One way to recognize that you have a block is to notice when you do the same thing that gets you in trouble over and over again. Such a repeating pattern can take many forms. One person starts off projects with great enthusiasm, then loses momentum and ends up turning in work that is less than they are capable of. Another always gets into a fight with their boss or client after a “honeymoon period,” then needs to find a new job or client. A third might procrastinate whenever there is a deadline, only getting serious when it gets down to the wire. The pattern repeats no matter how mad the person gets at themselves for “doing it again” and how strongly they vow to change their ways.

Socrates was perhaps the earliest akrasia theorist
Socrates was perhaps the earliest akrasia theorist (photo credit: Eric Gaba/Wikimedia Commons User “Sting”)

There is even a philosophical term for this kind of behavior that goes back to Socrates: akrasia, or acting against what you know to be your own best interests. It seems so illogical that Socrates apparently claimed that it didn’t happen, since “No one goes willingly toward the bad.” According to Socrates, anyone who does this must simply be ignorant of facts or knowledge. Later philosophers, who recognized that people do in fact act against their better judgment, equated it with a weakness of will. Edmund Spenser even included a temptress in The Faerie Queene, Acrasia, who was the embodiment of “intemperance.” So all these great thinkers have deemed anyone who doesn’t do what he knows would be best for them either stupid or morally wrong.

That kind of thinking shows up all the time to this day. It seems like we in the US blame people especially harshly for not following through on their better judgment. Just call to mind what you’ve heard, or thought, about someone with lung cancer who still smokes. “Weak-willed” is probably the least harsh of the descriptions we use. We find it very difficult to understand such a problem as anything other than some sort of moral failing.

The harshest critic of such a “failing” in us is usually ourselves. I’ve heard clients call themselves “stupid,” “lazy,” “weak,” “hopeless” and a few choice phrases I can’t put into print. These are the only reasons my clients can come up with to make sense of their actions. And they’re wrong.

When we work together on such a block, what almost always comes up is what I call “old programming.” This is a message or lesson they internalized, often when they were young. Here are a few examples I’ve heard:

  • I’m not good enough.
  • I don’t deserve to succeed.
  • People won’t like me if I’m too smart.
  • People won’t like me if I’m too successful.
  • If I make a lot of money, something bad will happen.
  • If I make a lot of money, it means I’m bad.

Maybe the old programming comes from a painful lesson they gleaned from their own experiences (I didn’t get a bike from Santa, so I must be a bad person who doesn’t deserve to get what I want). Maybe their first boss told them they would never amount to anything. Maybe it’s something they heard their mother say (“Rich people are greedy”). Maybe their father called them a loser. Wherever it came from, it was learned so well that it is working in the background and tripping my clients up even when they know what they are supposed to do.

These messages usually aren’t rational, so my client will tell me they don’t really believe them. I agree with them. Their conscious mind would never agree with something that just isn’t true. So I ask them to say the statement out loud and rate it on a 0 – 100% scale for how true it feels. They are often surprised to notice that the feeling can be 70, 90 or even 100% true! This is an emotional belief. You can argue with it rationally all you want; you won’t be able to change it with logic. So I use techniques that eliminate the emotional belief first.

I had one client whose pattern was to flail about, trying to get as much done as possible whenever things got tense at work. Unfortunately, he wouldn’t work on the important projects. Instead he would start a bunch of side projects, jumping around from one to the other, having trouble focusing on anything. Then he wouldn’t finish any of the project he needed to complete. It cost him more than one job.

He used a number of tried and true ways to change this pattern. He kept a to do list with the most important projects at the top. Every day before he started his computer he would think about what he really needed to work on. He set alarms throughout the day to make him stop and think about what he really needed to be working on. He would take a break to clear his head so he could get his focus back. Nothing kept him on track. So he guilt-tripped himself by calling himself names—stupid, crazy, weak. That didn’t work either.

As I worked with him to break his pattern, what came up were a number of memories of his parents. Whenever they got upset, they would take it out on my client, yelling at him to “get to work” and punishing him quite severely if he didn’t look extremely busy. It didn’t matter what he was actually doing—homework, trying to figure out how to fix the car’s starter, or working up enough courage to ask a girl to prom. He had to drop that and start doing something that made it look like he was frantically busy.

After we defused a few of the worst of those memories, his need to flail about at work faded away. He was able to focus and stay on a task until it was finished. He started getting recognized at work with awards, bonuses, and promotions. It was a complete change from his previous pattern. And he didn’t accomplish it by telling himself he was a bad person.

So if you find yourself repeating an old, counter-productive pattern, the first thing you need to do is stop beating yourself up over it. That kind of guilt takes a lot of energy and will simply demotivate you. Instead, remind yourself that you are following old programming. The fact that you have managed to accomplish as much as you have is cause for celebration. When you start thinking that way, you can use the energy you would have wasted guilting yourself and put it toward getting back on track. If your repeating patterns are destructive enough, you probably need to get in touch with someone who can help you root out the underlying emotional belief so it doesn’t keep tripping you up.

Good luck to you!

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