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Usually we want to change because we are in pain. This is entirely sensible and rational in my view. My rule of thumb is that: where there is pain there is something wrong. The qualification to this is that sometimes doing new and better things can be painful. Our muscles take time to get used to moving in better ways, it can be difficult to do our relationships in new ways – so pain can be part of the transition to new ways of life.
Once we have realised that we are in pain, we often start examining the causes. The causes can be various – our situation is often complex, our past can be complicated, the options we have can be so numerous that they are confusing. To have a sense of the causes of our pain I think can be very helpful. It can give us a sense that there is something we can do, and that we are not alone – that other’s have this pain too.
Looking at the cause of our pain will usually be followed by looking at what we can do about it. How we are involved in creating what we find painful. This can be very difficult. The abused child discovering that they are abusing themselves as their parents abused them can be incredibly confronting. Realising what we contribute to our pain (and it may be very little or even nothing at all) is very difficult.
Eventually we realise that we need to do things differently if we are to be rid of our pain. This can be a very difficult time. We feel that we know what is wrong, but not what is right. We can feel utterly adrift and unprepared. It is quite usual to feel as we did in childhood (abandoned, bewildered, anxious, fearful, inadequate – it depends on what kind of childhood you had).
It is at this point, when we have reached the blank, that we are usually most tempted to give up on doing things differently. The old way may be painful but we don’t know what the new way is – how can we know that it will be any better? And what about all the hassle and uncertainty of doing things differently? The old way is at least known (and we can live with it – after all we have until now. Although it may be a very poor kind of life.)
To make a major change will usually mean meeting this blank, and then moving beyond it. Here are some things that in my experience help us to stay with and finally move beyond the blank.
- Being clear on how much we have been involved in creating our pain. If we can see that we are involved then there is hope – we can at least change our own attitudes and usually our behaviour too.
- Knowing the cost – how bad the pain is. Having a sense of how we want to live and that there is a way to get there.
- Small steps. Experiment with different ways of living and relating. Doing it in small ways and safe ways. Scaring yourself is no virtue so far as I’m concerned. In my experience small and easy is often the quickest path as well as the easiest.
- It helps me to remind myself of one version of the stages of learning: when we are learning anything new we move from unconscious incompetence, to conscious incompetence, to conscious competence, to unconscious competence. The hardest step is from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence. The next hardest is from conscious incompetence to conscious competence. The blank is about these two stages. This can give me a sense of the journey that I’m on – to know that this is just one stage.
- Pay attention to any stray thoughts or hints of elation and liberation. Don’t dismiss them, they can be hints that you are getting beyond the blank. They may be worthwhile clues to follow up and steps on your new path.
- Get support from others. My caution: it needs to be support – not advice, not moralising, not even encouragement – someone who is prepared to wait with. This can be uncomfortable for the other person too – so they need to have patience and some maturity. If they are a good listener too, so much the better.
As we move forward, at first hesitantly and gradually with greater clarity, we find that we have lived our way into more joy. The difference may be subtle (scarcely noticeable to an external observer) or quite marked (leaving a relationship or acting very differently in our relationships). Beyond the blank a new and better life is waiting for us.
If you have had times where you have confronted blankness I’d love to hear about them in the comments.
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