Why do people avoid things that make them happy? For a long time I knew that things like exercise, mediation, going to therapy, eating healthy, etc., all lead to a more happy, balanced, and healthy life. However, engaging in those activities was met with a lot of mental resistance, which meant making them routine was that much harder. While I am far from having a perfectly balanced life, I have made some pretty significant changes in the past five years. Looking back, there were a few things that I realize were keeping me from making those changes earlier and faster, and they might be holding you back too.
- Change is scary!
You don’t have to have an anxiety disorder to fear the unknown. Our brain is programmed to experience uncertainty about new stimuli, this is both adaptive and protective. However, when in excess or not moderated, it can reinforce unhelpful narratives about how scary the new thing might be, and keep us from engaging.
To help yourself manage this, awareness is key. Say you want to try a new yoga class but you haven’t yet. Begin to explore some of the thoughts around signing up: perhaps you are worried because you’ve never done yoga, or don’t know what the instructor may be like, or worry you won’t be very good. Once you’ve identified the fears, you can normalize them. Tell yourself that it’s “ok” to be nervous about something new, but that you won’t let that keep you from trying. Our inner voice can be our cheerleader or critic, you get to choose!
- Change is hard!
Our brains are also wired to go the path of least resistance. So if we have a habit or established routine it’s hard to break! Therefore doing something new or different takes a lot of mental energy before we ever actually engage!
One of the ways we can increase motivation is by facing the discrepancy between what we want and what we are doing. For example, if you want to have more moments of peace and happiness, but spend your 45 minute commute listening to a podcast about stressful national news, you might find misalignment! That doesn’t mean you have to give up listening to the news, but you may have to add something else (say a meditation or breathing exercise) to your morning commute.
Sometimes our failure to engage in self-care comes from a more subconscious barrier. While you might not hear your inner voice telling you that you aren’t worth a gym membership or shopping for more healthy foods, you may find that you’ve put it off several months in a row in lieu of “more important” things. Similarly, you may find that even when sick you feel like you need to go into work and can’t take a day off.
The thought of putting ourselves first or taking care of ourselves may bring up painful untrue beliefs about personal selfishness or worthiness, however engaging in these acts often produce the inverse experience. When we treat our minds and body with respect and love, the feelings of loving kindness towards ourselves abounds.
- Lack of Immediate Gratification
If I get a headache I take a pain reliever. But eliciting happiness isn’t nearly as easy as that one to one correlation. In fact, things like meditation and yoga don’t often induce happiness immediately and instead slowly change your mind and body for the better. This lack of immediate gratification can be very difficult.
Therefore tracking your engagement and mood over time will help you see the long term benefit and reward. Also, learning skills that help you self-soothe when you have gotten emotionally flooded and overwhelmed can be of benefit.
While each of these aspects may be contributing to your avoidance, all can be addressed more thoroughly in therapy. Some of the interventions described above are related to therapeutic techniques associated with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), motivational interviewing (MI), dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), and acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT). Working with your therapist can help you overcome avoidance to your own peace and happiness.
Vanessa Kensing is a therapist at Cobb Psychotherapy. If you would like support with prioritizing self-care and reaching your goals, visit cobbpsychotherapy.com to learn more about how therapy can help.