Everyone believes this myth: That if you know the cause of your unhappiness and what you need to do to change it you will reasonably take the steps necessary to do so.
This myth suggests to you that if you understand why you are unhappy and you know what you need to do, then that is 90% of the problem solved. It is seeing yourself as a reasonable person because, very simply, if you know what the problem is and how to solve it then you will solve it. It’s simple and makes total sense.
Unfortunately this is not true. We are unreasonable people, if the real truth be known. 70% of people who have lung cancer from smoking continue to smoke! 90% of people who suffer from obesity continue to eat too much. People who get anxious because of worrisome thinking continue to worry.
Though you begin to realise that this myth is foolish, it is so embedded in our thinking and logic and conditioning that it is impossible to erase it. Parents roar at their children for not being logical or reasonable, spouses engage in intense conflict over the other person’s so-called unreasonable behaviour.
The real problem with unhappiness and depression is that knowing what you need to do often not make a whit of a difference because the problem is not related to a lack of knowledge or information. You will surely recognise this in yourself – that the reasons you continue to act in ways that are not really in your best interest have nothing whatsoever to do with a lack of information. You and I are emotional, symbolic, fearful, and insecure people in some many harmless ways.
The reason we don’t do what we know would be good for us has to do with a number of other things other than knowledge. Our behaviour is guided by motivation, beliefs, ritual and habit, and a form of spiritual necessity. We must see the improvement of our well-being in terms of a responsibility and discipline as much as a technique.
To make significant changes in one’s life one needs a mixture of desperation and inspiration mixed together. One needs some sense of immediacy, urgency, or inspiration to move and take the kind of inner and outer action you need.
What stops people from actually doing what they know they need to do? What is it in you, and I, that can read a dozen self-help books and have them forgotten as soon as they are put aside?
I would suggest that for many of us the fantasy of change is almost sufficient. There is a form of comforting self-soothing that occurs when you read something about what you need to do and you are able to say to yourself “Yes, that’s good. I could do that if I wanted to!” or when you say “That’s very useful information that I could use at some point…I’ll get back to it!”, “Or there is nothing new in this, I know that these are the things I need to do, and I could do them, in fact I might do them..”. And you continue to sooth yourself with the fantasy of change, with the addiction to imagined possibilities. But nothing happens. In fact the problem is more to do with a certain detachment from oneself and one’s reality that is the problem.
This slight detachment allows you to then not feel any urgency, obligation, responsibility, or spiritual motivation. You detach yourself from your self and float above yourself looking down feeling sorry for yourself but void of the urgency of having to take action.
Because this kind of detachment appears so intelligent it does not appear to be the impotent day-dreaming that it really is.
Another reason you don’t take action is because you lack the three C’s – conviction, certainty, and commitment. To change your ways you need a strong enough reason to need to change. You need to have a sense of certainty that you are going to change, a conviction within yourself and a commitment to take action. Without this desire, motivation, and utter conviction that action is going to be taken then you are still left with nothing more than wishful thinking.
There is a great deal of difference between a good intention and a committed decision.
Again, there is a huge difference between someone who states that they must lose weight or get fit from someone who says that would like to lose weight or will hopefully get fit.
The other reason you don’t move is that you have not really developed a clarity as to why you must change – that is your deep seated motivation for change. For this to be effective you do very often have to dig deep into your sense of responsibility and obligation to yourself or others to make changes. Alcoholics have to do this to stop drinking. The same kind of thinking has to apply to changing any bad habits or negative patterns such as anxiety or depression.
All of these elements, becoming les detached from yourself, developing conviction, and being clear about why you need to change all come together into what must be a kind of spiritual discipline for yourself that is converted into ritualised action.
Dr. Colm O'Connor is a Cork Psychologist. He has written hundreds of articles on family psychology - some posted here.