While it can feel comforting to come up with a reason why we or other people behave in a certain way, simply having insight and knowing (or thinking that we know) the “why” behind people’s motivations does not necessarily translate into taking effective action to deal with the situation. Yes, it’s been said that “The unexamined life is not worth living” (Socrates), and there is a time and place for introspection. There is also an equally important time and place for translating the resultant deeper understanding into constructive change, be this in our actions or our attitude.
Many of us have invested much time and energy in trying to understand the basis of our and other people’s issues. As a result, we see on an intellectual level that, for instance, our anxiety may be rooted in a fear of rejection, perfectionistic tendencies, a domineering parent, or a traumatic experience. This can be very helpful, no doubt. However, one difference between people who move forward and progress on emotional and spiritual levels and people who stay stuck in their “stuff” seems to be the willingness (or lack thereof) to try out new ways of thinking and acting, and to tolerate the (often temporary) discomfort that tends to accompany unfamiliar ways of being. Yet, it is in getting out of our comfort zone where meaningful growth often occurs. In fact, in many cases, waiting until our thinking changes may be putting the cart in front of the horse. It’s been said that “you can’t think your way into right acting, but you can act your way into right thinking.” So, often it’s by trying new behaviors and learning from our experience that our thinking finally undergoes significant change.
When you were a child, there were many, many things you had to learn from scratch and possibly with a fair amount of trepidation. First you learned to crawl, then stand, and then walk, and you probably fell down a lot at first– which was expected and part of the process. If you were fortunate enough to have parents who encouraged you to persevere and who praised your progress, that may have helped you to learn the following: Usually the only way to reduce our anxiety is to do the thing that makes us anxious, tolerate our feelings, and learn that we can live through the ordeal, and that the experience probably wasn’t as horrific as we’d expected. I say “usually”, because some individuals with chronic anxiety stemming in part from biochemical issues can benefit from medication. However, even in these cases people usually can be helped by psychotherapy that targets cognitive shifts and behavioral changes. The combination of acceptance that we feel scared and the courage to make changes despite our fear are often the route to recovery, rather than the analysis-paralysis that can result from overthinking why we are the way we are.
For instance, let’s say that you recognize with your logical mind that people at a party probably aren’t all talking behind your back in derogatory terms. They are probably discussing and thinking about other topics. However, you have a long-standing pattern of believing that people don’t like you, and, as a result, of avoiding parties and other social functions. Over time, your missing out on socializing leads you to feel isolated and lonely.
You go to therapy, experience your therapist’s warm regard and acceptance, discuss the origins of your anxiety, and come up with some alternative explanations for why people might glance your way at a party. Instead of thinking “She looked at me and thought ‘What a loser’, so she then looked away”, you might tell yourself, “She looked at me and is probably shy about eye contact. I could walk over, introduce myself, and ask her name. She might be grateful to me for making the overture.”
Next comes the job of taking these new perspectives into an actual party and behaving in a friendlier and more approachable manner. The good news is that in doing so you’ll have made a beginning in creating new neural pathways in your brain, which will generally make this new behavior a little easier the next time around, and even easier the third time around. The not-such-good news is that you’ll probably feel all sorts of emotions, and not all of them pleasant, when trying out a new behavior. This is where it can feel tempting to retreat back to your old patterns, which at least feel familiar to you (and thus, in the short run, easier).
And this is where you get to choose between courage and comfort. Some quotes on courage which may inspire you to take the courageous road:
“We don’t develop courage by being happy every day. We develop it by surviving difficult times and challenging adversity.” (Barbara De Angelis)
“Strength doesn’t come from what you can do. It comes from overcoming the things you once thought you couldn’t.” (Rikki Rogers)
“Remember that nothing would get done at all if a person waited until he could it so well that no one could find fault with it.” (Sheila Waters)
“People have a hard time letting go of their suffering. Out of fear of the unknown, they prefer suffering that is familiar.” (Thich Nhat Hanh)
“One can choose to go back toward safety or forward toward growth. Growth must be chosen again and again; fear must be overcome again and again.” (Abraham Maslow)
“Move out of your comfort zone. You can only grow if you are willing to feel awkward and uncomfortable when you try something new. “ (Brian Tracy)
“Fear is a reaction. Courage is a decision.” (Winston Churchill)
“Argue for your limitations, and sure enough, they’re yours. “(Richard Bach)
“Vulnerability is not winning or losing; it’s having the courage to show up and be seen when we have no control over the outcome. Vulnerability is not weakness; it’s our greatest measure of courage.” (Brene Brown)
When venturing forth in your life and trying out new behaviors, be patient with yourself and remember that making adjustments usually involves growing pains. It can help to be accountable to someone, such as a trusted friend or therapist, about the steps you plan to take, and to follow up with that person once you’ve taken your planned actions. Do remember, though, that as Rumi said, “It’s your road, and yours alone. Others may walk it with you, but no one can walk it for you.” However strong your support system is, ultimately you are the one responsible for your choices and evolution.