People sometimes come to me, distressed that they resist using “thinking on paper” or some other tactic. They are sure it would help them, they know that they can take the steps, but whenever the time comes to use the tactic, they feel a wall of resistance.
This seems crazy, right? You are blocked against doing something that you are sure is good for you and shouldn’t be a problem. It’s not crazy. You should not feel guilty about feeling these feelings. Feelings are alerts, especially feelings that make no sense. You need to get curious about why you are resisting. There is always some reason behind it, and sometimes more than one. Here are three possible causes:
a) Something in how you are performing the activity is painful or unpleasant.
For example, if you are censoring your “thinking on paper,” there will be a pall over the process. Or if you are flailing (hitting your head against the wall) on your issue, you will experience frustration as you do it. Or if questions are proliferating without answers, you will experience strain. Any time your subconscious predicts that the activity itself will be painful or unpleasant, you will feel some resistance to doing it.
The cause of this pain is that you are forcing yourself. You are shutting down your feelings with tension, or shutting out ideas by tunnel vision. If the task is alleged to be easy, this pain is both unnecessary and counterproductive. You should never force your mind. Instead, slow down the process with an appropriate tactic such as “thinking on paper.” Pain is not part of the process; it’s an indication you need a different process.
This doesn’t mean that you will never experience pain or unpleasantness. Sometimes you need to move through the pain. For example, working through grief is painful but necessary. It’s a healing process. In that case, you not only need to slow down to limit the pain at any given time, you also need to deliberately work to find the meaning in the process. What is the value you lost? Why do you love it? Simply wallowing in pain will not move you through your grief. What heals grief is the deeper awareness of values that it brings. A healing process makes you stronger by helping you to understand why something matters to you, and how you can still pursue values in your life. Finding meaning takes the suffering out of grieving.
b) When you do the activity, the content triggers some self-doubt.
For example, suppose you need to finish a project for a deadline, but when you work on it, you feel like you are out of your depth, and you start doubting whether you can do it. This would cast a pall over the activity and kill your motivation for it.
But if self-doubt is the cause, introspection and emotional recalibration are the solution. These doubts are either false and unfair (in which case examining them and reality-checking them will make them disappear), or they are rooted in some actual lack of skill — in which case you need to make a plan for how to fill in that hole. Getting stuck in self-doubt just stops you; introspecting and reality-checking it get you moving forward again.
c) Sometimes the problem has nothing to do with the task.
I have learned that if I can’t settle into work within a reasonable time, there is something going on that is not related to work, which is weighing on my mind and creating a meta-distraction.
Once you look for this kind of thing, it’s usually the elephant in the room. It might be a looming deadline on a different project. Or an upsetting personal situation. It can even be something you are wildly excited about. Taking some time to deal directly with that elephant is usually the best course.
I hesitate to say that you can always find the proximate cause for why you can’t do something you think you should do that is doable. But I will say that it is never appropriate to blame it on your character or personality. Even if there are some bad habits mixed in with the problem, the only way you can change those habits is by analyzing concrete situations and finding a way forward that is compatible with the psychology you have now. You always have choices at the moment; they just aren’t always the choices you wish they were!