(I first wrote this post for Stilettos On the Glass Ceiling, a blog for women in business. You can check it out here.)
I’m an advocate of dreaming. I think by and large, we don’t dream enough, and when we do, we give up too early. Then, we’re left wading in a pool of dissatisfaction.
I’m writing this article to try and change that. There is a way to change, and however powerless you may feel, you’re not. You’re probably just making one of the common mistakes I’m about to outline in this article.
As a coach, I’ve seen what works and what doesn’t work when we’re attempting to make a big, heavily desired change. The mistakes that hold us back are human, universal, and common.
When that happens, it’s easy to say to ourselves, “I knew it wasn’t possible” or “I was overreaching”. We shake our heads at our audaciousness.
But that’s the “giving up way too early” that I’m talking about. It’s not that it isn’t possible- it’s just that we have the wrong idea about how change works.
Here’s what we know about change already: hard work, taking risks, stretching yourself, creating goals, making a plan and sticking to it, accountability… these are all tools that can help see complete action steps.
But when what you want requires a change to who you are (and the best dreams will), incremental tools aren’t enough. Sometimes, as hard as we try, we can attempt to move that mountain, but it won’t budge.
When that happens, don’t give up. Ask yourself these questions instead, to move through your blocks:
1. Are you problem-solving?
If you are, you may want to change your approach.
I know it’s counter-intuitive. Makes sense to solve problems, right? But when the change you want requires you to expand your definition of who you are, problem-solving isn’t the best tool. In fact, in that case problem solving is an avoidance technique.
No amount of top-down strategy, for example, will turn someone who has unknowingly built her self-image around being frail into a champion fighter. That requires a paradigm shift; at some point in her transformation, she will enter the unknown. And that will take courage.
Problem solving, while an excellent approach in many situations, is sometimes misused as a way to circumvent experiencing the unknown. But as far personal change is concerned, that murky territory is mandatory; experiencing ups and downs with humility and openness is exactly how we grow.
When I hear a client using the words “I should just…”, I know her attempts at change won’t take, because she’s in her head. “Shoulds” are a function of judgment and the underlying message is: “You shouldn’t be experiencing what you’re experiencing.”
And so the experience (and the growth) stops.
But there’s probably more happening than you realize. When we’re in the unknown, our default is to use the old self-image that we’re letting go of to make sense of things. Remember Einstein’s wisdom: “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”
When we move beyond a limiting belief (or belief system), our old way of thinking stops helping us make sense of what we’re going through. That’s because the whole point is that we’re letting go of old stories of who we are (and sometimes our sense of what life is about). There’s a period of breakdown where we feel lost.
Until we find a new way of being to replace the old, life will be a little disorienting.
It’s easy to misinterpret this incredible moment of courage as a big misstep, and inadvertently shut the process down. Slow down and put your experience in context. Trust the process. Embrace your vulnerability as a sign of change, because it is.
Use this time to discover who you are, and who you are becoming. Identify ideas about yourself and your life that your’e letting go of, and what you’re moving toward. Change is just was much about being as it is about doing.
2. Are you unconsciously sabotaging your path?
Another way we unintentionally stall change is by avoiding a particular emotion. Each of us has at least one emotion that we can barely tolerate. We’d do anything to keep from feeling it. We can even build a whole life around avoiding that one emotion: we might over-focus on success, for example, because we cannot tolerate what it feels like to be vulnerable.
We may find ourselves wildly successful as a result, which is wonderful, but inevitably there will be some aspiration that cannot be reached without enduring the feeling of being vulnerable. Like, for example, building closeness and intimacy with a partner.
When this happens, we find ourselves in an endless pattern, completely puzzled about why we can’t seem to make this change in our lives. In order for us to move beyond our block, we need to experience the thing we’ve been avoiding, and live through it.
Take a champion fighter, for example. Let’s say that for whatever reason in her past, this fighter cannot tolerate feeling disliked. She’s grown up avoiding it as a survival mechanism.
But to become a champion, she has to risk being disliked because of her choices, and her looks. She has to risk ruffling feathers, by defying the common conception of what it means to be a woman.
As much as she wants that champion medal out of pure love of sport, if she avoids the feeling of being judged or disliked (even unconsciously), she’ll sabotage her efforts. She may even find herself holding back in fights so that her opponent doesn’t dislike her.
Getting through the muck of those challenges- feeling exactly what it’s like to be strongly disliked and moving beyond it- is part of her hero’s journey. In fact, that experience may be exactly what she needs to complete her transformation into a champion.
Deciding to experience what we find intolerable isn’t easy to do. But it will transform us. It’s is like picking up the pieces of ourselves and putting them back together. We’re much more powerful when we’re whole.
3. Are you waiting for change to happen in the future?
A third way we put the mistakenly breaks on change is by waiting.
If you’re waiting for something to happen- like a better job title, or championship win- before you see yourself differently, you may be missing the change that’s under your nose.
Your transformation is likely happening already. It started when you acknowledged to yourself that you wanted change.
You can’t wait for change to happen at another time, because the future builds itself upon this moment. Every choice you make, every perspective you choose, is your way to take yourself forward.
If you want a job that you don’t have already, and it’s a far reach to get there, you still have the opportunity to become the kind of person who gets that job. Every opportunity now is a chance for you to step into a new way of being. And the more you become her, the more likely you will get that job. (Not the other way around.)
To accomplish something that is beyond your current ability, look to what is emerging in you and claim it. Own it, as much and as often as you can. Look for opportunities to do so. If you’re feeling a little more confident, let it be seen. If you’re a little clearer, speak what you know.
Our boxer won’t wait to become unbeatable at some future point in time. She will start her transformation now by acknowledging what’s new about her, day by day. She’ll connect with her vision of being champion by feeling it, seeing it, living it, being it.
She’ll use every practice match to overcome her fears, every challenge as a chance to leave the past behind. And every time she chooses that, she really does leave the past behind.
By choosing to approach every moment she can from an empowered place, she’ll rewrite the story of what she is capable of.
One thing I know about realizing dreams is: they seem unachievable when we resist them. Once we give ourselves permission and consider them real possibilities, the change begins.
It takes openness. And since our biggest aspirations will challenge us to our core and require leaps of faith, it takes courage and trust.
Consider those around you: who in your world is showing courage right now? Take a moment to acknowledge them when you see them. And as for you, where are you on your journey toward your dreams? Make sure to give yourself what you need to stay on your path.
I encourage you to share this with someone whose dreams you want to champion, and use it to start a practice of mutually supporting one another to make your visions real.
I help people who are stuck in the wrong job find their true purpose and make a life from it, so they can finally enjoy satisfaction and success. I believe every outlier has a purpose, and it's not to fit in- it's to elevate the status quo. I discuss things like: the truth about how change really happens, common traps we create for ourselves (and how to eliminate them), how to own your emotions and leverage them as a leadership tools, and stories of regular people leading from their hearts and experiencing success.
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