When nothing seems to work, start doing nothing

Author:   |   Date: 01/07/2014   |   Categories: Making change, Mindfulness

Have you ever had a problem that no matter what you tried to do, nothing ever seems to change or improves. I am talking about those long-term persistent matters that affect us at a deep level: leaving us feeling frustrated, dissatisfied, anxious, hopeless or sad. These are the problems that suck us of our energy and have us feel powerless to change. 

My own long-term problem has been emotional-eating and body image, an issue that has been with me since childhood. I was a “chubby” kid, an overweight teenager, and as an adult my size has ranged between “healthy” to obese. I have done every diet under the sun from scary starvation diets from the 1980s to a supervised plan with a dietitian a couple of years ago.  I have lost mountains of weight and dropped dress size after dress size.  I have trained with personal trainers and got incredibly strong and flexible. I have even featured in a “before and after” testimonial. 

The result:  I put huge amounts of pressure on myself to change, lost the weight and got to a size 10.  Then I developed increased anxiety around food, exercise and body image. Late last year I got to the point where I would cry in the bathroom before every training session, dreading looking at myself and feeling judged. I had become hooked on the praise and positivity I received from losing weight and feared having this withdrawn as it came back on. I was tracking everything I ate and feeling powerless most of the day. I was bloody miserable just when I was meant to be most happy.  

Fortunately I found support at this time which gave me a chance to look at myself and my problem in a very different way.  And I will share this journey with you at another time.

However what struck me is that when dealing with a really chronic, long-term issue in your life – like self-worth, fear of conflict or criticism, speaking up for yourself or being OK with change, sometimes the best first step you can take is to just stop. Give yourself a well-earned break and let some space, air and maybe sunshine into your problem for a few days or weeks. Let go and be prepared to see what happens.     

If you are really feeling stuck in some area of your life that is sapping your happiness, creativity, energy and satisfaction, I invite you to try these 10 steps to improve your chance of making a lasting change in your life. 

Step 1 – Go on a change fast. Make it your intention not to DO anything about this issue for at least 21 days. If that seems too long set a shorter target, but think how good it would feel to stop for a three whole weeks. Give yourself a holiday from your problems. You have certainly earned it. Each time you are tempted to start something new or change something fundamental in your life, do not do it.  Stop. Cease. Halt.  Ignore all media or advertising, friends or family suggesting a new approach. Just don’t do it. Seriously.

Step 2 – Once you have stopped trying to change, congratulate yourself. Appreciate that you are willing to be still whilst you create some space and awareness around the issue or goal. Acknowledge that you are not looking for a quick fix, but are willing to engage with this issue thoughtfully and authentically. Be grateful for what you do currently have. Repeat regularly.  

Step 3 – To stop the part of yourself that needs to be doing, fixing and planning from going completely mad in this first stage, you can do this.  Find some time to brainstorm and imagine all the ways you could make this change or reach your goal. Make lists, do mind maps, create vision boards, whatever stimulates your imagination and creativity.  Ask other people for contributions and suggestions, thank them but do NOT do what they say. Allow ideas to come to you and catch them when you can. Try on these scenarios in your imagination and see how they fit for you. What does it feel like?  What thoughts come up?  Does it feel exciting, overwhelming, daunting or even ridiculous?  You might be tempted at this point to DO something. Try not too for a bit longer. Give yourself freedom to have many wild ideas as there is absolutely no expectation that you will have to do any of it.

Step 4 – Once you feel you have exhausted all possibilities, gather your list of possible options and actions and throw it away.  Shred it if you feel comfortable doing that or put it in recycling.  Or if that is a step too far, make sure that you at least put it in a drawer or out of sight. Continue to do nothing.   

Step 5 – Notice all the feelings that come up when you do not try to fix your problem or change something. Attend to them but do not try to get rid or avoid them.

Notice how you may want to distract yourself or comfort yourself. Give yourself permission to do those things if you need to, but do it with a clear intention and be as mindful as you can.  Go for a walk or a run if that makes you feel good, and go somewhere new. If food is your thing, prepare or buy a favourite meal.  If it’s television, find a program you really enjoy.  Stick with it, you are nearly there.

Ask for support from friends and family, use a journal or even a blog, or maybe find a buddy. Get professional support if you need it – a coach, or a doctor or therapist if there is something you need to heal. But make sure they understand that you are committed to NOT DOING as a first step and to finding your own authentic way. Allow yourself whatever you need to hold you to your intention to not to try to fix your problem for 21 days. (Of course if your doctor or therapist recommends medication – take it!) 

Step 6 – When you feel in your mind and body that you are ready to go further, take five, ten or 20 minutes for yourself and sit quietly, maybe with your eyes shut. Allow yourself to focus on your breathing. Continue to notice distractions and thoughts but let them go.

When you are at your calmest point create a clearing in your body, in your head, heart or gut.  When you have a sense of space, set an intention to resolve your issue to the point it just goes away.  Do not look for answers at this point, just let the intention sit in your body, wherever it feels right for you.  Stay there for a few moments just focused on your breath and feel the intention find its way.

Bring your attention back to the present moment and invite in one action you can do right now. This is something you can do with minimum of spending on resources or detailed planning. You should be able to walk out the door and get on with it, ideally completing it within a few hours or days. We are looking for first thoughts and ideas not considered plans. Notice how it feels: fresh, inspiring, exciting, daunting, overwhelming, frustrating, scary or just plain weird.    

Step 7 - If it feels OK, do that action - as an experiment.  Notice what happens.  Do it again.  Stop doing it.  Then do it again, maybe a bit differently this time.  Keep noticing what is going on.  Change and adapt as you feel is right for you. If at all possible hold any expectations of a lasting fix at bay at this point.  

Step 8 – Repeat steps 6 and 7 as many times as you want. Each time remember whatever you are doing is an experiment and you can stop at any time.  Allow yourself breaks, time to reflect, moments of excitement, joy, doubt and fear.  Notice it all. 

Step 9 – After doing these steps for some time check in on the original issue.  How does it feel now?  On a scale of 1-10 how satisfied are you? Where were you when you started? Where would you like it to be?  Go back to stage 6.  Could you try something new?

Final Step – well there is no final outcome.  We can initiate change and create new things up to a point.  However change is a constant in our life and we can control very little of it.  Allowing ourselves to invite in what we need gives us permission to experiment with how we live and who we are being. Without having a fixed outcome in mind we have more freedom to play, try new things, give things up that no longer work. The problem begins to dissolve with very little effort.

Eventually, it gives us space to turn our attention outwards to what is needed in our relationships, families, work places and communities. It turns the conversation away from what is wrong with me to what can I contribute. That is a path to an authentic and satisfying life.   

At each stage take time to appreciate what you have in your life right now and continue to invite in something new. Be compassionate and kind with yourself and others.  Be patient and gentle. Notice when you are not. 

And that’s it.



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