New things are hard. Many times we either live in a perpetual state of not doing them, or we start them and then gradually stop. We are not these failures who can’t hack it. We are not making things harder than they need to be. Everyone else is not out there, going around being better at doing new things than you are. This epic struggle is a universal, being a human thing. But why?!?! <Insert whiny tone.>
Well, our brains CRAVE the familiar. They are basically obsessed with it. It’s an energy conservation issue. We are wired for survival, and to survive we need to conserve our energy as much as possible. New things require a ton of work from our brains, which uses up resources. SO, our brains are like this super picky, cautious, snobby manager that rejects requests for action that it deems threatening to our energy stores. It nay says even things that we really strongly desire, in the spirit of rigidly defending ourselves from becoming depleted. This is super important-imagine if our brains were hyper, easily influenced, non-discerning managers who approved every request or thought that was suggested.
You have an idea to run across the street in the middle of the afternoon during yet another boring, ineffective meeting. A notion enters your mind to buy a tropical vacation package in the middle of the night when you are feeling tired and cold. When scrolling through Instagram, you notice an urge to contact your high school boyfriend to see if he regrets how he treated you. Thank your brain for choosing to not follow through on those ideas!
Where this feature of our brain becomes irritating is when we are SERIOUS about wanting to do a thing and DEEPLY DESIRE to follow through on it. We wish we weren’t dissuaded by uncomfortable feelings: doubts and fears about what could happen; limitations on our schedules; other demands on our time…but it’s sooooo easy to. That’s why it is INCREDIBLY helpful to have a plan. To be specific: a 5 step plan that was conceived by the amazing Dr. Brené Brown.
Do you know Brené? Let me introduce you, if you are not familiar. She is a ROCK STAR of psychological research. She gained widespread recognition after giving a phenomenal TED Talk about vulnerability, and then one about shame. (If you have not seen these yet, you must stop everything and go watch.) Do it. This blog will be here – thank you for your desire to finish reading it – but you know you are going to forget if you don’t do it now. I’ll wait.
Welcome back! Brené researches, lectures, and writes about courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy. What stands out to me about her brand is the strength of research methods combined with the ability to explain and market her findings in ways which everyone (not just fellow academics) can understand and apply to their own lives. In her first ever podcast episode, she described her strategy for “staying in tough first times versus tapping out and shutting down.” As always-she got it so right. Highly recommend you listen to that episode, and the rest of her podcast Unlocking Us. This is not sponsored, I just really love me some Brené. She observes that being new at things is a completely vulnerable experience. Her nickname for new things are F*cking First Times: FFTs. When we are vulnerable, we also tend to feel afraid, uncomfortable, awkward. And when we feel those feelings-we shut down. In our culture, observing something as weird or awkward has become a shorthand for: stop, you shouldn’t be doing that, that’s not ok, what are you thinking you idiot. BUT, when we stop doing things that make us uncomfortable-we also intensely limit our capacity for feeling energized, excited, engaged, motivated. When we feel challenged, we feel alive!
When in the new thing and feeling vulnerable, a life of ease, sipping mai tais on the beach sounds EXACTLY like what we need. But-seriously: if we play the tape of this plan all the way through, we would probably see a life that isn’t actually appealing.
Imagine sitting on a beach, sipping mai tais (or whatever the equivalent relaxation fantasy is for you). Imagine doing that for an hour. An afternoon. A day. Four days. A week. Two weeks. Two months. Two years. Two decades. Somewhere in there, I begin to get bored and unfulfilled. I feel frustrated by not having a challenge to use my mind towards. Things become, just, highly uninteresting.
SO, it is in our best interest to do new things AND we are actually capable of doing new things: even when it doesn’t feel that way. I know, I don’t know you and what your new thing is. But I promise-I know people. And the research. While we absolutely are not capable of doing ANYTHING that we want to, I’ll tell you what-we are capable of doing a lot more than we think we are. I don’t know that you will be successful at the thing you want to do, but I do know that you are capable of trying. That said, I don’t know about you, but when things are hard, I thrive with a plan. Brené’s FFT plan (with an extra step that my clients and I came up with) is:
- Name it.
- Connect to your “why.”
- Get perspective.
- Reality check expectations.
- Name the experience.
