Where Do You Want to Go?

Where Do You Want to Go?

Several years ago, I had a friend who was in the market for a new car.  In the process of car shopping with this friend, I decided that I would sell the car that I was driving and get a new car for myself as well.  I got my new car, which was actually just new to me, and for a while everything with the car went smoothly.  Once the warranty on the car expired, however, I began to have problem after problem; some months, the car seemed to be in the repair shop as often as it was in on the road!  One day, while my car was in the shop for the umpteenth time, a coworker (who had given me many rides to work) challenged me to consider that my car could be called a “lemon.”  The car had seemed fine at first; in fact, it had worked fine — for a while!  The car wasn’t working the way I wanted any longer, though; it wasn’t going to be able to take me where I wanted to go.

As we begin the new year, many of us will be thinking about where we want to go this year — figuratively, at least, in terms of what we want to be different for ourselves, in our lives.  We’ll formulate goals, or resolutions.  If we aren’t happy with our weight, for example, we may be planning a new gym routine, or to change our eating habits.  If we are tired of losing track of when bills are due, or where we have left our keys, we may be considering ways in which we can improve our organization at home.  So often, whatever it is that we want to be different in the new year, we frame a related resolution in terms of something that we “need” or “have” to do.  We think, “I need to lose 10 pounds — no more excuses!” or “I’m so sick of not being able to find anything — I just have to get organized!”  And why wouldn’t we have these kinds of pressured thoughts, given the sense of anxious urgency that we sometimes experience to make these changes in our lives?  Unfortunately, as helpful as such thoughts would seem to be in motivating us to take action, and supporting us to maintain what we start, I don’t know that they work very well for many of us; in fact, I would argue that these kinds of thoughts — “I need to …” and “I have to …” — can actually get in our way of creating the differences that we want for ourselves, in our lives.  Just as we can talk about some cars as “lemons,” we can talk about certain thoughts as “lemons,” too; they end up being more trouble than they are worth, and sooner or later we realize that they just aren’t able to take us where we want to go.

What makes these kinds of thoughts “lemons”?  What’s wrong with saying to ourselves, “I need to …” or “I have to …”?  Let me clarify.  From my perspective, the issue is not one of right or wrong, but what works best or most often for us, and what does not.  In my own experience, when I am thinking in terms of “I need to …” or “I have to …” I notice an internal grimace, an energetic “sour face,” so to speak (think about the expression on someone’s face when that person tastes the tartness of a lemon).  For me, “I need to …” and “I have to …” create a sense of motivational “drag” rather than enthusiasm or excitement.  I even start to feel a bit anxious about what it is that I have resolved to do.  “I really need to get to the gym today!”  “I just have to finish this blog post by Sunday evening!”  I have come to associate the tense response that I experience with the idea that these thoughts come from a fearful or an already anxious frame of mind.  “I really need to get to the gym today because if I don’t, I’m never going to lose this extra weight!”  “I just have to finish this blog post by Sunday evening; it will be awful if I don’t get it published on Monday morning like I told myself I would!”  Do you hear the anxious all-or-nothing thinking in “I’m never going to lose this extra weight!” and the catastrophic thinking in “it will be awful [if I don’t finish this blog post by Sunday evening] …”?  How about the possibility of selective attention and memory in the second of these examples if I told you that one time, I had trouble getting a post done by Sunday evening, but was able to work on it on Monday, and just published it Monday evening, then, instead of Monday morning?  The world did not end.

