Source: Takmeomeo/pixabay

If simply understanding what it takes to create a happier life were enough to achieve that goal, reading a book, listening to a tape, or watching a DVD would be sufficient for any person seeking this goal. As many of us have noticed, knowing what to do isn’t necessarily enough to make you happier. “I know what to do, so why don’t I just do it?” is one of the most frequently asked questions that we get from clients and students in our workshops.

It’s puzzling to many of us that although we know what it is that will bring about an enhancement in the quality of our lives, we often simply cannot bring ourselves to do it. It may not be a matter of looking at what we need to do to become happy, but rather of recognizing what it is that is getting in the way of our happiness. 

Just as every action generates an equal and opposite reaction, Newton’s third law of motion applies to the desire for change. That is for every change that we wish to bring about, there is a corresponding resistance to change arising from the tendency to maintain the status quo of our lives. Even changes that are seen as positive or improvements of our current situation will be met with resistance which will often sabotage our intention to make things different than they have been.

While the desire for change is something that we are aware of, what we are generally unaware of is our resistance to change, any change. That is the part of the iceberg that is submerged below the surface of our conscious awareness. Unable to recognize our attachment to the status quo, and our resistance to change, we become increasingly frustrated with ourselves, others, or circumstances that we believe are in the way.

While obstacles inevitably present themselves in the process, the most problematic barriers that we encounter in our efforts to improve our quality of life are due to internal resistance rather than external circumstances. Every new possibility contains the seeds of both desirable and undesirable consequences. When we can bring into awareness and recognition of the mixed feelings that we have regarding specific anticipated changes, it becomes possible to come to terms with this conflict and dissolve it. Since there can be no guarantee that a change in our lives will always be for the better, it’s natural to have some ambivalence about, or resistance to change, even when our current situation is unpleasant and the envisioned future looks more desirable.

We can never be certain that any change we experience won’t involve unexpected surprises that may be undesirable. In fact, we can pretty much be assured that we will generally have unconscious commitments that compete with our conscious desires. While we don’t have to eliminate our competing commitments to avoid risk or prevent pain, unless we can acknowledge the specific fears or concerns that we have regarding our situation, we’re likely to become immobilized by the conflicting internal forces that are generally present within us whenever we are seeking any kind of a change.

Once we uncover our counterpart in the unconscious and acknowledge it, we can begin to identify the underlying need or concern, and therefore address it. It may sound strange, but it’s true, that people make some things more important than their own happiness. Investigating our ulterior motives that come into conflict with our conscious intent can illuminate hidden anxieties that we fear may cause us pain or loss, of our intended outcome comes about.

There are sometimes prices that we are unconsciously unwilling to pay to get what we want. There may, for example, be a commitment to being right, being safe, being in control or remaining a victim, rather than creating harmony. One way to illuminate a concealed concern is to ask yourself if there could be a potential downside or negative consequence to the fulfillment of your desired outcome. When we see ourselves doing the very things that we know don’t work, we may judge ourselves harshly as being stupid, lazy, or uncommitted.

But there are many other reasons other than defiance or stupidity for our failure to do something even when we know that it works. When we have an awareness of the counterpart of our dominant desire, we say that we have mixed feelings. Yet even when we are unaware of the hidden side of our desires, it still exists. And it’s presence will reveal itself through many subtle and indirect means.

As many of us have discovered, the decision to “just do it” even when you know HOW to do something that you want to accomplish is rarely enough to get the job done.

There are times when knowing the how is enough, particularly in the realm of technical matters like changing a tire, mowing the grass, or programming the remote (well, maybe not programming the remote). But when it comes to matters that are less technical and oriented towards the more emotional or abstract aspects of life, all bets are off and instruction manuals usually are not enough to cut it.

For example: Phyllis had been looking forward to a friend’s party. She was no longer able to fit into her favorite dress and realized that she wouldn’t be able to wear it. That settled it for her. That was the day she made the commitment to lose thirty pounds. “I had been feeling unhappy about my weight for years, but simply living with it, hoping I guess that something would just happen and I’d lose it. I think you call that magical thinking. Anyway, on the day that I couldn’t get into that dress, I decided that I had to do something. Now, I knew what I had to do that would help me to lose the weight. It was simple: take in fewer calories and burn more. I know what kinds of food I needed to eat and what quantities would be appropriate. I also knew that I had to join that health club I’d been promising myself I would join, and maybe even get a personal trainer, at least for a while. I was totally psyched and motivated enough to finally do what I knew it would take to keep that promise to myself. Or so I thought.”

You can guess the rest of the story. Phyllis started strong, with high hopes, and made many of the changes that she told herself she would make. She even got the trainer. And for a few weeks things went well, and then she started to slip. About a month into her program, she started skipping some of her scheduled workouts. Then she stopped working with her trainer. She started finding reasons to go off of her healthy eating program. “I kept making exceptions and justified them with excuses like, ‘It’s just this time or it’s a special occasion, or just one or two won’t hurt or I’ve worked hard. My life isn’t easy. I deserve a little pleasure once in awhile.’ I’m a master in the art of making excuses.”

It turns out that most of us are equally adept at excuse making, particularly when our conscious intention comes in direct conflict with our hidden commitments. Through diligent self-inquiry, Phyllis was able to discover the nature of the competing commitments that were diverting her energies from her conscious intention. ‘There was a part of me that wanted to keep the weight on because somehow I felt more protected, safer with more meat on my bones than when I was thin. It also felt like a way of being closer and more connected to my mother who has struggled her whole life with her weight. I also saw that I was judging myself as being self-indulgent and irresponsible for focusing so much time, energy, and money on my health and appearance when ‘the world is filled with so many people whose problems are much bigger than yours,’ another “momism” that my mother drilled into my head while I was growing up. ”

As it became clearer to Phyllis that her inability to do “what I knew I needed to do” was not a function of stubbornness, laziness, or ignorance, she became more able to uncover the true source of her “resistance.” As she did, Phyllis found herself feeling less critical towards herself. In feeling more accepting and understanding of her situation and of the mind that she saw that through no fault of her own, she found herself in. Her feelings towards herself shifted from anger and frustration to compassion and forgiveness. These warm feelings softened her self-judgments and promoted a feeling of greater self-acceptance. Although the process is taking more time than she had expected it to, the payoffs have been greater as well. Although she has not yet lost all of the thirty pounds she committed to shedding, Phyllis has already hit the jackpot. “I’ve stopped beating myself up, and that habit had made me feel heavier than my body weight ever did.”

In the second part of this two part series we’ll be giving you 8 effective guidelines for managing competing commitments. Stay tuned!


Linda and Charlie Bloom are excited to announce the release of their third book, Happily Ever After...and 39 Other Myths about Love: Breaking Through to the Relationship of Your Dreams.

“Love experts Linda and Charlie shine a bright light, busting the most common myths about relationships. Using real-life examples, they skillfully, provide effective strategies and tools to create and grow a deeply loving and fulfilling long-term connection.” —Arielle Ford, author of Turn You Mate into Your Soulmate

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