You are Not Lazy or Undisciplined. You Have Internal Resistance. Why you can’t just do it, and what to do instead.

Camille

Kitchen Wench #TeamQuaid
Staff member
You are Not Lazy or Undisciplined. You Have Internal Resistance.

Why you can’t just do it, and what to do instead

When I was writing my PhD I didn’t have bad weeks. I had bad months. The kind when each day you wake up thinking, “Today I will actually do the thing” and then you… don’t. Somehow the day ticks by and then it’s 11 pm and you still haven’t done the thing and it feels like you might as well go to bed and start over tomorrow, but already you have a sinking horrible sense that you won’t do it then either. And lo, the cycle repeats.

It doesn’t have to be a PhD, of course. This why-can’t-I-just-do-it circle of hell can happen any time you’re trying to do something you care about that is big and in some way new. And once the cycle really gets going, you can find yourself prey to self-loathing so corrosive and debilitating that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.

Which makes sense. Why wouldn’t you feel self-loathing when every day you violate a promise you made to yourself about something important to you AND you don’t know why AND you can’t stop AND you have no one else to blame because YOU ARE DOING IT ALL TO YOURSELF for some mysterious fucking reason you don’t even understand?

As far as most of our culture is concerned, the answer to this torturous cycle of not-doing-the-thing also lies in what’s wrong with us, more or less: we’re lazy, we’re unproductive, we’re irresponsible, we’ve let ourselves become addicted to our phones, we’re procrastinators, we’re not meditating, blah blah blah. In the coaching world, it’s our ‘lizard brain’ holding us back from the human evolution that is our birthright. Basically whatever is keeping us from doing the thing is something that’s wrong with us or our behaviour, something that needs to be controlled, eradicated, tamed, left behind or put in its place.

In 15 years of helping people over these kind of blocks, not to mention a life-time of getting over them myself, I have become 100% certain of two things: that way of thinking about the problem is not accurate, and it’s definitely not fucking useful.

You are not lazy. You are not undisciplined. You are not irresponsible. You are not suffering from mysterious ‘Just Can’t Do It’-itis.

You are experiencing internal resistance. And internal resistance is not a flaw, nor is it all powerful. It is a facet of human creativity and growth, and it can be managed. But we have to start by recognizing it for what it is.

What is internal resistance?

In his book The War of Art, writer Steven Pressfield names the force that keeps us from using our talents “the Resistance”. The Resistance is a mysterious hostile force, an enemy that has to be bested. In Pressfield’s imagery, we spend each day fighting back the resistance in an eternal battle that is as timeless as it is endless.

Pressfield’s model has helped a lot of people, including me. But I think ultimately he’s only about half right. Yes, resistance is intrinsic to using your talents, and it has to be faced daily. But it is not a grim otherworldly force that blights our existence. And treating it as an external enemy to be battled is both a losing endeavour and a lost opportunity. (We could also talk about the machismo involved in his approach, but that’s a subject for another post.)

Internal resistance is not a free-standing inherently malevolent tendency of the universe. It’s not the freaking Dark Side! It’s a part of us, and it is grows from the exact same soil as every talent and skill and goal we have: our brains, our personal history, our families and our culture.
Because that soil is unique to each of us, every person’s internal resistance has its own particular causes and flavours and effects. But what every experience of internal resistance shares is a prediction and fear of pain.

Internal resistance is an attempt to avoid the pain we associate with successfully doing the thing.


The causes of this pain are as individual as we are, but in my experience it is usually tied to some kind of predicted loss of love and connection, whether it’s love from others or for ourselves. Which makes sense: what else would be universally terrifying enough that we would block our own talents and goals to avoid it?

What can you do with your internal resistance?

If you think about internal resistance this way, I think it becomes clear why approaching it through ideas of laziness or lack of discipline is so unhelpful. Internal resistance is not lazy — it’s fucking energetic as hell! It takes a lot of work to push back on our desire to move toward our goal, day after day.

And if we try to use discipline to increase our movement toward the goal, we wind up with another version of the same problem, because we ultimately increase the resistance: the more likely it looks like we’re going to make it to the finish line, the greater the fear and the stronger the resistance.

Basically, we’re already locked in a mental tug of war, and trying to apply discipline just means both sides pull harder.
So what can we do instead?

