Earlier this week, I found myself thinking, “This is really frustrating. I wish somebody would tell me what to do.” Minutes later, in a completely different situation, I said to myself, “I don’t want anyone else telling me what to do.” Huh? How can we resolve conflicting messages such as these?
Ambivalence Is Normal
Wanting one thing in a certain area of your life but something else that apparently conflicts with it in a different area — like my pseudo-desire for guidance — is totally normal. Just like you can have a fixed mindset in certain areas of your life but a growth mindset in others.
Ambivalence comes from craving something different, but also wanting things to continue as they are. Sound familiar?
Think of a situation in your life where you have tried repeatedly to change but you just haven’t had the success you’d like. Maybe you lose a few pounds one week but gain it all back the next. Or you make fantastic progress one week and fall into a slump the next. You know you should be moving forward — after all, who doesn’t want to be healthy, happy, and successful — but you just can’t get consistent.
Can you be okay living with ambivalence, at least for a short while until you’re ready to change?
Key Words for Change
Sometimes clients think they “should” want x or y, but then they don’t take any actions toward them. Maybe they sabotage themselves or fall into “when X, then Y” thinking. I’ve written about that pesky word “should” before. How if you’re using it often, write it big on a piece of paper and then scribble over it. Remove it from your working vocabulary.
The simplest answer is: it’s not what they really want. Yet.
Whenever you have a big enough reason — a big enough why — you will find the motivation and courage to change. The desire to change must come from within. And even when we succeed at changing, we’re still not completely immune to backsliding. We need to develop self-compassion and recognize that even during struggle we are human and worthy of love and respect. Whether we are stuck or moving forward.
Coaches at Precision Nutrition use the key phrase, “ready, willing, and able.” If a person is not ready, willing, or able to do certain things, not even the best coach with the perfect program and advice will be able to get them to change.
So what are we supposed to DO in order to change? Suffer in silence?
Tools for Understanding Conflicting Messages
As Precision Nutrition coaches, we’re taught the importance of facing discomfort in order to grow. Here are two tools you can use to try to better understand where those conflicting messages are coming from and what they are trying to tell you. Because while our habits start out supporting us, once we outgrow them it is time to change.
Two Voices In Conversation
This exercise resembles role play with yourself. You can think of the mature, wise, and compassionate voice who has all the answers as your “adult self.” The stuck, confused, frustrated, and perhaps scared voice is your “child self.”
Feel free to give a name to each self, or even think of them in terms of mentor/mentee, teacher/student, wise/novice, or coach/client. Whatever relationship resonates most with you. I have named my 6-year-old gremlin “Gooky”, a smash-up of “great” and “cookie” that I created when I was battling to give up sugar. She is my voice of resistance. And she is doggedly determined to keep things exactly the way they are.
You can write (or type) what each voice says. Or if you prefer talking through problems, set two chairs facing one another. Allow the stuck self to have three minutes to say whatever it likes. Pause for a minute and jot down whatever comes up.
Then switch font or ink color (or chair) and give the wise self a minute to summarize what the confused self has revealed. Think of the wise self as you in fifty years, if you like, looking back at now. For two more minutes, the wise self gets to offer affirmations, love, understanding, and possible solutions. It then asks a question of the stuck self.
After each voice has had a chance to talk, continue the dialogue until each side has been heard. What did each voice say? What insights did you gain from listening to each voice?
Examine Previous Changes
The second tool is to examine your past and make a list of any large changes you’ve made. Examples might include graduating from college or graduate school, getting a promotion, entering a long-term relationship, starting a family or business, or traveling. Everyone alive is capable of profound change.
The important thing to recognize is that change is scary, but you have within you all the tools you need to do it. What skills come to the surface? Maybe you were really resilient. Perhaps you loved the planning aspect of it. Or it could be that you had a partner help you get through. Write them down as a list of your unique change tools.
Motivational Interviewing: Beat Conflicting Messages
Finally, once you have a better understanding of what’s causing your ambivalence and a list of your change tools, reread what you’ve written. If you find yourself using a lot of words like “just” or “but”, you’re facing resistance. Again, normal.
Precision Nutrition has a wonderful piece about Motivational Interviewing that goes into far more detail about ambivalence and resistance. The key point is to recognize that resistance is just as much a part of making a change as ambivalence. You are normal!
If you identify a lot of anger and defensiveness in your dialogue, embrace it. Question it. Be curious about it. And by writing it down you can examine it more closely when you’re not as emotionally charged.
Convert Terrified into Ready, Willing, and Able
I mentioned struggling to launch our Total Health track until my husband and I created a list of tiny steps to take to inch forward. Some only took me five minutes. But the more tiny steps I took, the more forward momentum I gained, and the more confident I became.
You, too, can turn terrifying into “ready, willing, and able”. Please share in the comments whatever you’re struggling with. Our readers have plenty of unique experiences. And as part of a change community, we’d love to help.