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What Stops You From Doing What You Want to Do?

Eight ways you get stuck—and how to move forward.

Air Images/Shutterstock
Source: Air Images/Shutterstock

Maybe you want to learn to play the saxophone, leave your partner or job, go back to school, or be more assertive. Everyone has their own desires and wants, but the question is: What keeps you from doing what you want to do?

Here are the most common suspects:

1. Confusing Achieving With Doing

It’s easy to confuse the two. Achieving is about getting, goals, an endpoint, an outcome — you want to learn the sax to play in a band, you want to leave your partner or job to find a better one that makes you happy, you want to be more assertive so people will respect you more. Doing is about…doing: the learning the sax, the leaving the partner or job, the being assertive.

You can usually control the doing, but less so the outcome. You may learn the sax and never play in a band. You may leave your partner or job and not find better one. You may be more assertive but not have others respond the way you hoped. Achieving involves a bit of luck and opportunity, things you can't control; doing doesn’t.

Focus on the doing — the action, the behaviors, the decisions. It may be a means to a bigger end, but right now make the doing the end.

2. Confusing Shoulds and Wants

You should leave your partner or job or be more assertive (no shoulds on the sax I suspect) because others say so, your parents say so, because you read it somewhere here or in a magazine. But do you want to? Shoulds are heady stuff, wants are gut reactions. Shoulds quickly get contradictory and overwhelming and guilt-ridden, wants usually don’t. Go for the wants — they’re more solid and lasting.

To keep yourself from simply going of autopilot, slow down and before making a decision ask yourself: "Is this something I want or something I think I should do?" Wait, take your time, see what emerges -- a "supposed to," an expectation of others, a real solid gut reaction of wanting. Now sometimes a should is actually a modified want, one based not on others but your own deep and committed values. If it comes from there, your core base, go for it.

3. Confusing Skills and Emotions

Of course, you lack the skills to play the saxophone and you know you’ll need some help from somewhere to learn. But communication in a relationship is also a skill, as is being assertive or job-hunting or dating again for that matter. What’s important is not to mistake what may seem initially to be about emotions or personality for skills that are learnable.

So you don't get emotionally overwhelmed or dismiss what you want because "it's not you," realize that you can learn pretty much anything and with therapists and YouTube videos and guidance from friends you can, if you persist, prevail. Will it feel awkward for a while — sure, just like it was when you tried to learn to ride a bike — but in spite of it all you eventually did. It’s about training your mind and body, but it is trainable.

4. Lacking Resources

Okay, drilling down to the practical. You have no money for sax lessons or a place to go to if you leave your partner or job. Or you don’t have the time or emotional energy to do any of the above. Here you may need to begin to think outside the box — other ways to get or save money, other ways of making the time or redistributing your energy. This is usually about sorting out and re-setting clear priorities. What you don’t want to do is give up, feel trapped.

And if you really, really don’t feel you have the resources to make the bold move, what baby steps can you take: Save your money for lessons, make some new effort to change the relationship climate, downgrade the job to a “job” for now while you continue to brainstorm a career? This is not about giving in or giving up, but moving forward in-spite-of.

5. Anxiety

If we think of resources as the practical side of the stopped equation, anxiety is most often the emotional side. Anxiety is about worry, and worry can take various forms. Sometimes it is about simply feeling overwhelmed — about finding a saxophone or a teacher, about the logistics of leaving your partner or job, or how to even begin to translate assertiveness into action.

Or it’s worry about other people’s reactions: You imagine that friends will make fun of your sax passion, or that your partner will be devastated by your leaving and never recover, or you will find a job that turns out to be like the last job or that you will never find job and will be living in a cardboard box on the street, or your assertive stance will make all your friends pull away.

The problem here is that what you think is the problem is not the problem, but that your anxiety is running amok and overriding your rational mind. Time to calm yourself down and get your rational brain back online. Look at that worse-case scenario — the laughing friends, devastated partner, no job — and see if you can come up with a game plan to handle it. Then plot next steps — figuring out, for example, how to talk to your partner or boss about leaving. Don’t let the feelings of anxiety stop you; find a way to calm them down and take action to push them off your plate.

6. Ambivalence

Here folks say things like “I know what I don’t want but have no idea about what I do want.” Ambivalence translates into some mushy, muddy unclarity. So you do your best to sort out the shoulds and wants, and push aside the anxiety, but after all that you are still “feeling” undecided.

The key here is a couple of things. One is that you often need more information — about sax lessons or cost of apartments or the about the job market — to help you clarify your want. But the other is strengthening your gut reactions overall -- think of them as emotional crunches. If, for example, you get a sudden desire for pizza, or to call an old boyfriend -- do it. This is not about pizza or the boyfriend but about decisive action, and by acting you learn to trust those gut reactions, which in turn helps you get away from your shoulds and anxiety. With bold steps you get...bolder.

7. Self-Criticism, Perfectionism

The theme here is that you don’t do because you have to do it right, which translates into making no mistakes, achieving the outcome you hoped for, having nothing to regret. This is obviously about confusing doing with achieving, shoulds and wants, but also throws in a hefty dose of just plain having too high expectations of yourself, a bullying voice, a need to do things perfectly or not at all. A bad way to run your life.

Start by not confusing doing and achieving, but then you want to consciously override that critical, perfectionist voice: You may take sax lessons and find you hate it — no big deal -- but when your critical voice tells you that you should have known better, that you wasted your time, that you should not be a quitter and follow through regardless, you want to push back by saying to yourself that you tried the sax because you were curious and glad you did. Ditto for the partner or job -- that you left because you finally realized you needed to and that you are proud that you had the courage to take action. And what happens next is a separate chapter which you have some, but not total control over.

Next, you can ramp this up one more step: Realize that your self-criticism itself may be a problem that is handicapping your life. Don’t feed the dragon but trying to be ever-more perfect, nor beat yourself up for being self-critical, but instead experiment with lowering those standards, accepting the making of mistakes and realizing that it's okay to change your mind. It’s part of being human.

8. Pessimism

This is often a variation of self-criticism where it's easy to give up before you start: "Why bother, I’ll never be good at sax and get in a band, I’ll never find a better partner or job, I’ll never get the respect that assertiveness will bring me." Always the loser, the half-empty glass. I don’t want because wanting never goes anywhere.

This way of thinking may indicate clinical depression, and if so, you may need help to directly address it. But it also may be a confusing of achieving with doing, shoulds with wants, or a learned protective stance based upon things having not worked out in the past. Like self-criticism your not-doing is a reflection of an underlying problem, a way of thinking and treating yourself that you need to tackle directly.

That's the list; hopefully all food for thought. In looking this over you may find new ones or variations that resonate for you, and obviously, several of these can be at play. But the larger theme is that of stepping back — looking at the larger picture of your life, uncovering what and how keeps you from getting what you want. Try to find the larger process, the emotions and skills that keep you from moving forward.

Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness: Time to pursue?

More from Robert Taibbi L.C.S.W.
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