Here are some places to start:

1. Recognize that internal resistance is on your side. Part of what is so awful about the cycle-of-not-doing-the-thing is that it feels so self-destructive. But internal resistance does not want to destroy us; it literally wants the opposite! It only exists to protect us from pain.
You are not being self-destructive. You just have two deeply rooted and fundamentally contradictory ideas about what is best for you: doing the thing, and not doing the thing.

2. Get curious about this pain that your brain is so worried about. When we understand exactly what pain we fear and why, we can work on reducing those fears. This is why I think treating resistance as an opaque external force is such a mistake. Internal resistance is not immovable — it responds to reason, to alternative scenarios, to making space for the emotions that seem like such a threat — but to shift it you have to understand its particular content for you.

3. Negotiate. You may not be able to figure out what is motivating your internal resistance immediately, and even once you do, it can take some time to figure out how to address your fears and worries about pain in the offing. In the meantime, I suggest haggling. Will your internal resistance allow you to work for 10 minutes? What about five? If you can’t work formally, could you talk into your phone? How about brainstorming in the bathtub?

You can create so much increased space in your brain just moving from “I need to apply will power so I stop being so bad and lazy” to “I’m experiencing a lot of internal resistance, let me get inventive in working with it today”.

4. Recognize that you are not alone in this. Even if resistance is not a superhuman force, I think Pressfield is right to envision it as something that besets most of us. Yes, there are rare people who do not — or at least don’t seem to — experience much internal resistance, who seem to just produce and produce. But I am willing to bet that you also seem like that kind of person to someone in your life.

Listening to your resistance

There’s another reason why I think we should treat internal resistance as a form of wisdom rather than a malevolent opponent. It holds a lot of knowledge about what we secretly believe we might be able to do. As in: your brain wouldn’t be so afraid of the costs of you doing the thing if it thought you were going to do something forgettable and inconsequential.

Likewise, it can be helpful to remember that the force of your internal resistance is also a measure of how much you actually want to do the work, no matter how many days you don’t quite manage to get there. The only reason the tug of war isn’t over — the only reason every day feels so fraught— is because you’re still pulling toward your goal, because you’ve got your heels dug in.

Right now, it’s exhausting and sad because it feels like whichever side wins, part of you will lose. But that’s why we work to understand the internal resistance. When we do, we can stop the tug of war and start dealing with the emotional landmines that a part of us is so certain lie ahead. Sometimes the fears turn out to be imaginary, and sometimes the pain is very real. But either way, they become just one part of the experience of doing the thing we want to do, rather than a barrier to doing it in the first place.


https://medium.com/ counterarts/you-are-not-lazy-or-undisciplined-you-are-experiencing-internal-resistance-755a02673aa9
 

Camille

Kitchen Wench #TeamQuaid
Staff member
Just because you feel awful doesn’t mean you’re doing it wrong


We don’t give up on our goals because we feel bad. We give up because of what we think feeling bad means. Here’s how to think differently.

Let’s say there’s a task that’s really important to you, but somehow you can’t seem to work on it. You’ve tried a lot of solutions, but nothing seems to help.

Then one day, you stumble across something that seems like it could actually make a difference. Maybe it’s my post on internal resistance. Maybe it’s someone else’s writing or podcast or whatever.

When this happens, we start to feel a tiny bit of hope. Maybe we won’t actually spend our whole lives stuck between the rock of wanting to do the work and the hard place of somehow still not doing it.

In my experience, this hope feels incredible. Like rain in the desert. Like we won’t have to act like our own worst enemy forever.
So we decide to try yet again.

I want to pause before I go further just to say that this is fucking heroic and you should try to actually notice that. The amount of not-being-willing-to-give-up-on-yourself involved in making another attempt, when you’ve had so much painful negative reinforcement, is profound.
But once you get started, you quickly notice you’re feeling more and more awful. You hate what you’re doing. It’s stupid, you’re stupid, this whole attempt is stupid. You’re getting more and more anxious.

What’s worse: the more you notice how bad you’re feeling, the more it seems like this time isn’t actually any different. That realization feels so awful that the bad feelings grow even faster, until they’re so intolerable you have to tap out.
It seems like you’ve failed, again. And that precious little flame of hope you brought to the task winks out.
But no matter how many times you’ve had this experience, it does not have to keep happening. The key is in how we understand those moments when the bad feelings start to mount up, and it feels too hard to stay.