So what’s the alternative?  For me, what works better — and feels better, frankly — is to think in terms of “I want to …” or “I can …” (desire and opportunity) rather than “I need to …” or “I have to …” (desperation and obligation).  Now, I can almost hear the objections that I have made to this notion in the past, which are perhaps yours as well: “But I really do need to lose this extra weight because …”  For some of us, the reasons for thinking in terms of “need” in this situation may range from controlling diabetes to keeping up with young children to fitting into our pants (“New clothes cost money, and we’re saving for a trip to Florida.  Oh, no … what will I look like in a bathing suit?”).  However, there is also a “want” that goes along with each of these scenarios that we can apply to our resolution to get to the gym.  “I want to get to the gym because I want to keep up with my kids.  Plus, it will feel so good to have gone to the gym, to be able to say that I went, that I did it!”  For many of us, “I want to keep up with my kids!” will create a very different feeling than “I really need to get to the gym because if I don’t, I’m never going to lose this extra weight!”  We can talk about this different feeling as having a different kind of energy — anabolic, versus catabolic (terms that Bruce D. Schneider, author of Energy Leadership: Transforming Your Workplace and Your Life from the Core (2008), has borrowed from the vocabulary of biology and physiology in relation to the processes of metabolism).  Anabolic energy builds us up, supports us, while catabolic energy drains us, tears us down, and fuels our experiences of anxiety.  While the sense of pressure that we get from catabolic energy can have short-term benefits — think of a cheetah on the plains of Africa that bursts into high-speed to catch its prey — this kind of energy ends up wearing us and others out if we keep it up for too long (even the cheetah can’t keep up these extreme speeds indefinitely!).  For many of us, the catabolic energy of “I have to …” and “I need to …” thoughts just can’t take us as far as (so, ultimately, where) we want to go, and can actually get in our way, then, of creating the positive, sustained experiences of what we want to be different for ourselves, in our lives.

Whenever this time of year rolls around, and I find myself reflecting on what I want to be different for myself, in my life, in the coming new year, I think back to the car that I bought several years ago, and how — for a time, in the context of getting back and forth to work, around town to run errands, etc. — it served me well.  When I began to have problems with the car on a regular basis, I had the opportunity to re-evaluate its value to me, and determined that it was adding to my sense of stress and anxiety; I could no longer count on it to take me where I wanted to go.  The same has been true for me of “I have to …” and “I need to …” thoughts, and the same may be true for you as well.  These thoughts are not special to the end of any given year, of course, but tend to surface in our practice of making New Year’s resolutions.  As we begin the new year, I want to think more often in terms of “I want to …” and “I can …” so that I can experience the anabolic energy that will help me reach my other goals.  I want to improve my organization at home so that I can spend less time trying to find my keys, or worrying about which bills have yet to be paid, and more time working on my blog!

Where do you want to go?

Best wishes for a wonderful new year!


Updated: 01/12/2019

Featured image: Photo by John Baker on Unsplash

Through A Glass Darkly

Cleanliness becomes more important when godliness is unlikely.


— P. J. O’Rourke

I was in my freshman or sophomore year of college — it is all just a blur, now — when I got my first pair of eyeglasses.  I had been sitting in a large, lecture-style class when I noticed that I could not make out the words that the professor was writing on the chalkboard in the front of the room.  My peers were not having the same difficulty.  I tried sitting in a number of seats, hoping that a change in lighting or in my distance from the front of the room would help, but nothing made much of a difference.  The course was one in music history and appreciation, and for a couple of weeks, I was playing my own game of musical chairs!  When it was clear that moving around the room, developing a French-Stewart squint, wasn’t helping me decipher the writing on the chalkboard, off I went to see an optometrist.

Because I knew that both of my parents had gotten glasses as children, I was not surprised by the idea that it might finally be “my time”; truthfully, however, I had been hoping that I had escaped any genetic predisposition to need corrective eyewear, and had even managed to pride myself on getting through my childhood and teenage-years without the slightest indication of trouble with my vision (as if I had anything to do with it!).  As much as getting glasses was a blow to my pride, though, wearing them was a greater blow to my vanity; I did not see myself as one of those people so easily able to pull off the look that we would later call “geeky chic.”  Worst of all, perhaps, was that I had not yet matured out of exceptionally oily adolescent skin, and I was always navigating the world, then, through lenses that were covered with smudges.

