Believing That You Can Stop
Heads up: I’m really struggling to write this week due to *gestures broadly*, and also I thought today was Tuesday, so this is written more last minute and off the cuff than I suggested new posts would be in Starting Again.
Often we have things that we feel conflicted about doing. Maybe we’re conflicted because we both do and don’t want to do them, or because we don’t want to do them but should (or feel we should) do them. Whatever the reason, we have reasons to do the thing and not to do the thing.
For me recently this was going for walks. I’ve been tired and sad recently (nothing is terribly wrong, it’s just winter blues and the ongoing global pandemic), and clearly going for walks would help with this - sunlight and exercise and fresh air and such. I even mostly like going for walks while I’m outside. Walks are nice. Also it’s cold and grey outside, and there are a million minor issues with going for walks that I want to avoid (I won’t bore you with the details).
One of the principle issues with walks though is that as well as being unpleasant in a lot of ways they tend to be long. Essentially there’s nowhere really worth walking around here that results in a walk that’s less than an hour long, and the good walk is two and a half hours.
From this point of view, it’s actually quite reasonable that I don’t want to go for a walk: It’s potentially quite unpleasant, and if it ends up unpleasant I’m stuck doing it for hours with no escape. This makes it fairly high risk, so it’s not very surprising that I experience a certain amount of aversion to it.
Of course, this isn’t true. Going for a walk absolutely doesn’t have to be that long.
It’s certainly true that a “complete” walk is long like that, but I can always just turn around. I could walk out of my flat, take two steps, loudly shout “NOPE” and walk back in (obligatory illustrative video provided by ducks). This is entirely permitted.
The ability to stop is a great way to remove the risk from potentially large tasks: You try things out, see what happens, and if it’s fine you keep doing it and if it’s not fine you stop (cf. The fastest way to learn something is to do something), minimal cost incurred. If it turns out to be less bad than you feared and you enjoy it, you can do more of it!
Great, problem solved, right?
Except of course I knew all this, and yet I was still not going for walks.
Why? Well because at an emotional level I didn’t believe any of it, and was still digging my heels in and refusing.
I think this is because although stopping early is permitted, it doesn’t feel permitted. Some part of me is very clearly reacting as if even when I say “I’m going for a walk but I’ll stop if it it’s bad”, I won’t actually stop if it’s bad, so even with that as the plan I’m still, emotionally, reacting as if this is the same plan as going for the long walk.
Why am I reacting this way?
Well I spent some time on Monday (with the aid of a friend who I do a coaching exchange with) poking at this feeling and it turns out to probably be fairly straightforward.
I want you to imagine being a small child and an adult (teacher, family member, etc.) is trying to get you to do something says “Why don’t you just give it a try? We can stop if you don’t like it”. What do you think happens if you go along with this plan and five minutes in decide that it’s indeed just as bad as you feared?
I don’t know about you, but to me it is very obvious that the adult was lying. You absolutely will not be permitted to stop, they’ll just come up with some new bullshit to override your objections to doing the thing.
As a result, as a child you’ve learned a set of behaviours around this strategy that are entirely reasonable in the context they were learned. If you give them an inch they will take a mile, so as soon as some adult says “Just try it and see” the only reasonable response is to dig in your heels and shout “No! Don’t wanna!” - you need to enforce the boundary hard and early, because anything less will not work. The feeling of stubborn resistance that wells up here is precisely the sort of emotional reaction you need to enable that strategy.
Once we’ve learned this emotional reaction to this strategy, it tends to stick around, and this is probably where this reaction comes from.
Learning to Trust Yourself
The solution to this problem is, I think, to learn to trust yourself. Sadly this looks less like the “Believe in yourself and everything will work out!” and more like the slow and difficult process of building trust with anyone else (cf. Trust).
This problem is sometimes an example of the problem I pointed out in Your emotions are valid but probably wrong: We learn emotional reactions in a childhood context, but we retain them into adulthood where they may no longer be appropriate. In this particular case though they’re only probably inappropriate: It’s entirely possible you’re just treating yourself like this, and “you can stop if you want” really is a lie you’re using to cajole yourself into doing something part of you doesn’t want to do. Don’t do that.
If you’re deciding to do something on the basis that you can stop if it’s bad, you need to actually stop if it’s bad. If you’re going to just continue to push yourself into doing the thing you don’t want, the emotional reaction you started with was spot on. You, like the adult we were imagining above, were in fact lying and the part of you that doesn’t want to do this was entirely correct not to trust you and is reacting perfectly reasonably.
This is the first part of building trust in yourself: You have to actually be trustworthy, and the core of that is not lying to yourself about things like this.
It also seems to be helpful to treat these objections seriously. The part of you that doesn’t want to do this thing probably is being basically reasonable. I really can give you a long list of reasons why I don’t want to go for a walk and honestly most of them are pretty valid, but it would be very easy to write the whole thing off as laziness / weakness of will (cf. On Laziness). If instead of writing it off as irrelevant I pay attention to and try to understand the problems, this seems to help defuse the reaction (even if the conclusion is that there’s not much I can do to address them!)
Another thing that seems to help is, paradoxically, to stop fighting the feeling. If the part of you that objects to doing the thing is really insistent today, it’s better to just say “OK, that’s fine” and not try to pressure yourself into doing the thing. The pressure probably wouldn’t work, and removing it will make you happier and help you learn that your preferences really aren’t going to be overridden.
There’s probably more to it than this but at this point I’m overgeneralising from an emotional realisation I had two days ago, so I can’t tell you a complete strategy. In general though, I think trying to develop trust between all parts of yourself is probably a great approach to take to a lot of problems, and it seems to be one that has at least some leverage here.
At any rate, I did in fact go for a walk today. It was very pleasant.