I’m just back from another week in China where I faced many temptations. These confronted me like ghosts from my past, taunting and double-dog daring me to submit. There was bread – the temptation to spend it as if I were still a single guy. The temptation to jump – back into businesses that I had long ago left for others to run, and the temptation to try and control everything. Better the devil we know than the devil we don’t know.
The gravitational pull of the past is deceptively strong. It’s tempting to give in to it because when we do, we follow well-trodden paths where everything is familiar. We fall back into repetitive cycles where we can take comfort in predictable outcomes. This condition is the most common reason for feeling “stuck”.
Feeling stuck comes from unconsciously repeating the past while believing we are creating change. When nothing really changes, we think that we must be doing something wrong or that “something is missing”. As a coach, I hear this complaint all the time. “Something is missing” and “being stuck” are both functions of the same unconscious behavior: doing things the same way and expecting a different outcome.
As my sister says, this is the true definition of mental illness. After all, it’s delusional to expect we will become someone different when we are being the same person we have always been all along. The temptation to be who we have been and do what we have done, is the way we build a comfort zone of familiar patterns that help us to define ourselves and our world. When we seek the unknown or deliberately create challenges that we’ve never before encountered, warning bells go off and a voice in our head says, “be careful, this isn’t who you are. You’re out of your element and you’ll probably fail.”
That is the voice of temptation. It’s the devil we know. So how do we become “unstuck” and create purposeful change that allows us to become the person we want to be? It begins with listening to our own self-talk; the way we interpret things that defines our feelings, behaviors, and beliefs formed from our past. When we listen to and articulate this internal chatter, we find that our life is based more on speculation, rather than observation. We act in ways that reflect our deeply rooted assumptions, rather than based on what is, or more importantly, what we want.
I’ll devote my entire next post to the model of self-talk, because it can immediately change our ability to recognize our patterns and create new patterns. When I became conscious of this perceptual mechanism, it allowed me to respond differently to long-held assumptions, and see what was really going on. I’ve since used it for thousands of participants from my personal leadership courses over the years and found it to have a profound impact on people.
Ten years ago I took part in Landmark Education’s Landmark Forum, which sparked a major transformation in my life. In the Forum, there is a lot of talk about possibility, and how to open ourselves to it, instead of doing the same thing over and over. Landmark has developed powerful conversations on getting unstuck, which inspired me to create important changes in my life and share these experiences in the context of my own courses on creating change.
One of the most memorable conversations form Landmark revolved around the analogy of a filing cabinet. I took my courses in San Francisco, but Landmark’s events are formulaic and somewhat scripted, so no matter where you go to take their courses, you’ll hear the same stories. So the Forum leader talked about how there are three filing cabinets in our mind; one from the past, one from the present and one from the future, and that as humans we make the mistake of taking things from our past and filing them in our future. We assume that past circumstances will determine our future, so pretty soon that future filing cabinet is filled up with things from the past. There’s no space to create a distinct future.
Change begins with the courage to challenge our own assumptions, and put the past back where it belongs. The temptation to repeat this past is a powerful part of our unconscious; it keeps us safe from the unknown. But it is just this unknown, the empty space in our filing cabinet, that we need to manifest what is possible.