We See the World through Lenses

Given my own experience with eyeglasses, I have often found the image of eyeglasses helpful in explaining the idea that, as human beings, each of us views our world through a specific set of lenses.  These lenses are comprised of thoughts and beliefs that we have developed over time out of our individual experiences, and in the context of constructing meanings of those experiences in our conversations and relationships with other people.  I think of everyone as wearing a pair of invisible eyeglasses — glasses of perception — all of the time.  Some of the lenses in these invisible glasses (such as the lenses that I had in college, covered with smudges) limit our vision, restrict what we’re able to see, and so reduce the range of ways in which we’re able to show up in our lives. Other lenses (think of those that are clean and clear) augment or otherwise expand our vision.  These latter lenses help us to see more of what is possible, and support our focus on whatever we decide matters most to us in our lives — by opening up options of conscious emotional and behavioral response to situations that we encounter.

Please understand that I am not proposing the notion that we can have direct, unmediated (godlike?) access to the “reality” of things (which could be one interpretation of having glasses of perception with crystal clear lenses), or even that we judge the “dirty” set of lenses as “bad” and the “clean” set as “good.”  I am suggesting that the clear or unsmudged set of lenses (having thoughts and beliefs that help us rather than hold us back) offers us increased opportunities to perceive a wider range of possibilities for feeling and responding in any given circumstance, and so the freedom to pick which feelings and behavior we think will work best, or how we want to show up as we move in the direction that we want to go.

Our Lenses Make a Difference

Imagine, for a moment, that you are seated in a crowded cafe and think that you may see a friend at a table across the room.  You are wearing a pair of eyeglasses with smudged lenses (or perhaps regular sunglasses with smudged lenses, if you do not wear prescription eyewear).  You can’t see very clearly with dirty lenses, and feel less certain, less confident, as a result.  You mutter under your breath, a bit perplexed and disgruntled, “Now, is that Susie over there?”  You respond tentatively, even anxiously — finally deciding that because you can’t really tell if that woman is Susie or not, you are not going to approach her, call out, or wave (the cafe is pretty casual!).

If, on the other hand, you are wearing a pair of glasses with clean lenses, you will likely feel less anxious in this same situation, saying to yourself, “Hey, that’s my friend, Susie, across the room there!”  You will move with greater confidence, deciding to get up from your own table to pay her a visit, perhaps, or to call out to her — waving, and smiling widely — “‘Hey, Susie!  Over here!'”

Now, most of us, I would imagine, prefer the vision of clear, confident energy in the second of these two responses.  We can call this energy “anabolic” since we so often experience variations of it as “building us up.”  We may be so used to looking through dirty lenses in our invisible glasses, however, that we do not even realize how much these lenses — the often unconscious thoughts and beliefs that we have come to hold about ourselves, other people, and the world in general — dim our view, and so our experience of life, with the effects of a very different energy.  We can call this latter energy catabolic” since it is often constrains us, drains us, and “breaks us down.”  In Energy Leadership: Transforming Your Workplace and Your Life from the Core (2008), Bruce D. Schneider talks about examples of what I’m describing here — the thoughts and beliefs of dirty lenses — as falling into four main categories of “energy blocks”: limiting beliefs, interpretations, assumptions, and “gremlins” (with “gremlin” being one way to reference what we also often call our inner critic).

Are Your Lenses Helping or Hurting You?

Sometimes, as happens in the story in Schneider’s book, we may find it helpful to examine our lenses with the support of another person who wants us to be able to see all the possibilities for thought, feeling, and action that are available to us, so that we can pick which among these will help us move in the direction we want to go.  With this idea as inspiration, I will be addressing in the weeks that follow each of these four obstacles to our experience of anabolic energy as topics for this blog.  I will offer further definitions and examples, explain how I see these obstacles relating to the kinds of anxious thinking identified in cognitive-behavioral therapy (as another way of thinking and talking about them), and explore ideas for how we can respond when we notice ourselves feeling out-of-focus or have the sense that the vision we want for ourselves is blurred — not on account of myopia or astigmatism — but because of smudges of unhelpful thoughts and beliefs on the lenses of our perception.  I hope that you will feel free to join me by reading along, and by offering your own thoughts as comments on the blog posts, if you are so inclined.


Updated: 03/02/2019

Featured image credit: anaken2012 / 123RF Stock Photo