. The answers could be more direct and less psychological - maybe you have the belief that working on a business is going to take away the free time that you have for friends and family. I had the belief that if I wanted to be a musician, I would have to be in a bar environment surrounded by drugs and alcohol all the time, and never get any sleep because I would be playing shows late into the night all the time. By exploring what you think the downside of your goals are, you can start to see some of the stories about why you might not actually want what you say you want, and how you're justifying staying exactly where you are. From there, a few good questions to ask about each point are: - Is this true? How can I know for sure? - If these downsides are true, is it worth it to me? Is it something I can live with, or work around? - Are the downsides worse than the downsides of my current life, personality, and situation?
What do you have to let go and leave behind in order to achieve your goals? You often hear you have to sacrifice what you have to get what you want. What exactly do you think you'll have to give up to move into the new version of yourself? Freedom of time? Friends and family ties? Habits that you're mentally attached to? A story about who you are? Safety and security? What is it that you think you're going to have to give up - and why do you believe that? From there, asking a few of the following questions could be useful: - Am I afraid of having to leave this behind? Why? - Is it absolutely true that I have to lose this totally? Is there a way to bring it with me into my new life (even if it looks different than it does now)? - What emotions do I think I'm going to feel when I leave these behind? - There won't just be an empty void after I've left this behind - what will it be replaced by? Is the new replacement better/more aligned for me than what I have to leave behind?
We can sometimes get so caught up in how great we think a certain outcome might be, but seldom do we pay attention to the hidden fears that we have about what we would lose if we got what we actually wanted.
Operating with compassion
If we can be honest with ourselves - and compassionately recognize that our egos/personalities aren't trying to sabotage us, but rather protect us - we'll be able to gently coax ourselves into facing what we need to face to make lasting change.
If you antagonize yourself and aggressively try to force change, the tendency for self protection can exacerbate itself in response.
Self transformation is easiest from an angle of self-love.
I had a girlfriend who said I thought too much - and I don't disagree. She was constantly reminding me with her favourite one-liner pep-talk:
"Less think, more do"
This article was five years in the making, because I was a lot more "think" than I was "do".
I didn't really get invested in my identity as a writer, and I was afraid of what might happen if I invested in that identity (what if no one reads it? What if everyone reads it and hates it? What if I spend all my time writing and miss out on hanging out with my friends and spent all this time writing about stuff that no one gives a shit about?)
It wasn't about writing that I wanted back then - I craved the recognition for the things that I'd written. My mindset has drastically changed about that, and I've stood at my desk revelling in the flowy process of watching words and ideas pour out of me for hours now.
Back then, I didn't address my compulsions - those same drivers for validation to justify my writing manifested in a constant need for approval on social media. I spent more time checking who was looking at my Instagram stories than I spent writing out my ideas or sharing my perspectives with the world.
"Less think, more do" is a good start. "Less do, more be" is where I'd take it next.
How about you?
Are you ready to go from "what do I want?" to "who am I becoming"?
I promise you, it's a far more fruitful, enjoyable journey.
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If you want to talk about working together more personally around making lasting transformation in your life, you can e-mail me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org
Thanks for reading - let me know if you have any questions that I can help with in the comments.