Name it. We often avoid naming something consciously, subconsciously, or entirely obliviously. We tend to not name, acknowledge or put words to what we are experiencing (whether we realize we are or not) out of a spirit of denial, as well as belief that if I pretend that it’s not there, it won’t be happening. <insert fingers in ears while muttering “la la la, can’t hear you”> We think that naming the problem or feeling or boogie man makes it real, when it otherwise wouldn’t be. Or, we fear that it will give the issue more power. I am here to tell you folks: ain’t a lick of that be true. We actually GAIN power over something when we name it. Research has shown that our body’s stress responses DECREASE when we label what we are feeling. It’s magic, friends. Or rather, science. It’s magic science. You may have heard the phrase “name it to tame it” as a way to help kids with their feelings. Wouldn’t you know it, it applies to adults, too. When we are procrastinating, feeling anxious, worried about how we are going to incorporate the new thing into our life, fearing that we are an imposter, thinking that there is no way that we are not going to fail at this: we are in an FFT.
Saying to ourselves-“I’m in an FFT, that’s what these feelings and thoughts are about. I’m not necessarily feeling this way because this is a terrible idea that I should give up.” gives us power over it.
Connect to your “why.” This is the step my clients and I added, and I am sure Brené will be calling any day now to see if she can officially incorporate it into her model. (Brené-thank you for asking, of COURSE you can use this. You’ve given us so much, it’s an honor to give back to you. Want to get lunch this week?) When doing a new thing, it is INCREDIBLY tempting to scrap the whole idea. We are feeling vulnerable and afraid and all sorts of other uncomfortable emotions. Why am I choosing to put myself through this again? Oh yeah, because this is really important to me. I am really excited about the potential impact of this project. I WANT to feel better in my body. I have been desiring this change for a long time. I want to have less suffering in my relationships, and I think this is the way I’m going to get that.
Remembering why we want to go through the discomfort of the new thing is so important in getting ourselves to push through, instead of quitting. Writing this step down can be especially magically helpful.
Normalize. When we recognize that we are feeling discomfort because we are doing a new thing, it’s also helpful to honor that literally everyone feels this way during an FFT. We aren’t doing something totally weird and creating this terrible feeling because we are uniquely bad at doing new things, while everyone else in the world feels joy, confidence, fulfillment, and ease when they do new things. Nope. NNNNope. It’s supposed to feel this way. And when we know something is working as it is supposed to-that makes us feel reassured. The treetop rope bridge is supposed to sway. That isn’t a sign that it is broken or about to fall apart. It’s supposed to sway, and you are supposed to feel like shit when you are doing a hard, new thing.
Saying to ourselves that everyone feels this way when they do new things soothes our hearts. Aw!
Get perspective. Ok, this is an FFT, it’s important to us, and it’s supposed to suck. When we are in these difficult feelings, we tend to generalize in two ways: 1) about how long it will last, and 2) about whether we suck at everything we do and not just the new thing. We don’t know how long the new thing will feel sucky. That’s just a fact. However, it won’t last forever-so hold tight and be on the alert for any lights at the end of the struggle tunnel. And, just because we are not awesome at this new part, that doesn’t mean we aren’t great at other things. Bringing to mind other ways that we are doing ok and not messing everything up, adds another narrative to the stories of failure and imposter syndrome.
Acknowledging that this will last for awhile but not forever, and that there are some things that I am good at is helpful in reigning in our feelings.
Reality check expectations. While this isn’t going to suck for eternity…it is going to be hard for awhile, so Buckle. Up. Settle in. And embrace the party. I am here to tell you, no feelings last forever. When you have pleasant feelings, you know they won’t last forever, am I right? I cannot get through a massage or snuggle with my kids without having some preoccupation with the fact that my relaxing, joyful, grateful feelings are going to end before I want them to (but I keep getting better at not fixating on this fact and letting it get in the way of my present enjoyment!). Even if we WANTED to hold onto what we are feeling, we aren’t wired to be able to. Circumstances change, moods shift, feelings roll in, and roll out. No emotions last forever, and we aren’t going to struggle with the new thing for the rest of our lives. You won’t be new forever, but you will be new for awhile.
Giving yourself space to be uncomfortable and even bad at things is setting a realistic expectation for the new experience.
What is your FFT? Starting therapy? Going to an AA meeting? Getting a Peloton? Reaching out to someone from work to maybe become friends? Comment below with your experience, I’d love to hear how you are getting through your new thing, or what you are actively avoiding even though you wish you weren’t!
If you want to step up your game and get serious about doing more of what you want and less of what you don’t-you may need to be in Self-Care Class. We talk about all this stuff in greater depth, answer questions about how to apply it, and help you work through all the barriers life and your mind are throwing at you!