Did you ever wonder why despite your best efforts and your most sincere desire and your absolutely clear intention to lose that weight, or exercise regularly or meditate every morning or give up your relentless grip on control or keep any other resolution that you may have made to yourself that you KNEW would make you and those around you happier…did you ever wonder why much more often than not you just don’t do it? Unless you’re very unlike most people, you’ve had the experience of failing to do what you really wanted to do not once or twice but countless times in your life. Confusion and suffering around this issue comes up so frequently for students and clients with whom I work that I was once seriously considering writing a book entitled: “I Know What I Want and What I Need To Do To Get It, So Why Don’t I Do It?” In fact I got clear that I actually WOULD write it. But guess what? I didn’t write it. That was four years ago. I still haven’t. I’m one of those people who has a bunch of things that have been on my to-do list that I think would be great for me to do. I know what it would take to get them done. I know that I have the ability to do them. I’m real clear that I want to get them done and that there would be great value for me in fulfilling these commitments, and yet, they remain on my list, undone.
There are of course other things that I do handle, many of them so quickly that they don’t even make it to the list because I take care of them almost as soon as I think of them. So what is it that determines whether they do or do not get done? Why is it that with some things I am one of the world’s greatest procrastinators yet others get taken care of immediately? I used to tell myself (and others who solicited my opinion) that “you’re just not committed to the things that you say you are committed to” or “you don’t really want it badly enough because if you did you would do it.” “Based on results” I would righteously proclaim, “you’re not really committed because if you were, you would have handled your resistance by now”. It always sounded right when I said it, and people rarely argued with me, but now, well, I’m not so sure. Maybe things are not so either/or, so black and white, so “either you are committed to doing what you say you are or you’re not.”
Lately I’ve been considering another possibility and that is that I AM committed to doing what I say I want to do, AND I also have another commitment that is in direct competition with this one that seems to be prevailing right now. Let’s use the example I used at the beginning of this essay. My conscious commitment is to write a book about why people don’t do what they say they want to do. OK, so six months after coming up with this brilliant idea, I realize that I have written exactly three sentences. BUT, I remind myself, although I haven’t actually written quite as much as I had expected I would , I HAVE spent a tremendous amount of time and energy thinking about it and feeling guilty about why I haven’t written more. So in my mind, that counts as something doesn’t it? I mean, I may not have written much, but I really am serious about this project because if I wasn’t, I wouldn’t be obsessing about it so much, AND all of that obsessing counts a time put into the book. It’s just that it didn’t actually show up as writing yet.
I know how crazy this sounds, and as embarrassing as it is to admit it, this IS the way my mind works. It can rationalize not doing something by claiming that feeling guilty and coming up with reasons and excuses why it didn’t get done counts as legitimate time put into the project. I don’t think that I would apply this kind of thinking to someone who I was paying to do a job for me, but I seem to have found it easy to apply to myself.
So, my conscious intention IS to write the book, but unbeknownst to me, I have this or more likely THESE other intentions that I’m not conscious of that are in are in direct competition with the commitment that I am aware of. The trouble is that until I can become aware of what they are I will continue to feel guilty and incomplete. I can’t see those other, competing commitments until I stop rationalizing, justifying, and excusing myself and start telling the truth. The truth isn’t that I’m a bad, lazy, dishonest, uncommitted, or stupid person; the truth is that I haven’t done it. Period. The rest is just judgment and speculation, which has nothing to do with the truth. It’s just my mind making up stories which have little if anything to do with reality. The problem is that when I buy into them, I diminish my ability to recognize the competing any commitments that may be overriding my conscious intention.
Once I tell the truth, without blame, shame, guilt, justification, or rationalization, just the raw unadulterated truth, then what has been outside of my field of perception comes into awareness. In this real-life case I began to see that there were multiple commitments that I was too busy honoring to even begin to get around to writing the book. Among them were:
A commitment to avoid the possibility of failing to complete the project. If you don’t start you can’t not finish it. A commitment to avoid the possibility of writing a book that wouldn’t get published or would get bad reviews. A commitment to protect myself from the possibility that this project that might take so much of my time and energy that I would have to sacrifice other things that I didn’t want to give up. A commitment to maintain the balance and equilibrium in my marriage that could be disturbed by my taking on a project that required a lot of my time and attention. A commitment to avoid confronting subject matter that could reveal something about me that I didn’t want to see or reveal to others. A commitment to maintain the status quo in my life and not risk upsetting the applecart. A commitment to avoid the possibility of disturbing or threatening others who might resent me if the book is successful. A commitment to avoid disgrace and possible humiliation if the book is a failure. Etc.
Bringing these concerns into awareness allowed me to examine their validity and to become clearer about the nature of the risks involved that I was unconsciously trying to avoid. When we do this we may come up with strategies for dealing with these concerns that we hadn’t previously considered.
Telling the truth about not writing the book is what enabled me to see and tell the truth about my unconscious commitments. When you do this, usually one of two things happen:
1. You get OK with not doing it and no longer hold it as a commitment. or 2. You are no longer possessed by the negative feelings that accompany an incomplete commitment and being freed up you may find yourself putting yourself more fully into the project.
In my case it was kind of a combination of one and two. I got clear that although the book was a good idea or concept in my mind, that my heart just wasn’t really in it. I did have a desire to pursue this subject, but not necessarily in the form of a book. (Perhaps something more like a newsletter article instead!). This insight enabled me to see what DID have meaning for me and what I could put my heart into and it turned out to be a book but on a completely different subject. Linda and I have been working on that book for a while and is way beyond the ‘wanna write it’ stage and well into the final edits stage of the process and will be published in about six months.
Although the writing process of this book has not been without it’s challenges and obstacles, there has never been even a moment when I doubted that it was the right thing to do or even considered the possibility of not completing it.
But what has been the greatest gift in this process, far beyond the production of the book itself, has been the peace of mind that I have found in relieving myself of the self-recrimination that I used to experience when I failed to fulfill the resolutions and promises that I made to myself. It’s not so much that I’m letting myself off the hook when I don’t do what I say I want to do (which I still find myself doing from time to time) but rather, I’m better able to see enough of the picture to come to terms with the underlying concerns that may be blocking my ability to fulfill my conscious desires. And that makes all the difference in the world.