Actually, a lot, as it turns out.
I started thinking about this during brunch this past weekend when my friend Heidi talked to me about the trials and tribulations of trying to potty-train her 3-year-old son.
"He's just not ready to do it," she said with resignation. "And all the prodding and pushing from our end is just making it take longer. When he's ready, he's ready and that's it." She told me that she and her husband have decided to take their 3-year-old's lead for potty training rather than the other way around. They have learned the hard (and, I suppose, messy) way that trying to force their toddler onto a timeline was like trying to reason with the unreasonable.
I put down my bagel and admired her decision to wait -- to let the change come naturally rather than trying to force it out of fear. I thought to myself that her to potty-training her son could be a useful way of thinking about personal change.
I have been a therapist for the better part of the past 10 years and I can tell you from experience that when people are in conflict between where they are and where they want to be, they often make matters worse by trying to force an immediate solution. This usually doesn't work because the timing is not right and trying to make it so is akin to fighting yourself -- which, needless to say (but I will say it anyway) is a losing battle.
Instead of trying to force an immediate resolution, just wait. Moving slowly and wisely is often the quickest approach. If you can embrace your conflict as temporary you are already well on your way. But how might this work in reality?
Let's say you are stuck in a job with a miserable excuse of a boss. Finally, your boss takes it too far and now you just want out. If you are like most people, you will try to force your behavior and thoughts into alignment in one of two ways. You will either:
1. Bail Out -- by immediately quitting or starting to look for a new job, or
2. Lie -- to yourself by trying to convince yourself that your situation is not that bad, when in reality, it is.
Both of these approaches are born out of the discomfort and disconnect between thoughts and feelings, and both of them are needlessly reckless in different ways. In this economy and job market, bailing out of a job may be a dangerous move for obvious reasons, but lying to yourself can also harm you in unforeseen ways. When you lie to yourself, you begin to doubt your sense of self and inner wisdom, which can hold you down and back in the long run. Don't do either of these things. Instead, wait. Bide your time until you are ready to make your next move.
Try this three-step approach:
Accept, Abide, and Attack
1. Accept -- the truth. Your situation is lousy, but remind yourself that it won't
Accepting the conflict is the best course of action because if you spend less time fighting your feelings, you will have more energy for taking action on the things that your rational mind wants when the time is right.
2. Abide -- by your current circumstances. Wait until you have all of your mental and emotional resources in alignment before making your next move.
Waiting can be tough, but you can endure anything if you know there's something better coming along. If you are experiencing a conflict between your thoughts and feelings, try reminding yourself that feelings change, and they change more quickly and easily then, when you are not trying to resist them.
3. Attack -- your next big thing with passion and fury
Once your passions have subsided and you can approach your next big thing with a clear and confident mind, attack with abandon. When your feelings and thoughts are together your energy is aligned. It is then that you can attack what's next with everything you have. And when you do, you will reap the benefits.
Reap the Benefits
It doesn't matter whether your vision is a joyful relationship, a successful career, or just simply being able to go to the potty by yourself. You can do it, but you can only do it when the time is right. Even if that time is a little later than you would like, if you keep this in mind, you will be ready when it comes. Plus, it may come sooner than you think.
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