It’s the reason we stay in bad relationships, eat the same foods, and overplay songs until we’re sick of them. We tend to like comfort, even when that comfort is uncomfortable.
Simply put, we’re creatures of habit. And when we decide to break a habit, we rarely have an immediate epiphany or feeling of freedom (no matter what those inspirational Instagram seem to say.) More often than not, change temporarily causes everything from anxiety, to depression, to a Ben & Jerry’s binge.
For example, I spent nine years in a relationship when I should have left after five. Why? Because making a change, even a necessary change, pushes you out of your comfort zone and into that awkward place that nobody likes called “growth.”
But, much like growing out a bad haircut, change doesn’t happen overnight.
Sure, we have growth spurts brought on by moments of clarity, loss, or motivation. But for the most part, humans don’t change until their discomfort in their current situation becomes greater than their fear of change. Growth is rarely linear and often requires a tipping point.
This wave-like cycle of upheaval and clarity is known as evolutionary catharsis. And, just like cleaning your closet, it gets a lot messier before it get better. The end result is that kick-ass “aha” moment when our brain is reorganized into a new state of greater awareness, functioning, and simplicity. We feel more connected to ourselves and are ready to take the necessary steps to get where we want in life.
So how does this work?
Right before we have a growth spurt, many of us have a temporary feeling of discomfort. This manifests as self-defeating behaviors. Learned in childhood as coping mechanisms,
These behaviors fall into three categories:
1. Those that try to reduce the amount of overwhelm by pushing energy out, such as:
- compulsive behaviors
2. Those that block additional energy from entering the system, such as:
- loss of appetite
3. Those aimed at distracting from the growing chaos inside them, such as:
- any form of addiction
- a ton of television-time
These three types of coping mechanisms are our system’s final, desperate attempts to preserve our status quo. After all, it’s scary and stressful to step into a new way of being. I’ve heard coaches call this “de-evolution,” but that's a misnomer as it’s a natural part of the evolutionary process. Whether we reach for the bottle, an ex, or the remote control, it’s all part of the process. Our goal is not to judge these attempts, but to notice them with genuine curiosity. (Full disclosure: writing that last sentence made me gag a little, but it’s true. Judging ourselves for our coping mechanisms doesn’t make them any easier to change.)
Our belief around what growth “should” look like is nothing more than our inner-critic shouting louder than our inner-nurturer. As we release old beliefs, our brains have a hard time balancing the volume of these voices. Eventually, it levels out and new, truthful ideas emerge.
While these self-defeating behaviors may temporarily release the pressure of growth, the end result is keeping our system stagnant. Learning to tolerate the discomfort rather than running away from it allows us to take that quantum leap into the next state of awareness, tolerance, and resilience.
Ironically, our fight to indulge in these sabotaging behaviors is what keeps us playing small, making the process longer and more painful. The solution comes down to self-surrender. We must be willing to surrender the person we are now to foster the person we can become.
Whatever your brand of self-defeating behavior, it’s time to tune in to the parts of yourself these behaviors are trying drown out. Notice the voice that shouts the loudest and the voice that suddenly became silent.
- What are they saying?
- What do these parts of you want?
- How can you be more compassionate toward them?
Sure, it’s easier said than done. And I’m certainly not perfect. Like all of us, my relationship with myself is constantly evolving. I’ve found that self-control has only led to quick changes that are hard to sustain. The lasting life-changes all resulted from listening to and embracing the parts of myself these actions tried to mute.
It’s not always fun. In fact, it rarely is. But you know what’s worse? Staying stuck.