“Insanity: doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results” – Albert Einstein
It seems obvious when considered in the abstract or when it’s someone else’s life. But when we’re mired in the midst of a difficult, emotional issue, change is not so easy. Unfortunately, for many of us, we wait until when the pain of stasis exceeds the pain of making a change before we are willing to make meaningful change. For some, this means hitting rock bottom: an emotional breakdown, depression, addiction, or a catastrophic personal event like getting fired or divorced.
Recently I was talking to a mentee about her personal life. She stated she has hit rock bottom and felt she was on the verge of a breakdown. Her story was coming out angrily and urgently, and when I offered feedback, suggestions, or shared personal stories of my own for a different perspective, she looked away, crossed her arms, said “that’s not going to work,” or interrupted me to tell me another story that reinforced her position that she was being wronged. And so, at the moment, she is stuck in this unhappy quagmire, continuing to give away her power and happiness to those that are causing her frustration.
I’m not saying she’s a bad or stupid person. She’s not. She’s a wonderful, smart, and talented person who is simply trying to do better, but can’t for some reason. She’s stuck in the pre-contemplation/contemplation stage of change. She says she wants to change but perhaps she’s really not ready to actually do what it takes.
In my experience, if someone is talking to me about their problems, then typically they have reached either the contemplation stage – they’re considering making a change – or the preparation stage – they’ve already decided to change and are just trying to figure out what they need to do to change successfully. Change occurs organically following these stages, though the change process may be characterized by alternating successes and failures.
This does not seem to be the case with my mentee. Why is my companion talking to me about her problems, but not ready for change?
One contributing factor is her left brain. As I wrote about previously in Brain on a Rampage, our left brain can become corrupted in toxicity, negativity and judgment to the point where it is overriding our wisdom and equanimity. Our sage is our right brain, which enables us to feel connected to the world, creative and whole. Those of us who have been mostly left-brained for most of our lives, are used to using this one tool to solve our problems – our logic and analytical ability that resides in the left. After all, if all you have is a hammer, everything will look like a nail. Additionally, that miraculous left brain has gotten us where we are today – smart, accomplished, successful, and in some situations, very f****d up.
It’s natural that we’d try to do what has always worked: think through our problems. But you can’t solve an emotional problem with your thoughts. It’s like using a screwdriver to filter coffee grinds, or algebra to figure out how to get your kid to eat his green beans. It just doesn’t work.
To solve an emotional problem means we have to engage in inner sage and shut off the critic in our heads. Peace, love, and connection are within all of us, and when we can quiet the negative chatter in our heads, we can access our universal truths. After quieting the chatter in my head, I have frequently been able to elicit an “Aha!” moment that sends me on a new, more productive and positive course.
It also means we need new tools and strategies to manage emotional issues. The main antidote to left brain negativity and destruction is to strengthen the right brain to be more present (recently discussed in Soothing the Child Within). This requires exercise, just as if your goal was to firm your abdominals. Repetition and practice. That’s why it’s called meditation practice, or yoga practice. All we can do is to try to get better at it. Few of us ever really master being present all the time. Many of us have spent our lives ignoring our right brain, and may have to struggle to get it strong enough to balance the left.
There are also tools that one can learn and use to detoxify the malicious left brain habits. An intellectual understanding of an emotional situation is usually not sufficient to make a meaningful change. Again, it’s like understanding that you need to change your flat tire, but until you actually bend down and do the heavy lifting, it won’t happen just by knowing it needs to replaced. These tools are helpful to elicit changes in behavioral and emotional habits we’ve been relying upon for decades. It does not tend to happen overnight, but rather, it is a lifelong journey.
If you’re in the contemplation stage but are not ready to move forward, you might be thinking: this is too much work. I can’t do it. My stance is that if everyone took 10% of the energy and time they spend on being critical, judgmental, angry, depressed, resentful, or bitter, and invested that into being more grateful, forgiving and positive – toward self and others – that we’d make a profound change in ourselves and our world. I also contend that you and your happiness are worth the effort. So what are you waiting for? You don’t have to wait to hit rock bottom.