The electric fence
As I’ve said elsewhere, many of us have deep fears of loss and pain attached to our goals that create resistance to working on them. When we’ve been struggling against this internal resistance for a while, we can build up a cluster of ingrained thoughts about how we can’t do it, we don’t have what it takes, we’re totally failing, etc.

When we try to work, these habitual negative thoughts start up. We start to tell ourselves we can’t solve the equation, we aren’t smart enough to understand the reading, the sentence we have just written is SO FRICKING BAD. The more we think these thoughts, the worse we feel.
But we don’t know these are habitual thoughts. We think they’re just true. Even more important, we think the feelings that come with these thoughts are true. By which I mean: we think that feeling terrible while we’re working means we’re doing terrible work.

That assumption then creates a feedback loop. We have negative thoughts, we feel awful feelings, we mistake the awful feelings for a sign we’re doing awful work. Which creates even more awful feelings. And on and on. Go through that cycle enough times and your brain will understandably start telling you that trying again is an extremely bad idea.

At this point, something that once made you feel curious, excited, and engaged starts to feel emotionally radioactive. It’s like we’ve inadvertently surrounded the work we want to do with an electric fence supercharged with anxiety and despair.

And longer the cycle goes on, the worse we feel, the taller and more charged the fence appears.

Feelings are an independent variable
Taking our bad feelings as diagnostic in this way feels so intuitive in the moment that it can be hard to see them otherwise. But the bad feelings have nothing to do with whether or not our work is going well.

They come from a repeated pattern of negative thoughts we bring with us to the task — all those thoughts about failing and not having what it takes and it being just too hard. For the time being, our brains are going to think those thoughts whether what we create is gibberish or genius.
So the first step to breaking down the fence is to work on believing that these negative feelings contain zero diagnostic data about the quality of your work. In fact, their diagnostic value is less than zero, because those ingrained habits of mind have so primed you to see your efforts as flawed.
The crappy feelings you’re having don’t reflect anything about the actual work you’re producing. They don’t tell you how your work is, they just tell you how it feels to work.

Treating them as some kind of accurate performance rating is like going to the movies with food poisoning and thinking your stomach ache means the acting sucks. It’s correlation, not causation.

When we start understanding our feelings as unpleasant bystanders rather than knowledgeable commentators, we can stop amplifying them. And over time, we can create the space to build new habitual thoughts that help rather than hinder us.

Dismantling the fence

Once the electric fence has gotten charged up, it’s hard to see it for what it is, because the negative emotions feel so overwhelming there isn’t much room for anything else. We’re so busy just trying to survive getting zapped that we don’t have the space to understand what’s actually happening.
So the first thing we need to do is give ourselves a chance to witness the fence for what it actually is: a set mechanisms constructed over time that can also be taken apart over time. Then we can grow our capacity to stand aside from the experience and let the feelings be present, without internalizing them as salient diagnostic data.
Here’s what I recommend:

1. Set aside 10 minutes.

2. In the first five minutes, make a list of the things you are afraid you’ll think and feel when you try to work. Be specific. Will you feel like throwing up? Will you think you’re an idiot? Will you compare yourself to someone you think is doing it better or faster? Get it all down.

Note: you will likely start to feel some amount of these emotions even just making the list. This is actually good, because it gives you a chance to observe how little the feelings have to do with your actual work. How could they, when they are happening before you’re even doing any?

3. Decide right now that these thoughts and feelings WILL DEFINITELY HAPPEN this time. You will for sure feel anxious and like there’s no point and every single thing you’re doing is the worst.

4. Then ask yourself: am I willing to feel this stuff for five minutes today? If you’re not sure, remind yourself that you have felt it a million times before and you have survived.

5. If the answer HELL NO, that’s perfectly fine. You got through the first five minutes! Plus you actually identified some negative feelings. This is big. Now you’re not just facing an undifferentiated mass of unbearableness. As a next step, spend some time with the question: what if these feelings do not mean anything about my capacities for work or achievement?

6. If the answer yes, then set a timer for five minutes and engage with your task. THE POINT IS NOT TO GET WORK DONE. The point is to practice letting your brain freak out without believing everything it’s telling you.

To help create this distance between your emotions and your observing self, try naming the thoughts and feelings as such. So: I notice I think I can’t read this code, I notice that I am afraid I’ll get too anxious to work, I notice my heart is racing, etc.

