Susan David is professor of Psychology at Harvard Medical School, co-founder and co-director of instituteofcoaching.org. She lives in Boston with her husband and two children.
How many of us wade through modern life, wishing we were being someone better or doing something bigger, yet finding somehow, that our day-to-day actions aren’t moving us in the right direction? Whether you want to start a business, do a charity run, improve your marriage or start dating again, it could be your own self-defeating thoughts and habits holding you back. So how can you dig deep, break old patterns and harness your own superpowers to live the life you want?
Identify unhelpful thought patterns
We all have them. We’re ‘meaning-making machines’ – struggling to make sense of the sights, sounds, experiences and relationships swirling around us. We organise all this into narratives, creating stories and meaning – and some are helpful while others really aren’t. Here are some common habits which hold us back from realising our potential.
‘I felt self-conscious so I didn’t mingle at the party’. ‘I thought I’d sound stupid, so I didn’t put forward my idea at the meeting’. ‘I thought he should call me, so I didn’t call him.’ In each, we blame our thoughts for our actions or inactions. We all have thoughts – we’re constantly bombarded by internal chatter. Some thoughts can be unwelcome. Many are wrong. We don’t have to act on them.
We resolutely reject other people trying to pigeonhole us yet we often unconsciously put ourselves in rigid boxes. ‘I’m terrible at public speaking’. ‘I don’t let my guard down’. ‘ My family say I’ve always been a control freak’. Such thinking does make for easy sorting and snap decisions but it also shuts down possibilities. Some may call you a ‘control freak’ but perhaps you’re just ‘organised’. You may have had one attempt at public speak, maybe a wedding or presentation, that didn’t go well – but we’re malleable and we can learn. Falling back on old stories and absolute statements fails to recognise that people and circumstances can – and do – change.
This is the slide from fact to opinion to judgement to anxiety. ‘I’m working slowly today’ becomes ‘Gosh, I’m much slower than most people’ then if you find it’s all piling up and you’re missing a deadline, ‘This is a disaster’.
How to change
Don’t waste energy trying to bat all these unhelpful thought patterns away – that’s stressful and exhausting (‘Oh no, I’m having that thought again!’) Instead, work to create a space between yourself and your thoughts. Be aware of them but not a slave to them. Who’s in charge – the thought or the thinker? You don’t need to accept them as your opinion and you certainly don’t need to act on them. Instead, work out what your deepest values are (see below) and align your actions with those
Know your values
Knowing and acting on the values that are truly your own is the ultimate superpower – and it isn’t easy. We’re bombarded with messages about what’s important and it’s tempting to ‘go with the flow’, so you drift through days on autopilot but get further away from the life you want. Values aren’t ‘goals’ – goals are fixed. Values are the guiding principles that give your life purpose.
How to change
Ask yourself deep down, what matters to you? What do you want your life to be about? For example, if being a good friend is high on your list of values, explore exactly what that looks like to you rather than trying to conform to a general notion of what a ‘good friend’ is. Another useful exercise to identify values is to ask yourself each night, ‘What did I do today that was worth my time?’ For the best possible answer, be aware of the following:
Each day brings a myriad of tiny decision points, forks in the road where you can choose to move closer to your values or drift on autopilot. Do you walk up the stairs or take the elevator? Do you put forward your idea in a meeting or stay silent? When you sit down with your husband at the end of the day, do you put your phone away while you talk, or keep one eye on social media? Be aware that each tiny choice point gives you the power to make life better.
Change isn’t a one off event – it’s a process, a series of small moments and slight adjustments. Don’t focus on a seemingly impossible end result – ‘I’m not creative. I wish I was.’ Direct your energy to the small, positive steps you can make each day. For example if being more creative is important think about finding an art class, a workshop, one sketch, one poem.
Turn each good choice point, each positive small step, into an intentional habit. If you want to improve your marriage, make a habit of greeting your husband and engaging when he comes through the door. If you want to make better use of your time when you’re travelling for work, have enjoyable things like a podcast, a novel as well as work documents. The more you do it, the easier – and more automatic – it becomes.
Expand your comfort zone
Studies show that most of us apply ourselves to a task when we’re still learning the skill – and stop exerting effort once we’ve reached an acceptable level of performance (then we relax and tread water). Only a quarter of us will keep going, break on through and continue to improve. In addition things we find difficult or scary we by-pass. Consequently our zone of experience shrinks rather than expands, even if staying in our comfort zone means being unhappy in a job or relationship. Fulfilling our potential means pushing beyond your comfort zone, engaging with life at the edge of your ability. Ask yourself, ‘What have I done lately that scares me? When was the last time I tried something and failed? When was the last time I felt vulnerable investing my full passion and laying it on the line?’ If you draw a blank, you’re probably playing it too safe. As you take on a challenge remember that it’s okay to stumble and admirable to fail. As long as your endeavours are in sync with your values, you’ll emerge richer.
There’s a misconception that we have to be tough on ourselves to get ahead, that a strong inner critic will sharpen our edge. If your child came home in tears after failing a school test, would you yell, ‘You’re such a loser!’ Of course you wouldn’t! If you’re passed over for promotion at work, if the 10k run proved too much, then berating yourself and beating yourself up will not give you an edge. Yes, it’s important to understand your weaknesses and acknowledge your mistakes, but act as a loving friend to yourself. Self-compassion – instead of self-loathing – is associated with healthy behaviours like eating right, exercising and sleeping well. Those who won’t forgive themselves believe the world is unforgiving too – and that breeds a crippling fear of failure. With some healthy self-compassion, we’re able make mistakes, pick ourselves up and try again. It gives us freedom to fail – and freedom to fly.
Susan David’s new book Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change and Thrive in Work and Life is out on 7 April (Penguin Life)