7. When the timer goes off, take stock of what you experienced. Did you notice any gaps between what your brain wanted to tell you and what was actually happening? Did planning for the feelings ahead of time make the experience any less fearful? These are the little steps that will start to build your way through the fence.

8. Then do something to discharge the energy. Take a walk, take a bath, dance around the living room. You got zapped with a bunch of negative feelings, so give yourself time to de-zap. And give yourself props for doing a hard thing!

It gets easier from here

The most crucial thing to remember when you start this practice is that you have already endured a way worse version of this process. You’ve done it when you had no hope, when you thought you were the only one having this experience, when you accepted every horrible feeling as the gospel truth. And you still kept trying.

Compared to what you’ve already done, what’s in front of you is more do-able, not less. It’s not just throwing yourself at the fence over and over; it’s starting to create a way through. And once you begin to drive a wedge between feeling bad and believing your work is bad, you’re going to start to see daylight. You’re not going to need to hope that you can work, because you’re going to have proof.


https://janeelliottphd.medium.com/ just-because-you-feel-awful-doesnt-mean-you-re-doing-it-wrong-3e38f65d209
 

Camille

Kitchen Wench #TeamQuaid
Staff member
Use Your Existing Leaf

Why trying to turn over a new leaf winds up keeping us stuck .

Several years ago, I was on an academic fellowship and pretty sure I was failing at it.

I’d envisioned myself getting to my office early every day, spending several hours virtuously writing, and then knocking off at 3 pm for a run. Instead, I was lying awake all night agonizing over everything I’d said that day, sleeping until 11, and rolling into my office just in time for lunch.
By the time I got to my desk at around 2, I’d be drowning in self-recrimination. My office — this hard-won space I’d been so excited to occupy — now felt like the scene of a crime I had committed against myself. I’d killed off my chance for a good day before I’d even gotten out of bed, and there was nothing I could do to resuscitate it. So I’d occupy myself with some busywork, just trying to tolerate being there until I could go home and try again tomorrow.

If you don’t get why I didn’t just do some actual work when I sat down at 2 pm, then this article is not for you.
It’s for everyone who 100% gets it, because you’ve had similar mornings or afternoons or weeks or months. It’s for everyone who has abandoned a project or a programme or a commission or a degree after making a mistake or dropping a ball or letting yourself down, because clearly there was no coming back from that.

When you’re inside this logic, it seems totally self-evident. Like: No, I clearly can’t start work at 2 pm, wtf. Or: No, I obviously can’t reply to the email now when I should have done it six months ago. Or: No, I can’t ask my advisor for help when I didn’t take her advice last time.
When people offer us these kinds of options, it’s like we’re being asked to feed a fish that’s floating belly up in the bowl. Like: what part of beyond repair do you not understand?
There are good reasons we wind up thinking about change this way, but it’s a problem in the guise of a solution. The more we try to do it right from the beginning, the more stuck we become. But we don’t have to stay stuck, provided we’re willing to think about self-transformation in a different way.

New-leaf thinking

Apparently the phrase ‘turn over a new leaf’ actually refers to book pages, which used to be called leaves. The idea is that when we turn over a new leaf, we get a pristine, unsullied page — a new chance to do things properly. And if we do make a mistake, well, then there’s an obvious solution embedded right there in the metaphor: just turn over a new, new leaf. Start fresh, again, with another blank page.

This is how I was thinking those afternoons in my fellowship office. There was crappy, old-leaf me, slinking in at 2 pm to do some busywork, and there was optimal, not-yet-created new-leaf me, sailing in at 9 am to put in a solid six hours. Either total success or total failure.

Which meant that, once I’d started my day with less than total success, there was no coming back. Mistakes had been made, and the gauge was set at ‘fail’ for the remainder of the day. That’s why I couldn’t take advantage of those afternoon hours: I literally couldn’t see any advantage in using them. Making a little bit of progress was just Failure Lite.

The problem is, that in-between space between total success and total failure is where change happens. Trying to improve your life without small steps and big mistakes and occasional backsliding is like deciding to throw your shovel away because you want to do some digging.
When we’re thinking this way, we never give ourselves enough time and space and credit to create the bigger changes we want, because we can’t see any value in incremental progress. So we quit before those efforts can start to build up to something powerful. We get stuck in a perpetual new-leaf loop that takes real transformation off the table.

Existing-leaf thinking

Now imagine that instead of writing off my afternoon, I opened up my document and did even one hour of work. Now imagine that I did that every day for a week. Yes, I’d only have done five hours work. Yes, this would bear no resemblance to the Perfect-Shining-New-Leaf-9-am schedule I had in my head.

But think of all the ground I’d have gained. I’d have kept contact with my work every day, which would mean I’d be thinking about it, turning it over in my mind even when I wasn’t working. I’d build integrity with myself by showing up for that one hour a day. By breaking through the anxiety I had about working each day, I’d start to build up more tolerance. Plus, I’d learn that the anxiety didn’t stay at a fever pitch, that after 10 minutes or so I was absorbed enough for it to wane a bit.

Perhaps most important, I’d start to remember why I wanted to do this work in the first place — i.e., not to be worthy of inhabiting that office but because I loved the project.

This is more or less what eventually happened. I didn’t fix myself. I didn’t ever have that ideal fellowship day that I’d imagined, not even once. NOT. ONCE.

But over time I whittled away at my anxiety and my insomnia and started to write a little in the afternoons, until the afternoons started to seem like a viable working time. And eventually I wrote the fucking book.

This is how real change happens: we lessen our death grip on the new-leaf fantasy we’ve got in our heads, and we start to take a baby step from where we are instead. Change happens when we begin to use our existing, imperfect, starting-at-2 pm already-screwed-up leaf.

Why is this so hard?

So, why do we fall prey to this way of thinking about change? Why do we keep doing this new-leaf thing that is so clearly not working for us?
In most cases, I think it’s because we really, really, really want to leave the things we don’t like about ourselves behind. That’s at the core of the new-leaf fantasy. We think in order to get what we want, we have to be someone else. In large part, being someone else actually IS what we want.
We want a new leaf so we can be that good, improved, more lovable version of us we think is somehow both totally different and just out of our reach. If we could only keep it together and do everything right for once, then we’d get to be them.

Except we can’t do everything right immediately and totally. And the more we fail to live up to our nice new leaf ideal, the more frustrated and inadequate and miserable we feel, and the more imperative it seems to leave this failed, not-doing-it-right version behind.

As I’ve tried to show, this way of thinking will keep us stuck because it isn’t how progress happens. We can’t get to the other side of the leaf because there is no other side, not in the way we imagine. Every single path to progress contains mistakes and failures and disappointments, because that’s how humans work.

Which means, no matter how much it might look like it, no one gets to keep their new leaf pristine. Change is never binary and nothing goes perfectly forever. No one gets to be their fantasy selves. Every single one of us is working with our existing leaf. We’re all just living in varying levels of denial about that fact.

And the denial makes sense, because we so firmly believe that our existing leaf is too flawed to be useful. Being told that there’s no new leaf can feel like being told you’re just going to suck forever.

But that’s what new-leaf thinking gets so very, very wrong. Because here’s what I can see now about those sad afternoons in my fellowship office: that person I was trying to leave behind, who I was afraid wasn’t really smart enough to turn her dissertation into a book?
She was the same fucking person who wrote the damn dissertation in the first place, the one who won the fellowship, the one who showed up for it every day even though she was fricking terrified of failing — even though she was totally sure she WAS failing. I was so busy trying to leave her behind so that I could belong, I couldn’t see that she was the reason I was even there in the first place.

The same thing is true of the person that you think is on the bad side of your leaf. The one you think you need to jettison in order to apply for an MFA or start playing piano again or talk to that famous guy about your business plan. That supposedly failed, crumpled, old-leaf self you can’t wait to leave behind? The one full of self-doubt and anxiety and all that stuff you want to get rid of?

They are actually the ones who did every single thing you are proud of in your life. They thought up the big goal you want to go after and kept you from giving up on it. They made every one of your friends and listened to every song you’ve ever loved. They got you from a baby that couldn’t hold its head up to the person you are right now, reading this post.

Our existing leaf is the only one we have, and that’s not the tragedy we think it is. It’s where our power and aliveness and uniqueness resides.
Think about it: your leaf is the only one exactly like it that has ever existed and ever will exist in the universe. And you are the only one that can grow it the way it is meant to be grown. Don’t try to throw it away. Use it. Your existing leaf is the good stuff.



https://janeelliottphd. medium.com/ use-your-existing-leaf-ba8756a5bf97
 
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