Why You Can’t Always “Just Do It.”
Did you ever wonder why despite your best efforts and your most sincere desire and your absolutely clear intention to hold your temper, listen with interest and patience to your partner, offer more acknowledgement and appreciation, give up your relentless grip on control, remember to say “I love you” more often, or keep any of the other resolutions that you may have made to yourself that you knew would improve your relationships, much more often than not, you just don’t do it? Unless you’re very unlike most people, you’ve had the experience of failing to do what you really wanted to do not once or twice but countless times in your life.
If you are one of those people who has a lot of items on your relationship improvement to-do list, you probably know what it would take to get them done. More likely than not, you have the ability to do them. You’re even clear that you want to get them done and that there would be great value in fulfilling these commitments, and yet, they remain on your list, undone.
There are of course other things that we do handle, many of them so quickly that they don’t even make it to the list. So what is it that determines whether these items do or do not get done? Why is it that with some things we can be one of the world’s greatest procrastinators yet others get taken care of immediately? We may tell ourselves (and others), “I guess I don’t really want it badly enough because if I did I would do it.” or “Based on results”, “I’m not really committed because if I were, I would have handled my resistance by now”. It sounds right when we say it, and people rarely argue with us, but we might do well to consider another possibility. Maybe things are not so either/or, or black and white, as they seem to be.
Perhaps I am committed to doing what I say I want to do, and I also have another commitment that is in direct competition with this one that seems to be prevailing right now. But, I remind myself, although I haven’t actually been the loving partner that I want to be, as much as I had expected myself to be, I have spent a tremendous amount of time and energy thinking about it and feeling guilty about why I haven’t shown up more. So in my mind, that counts for something, doesn’t it? I mean, I really am serious about improving my relationship, because if I wasn’t, I wouldn’t be obsessing about it so much, and all of that obsessing counts. It’s just that it didn’t actually show up in the relationship yet.
I know how crazy this sounds, and as embarrassing as it is to admit it, this is the way the mind works, at least how mind does. I can rationalize not doing something by claiming that feeling guilty and coming up with reasons and excuses why it didn’t get done counts as legitimate time put into the project. I don’t think that I would apply this kind of thinking to someone who I was paying to do a job for me, but for some reason I find it easy to apply to myself.
So, my conscious intention is to become a devoted loving partner, but unbeknownst to me, I have this or more likely these other intentions that I’m not conscious of that are in are in direct competition with the commitment that I am aware of. The trouble is that until I can become aware of what they are, I will continue to feel guilty and incomplete. I can’t see those other, competing commitments until I stop rationalizing, justifying, and excusing myself and start telling the truth. The truth isn’t that I’m a bad, lazy, dishonest, uncommitted, or stupid person; the truth is that I haven’t done it. Period. The rest is just judgment and speculation, which has nothing to do with the truth. It’s just my mind making up stories, which have little if anything to do with reality. The problem is that when I buy into them, I diminish my ability to recognize the competing commitments that may be overriding my conscious intention.
Once we tell the truth, without blame, shame, guilt, justification, or rationalization, just the raw unadulterated truth, then what has been outside of our field of perception may begin to come into awareness. In the case of making relationship-improvement resolutions, there are many commitments that may be competing with our conscious desires, such as:
- A commitment to avoid the possibility of giving ourselves completely to the relationship in order to avoid a potentially more painful loss if the relationship ends.
- A commitment to protect myself from the possibility that devoting myself to my partner might take so much of my time and energy that I would have to sacrifice other things that I don’t want to give up.
- A commitment to maintain the balance and equilibrium that is currently present in my marriage. It’s not great now, but it could be worse.
- A commitment to avoid the possibility of failing to create a truly wonderful partnership. If you don’t start something you can’t not finish it.
- A commitment to avoid confronting subject matter that could reveal something about me that I didn’t want to see or reveal to others.
- A commitment to avoid the possibility of disturbing or threatening others (my kids, work, family, friends) who might resent me if I take too much attention away from them.
- A commitment to avoid disgrace and possible humiliation if I give everything I have and it’s not reciprocated.
- A commitment to hold on to my personal freedom, and a fear that I may give up too much of what is important to me.
Bringing these concerns into awareness allows us to examine their validity and to become clearer about the nature of the risks involved that we may have been unconsciously trying to avoid. When we do this we may come up with strategies for dealing with these concerns that we hadn’t previously considered. Telling the truth about our ambivalence is what enables us to begin to see and tell the truth about our unconscious commitments. When we do this, usually one of two things happen:
- You get OK with not doing it and no longer hold it as a commitment, or
- You are no longer possessed by the negative feelings that accompany an incomplete commitment. At that point you may find yourself being more fully committed to your relationship since you are no longer being held hostage by unconscious fears and concerns.
This insight enables us to see more clearly what actually does have meaning for us. When we can put our heart into something, it becomes a labor of love rather than a self-imposed obligation. One way or another, the process of growing a mutually fulfilling relationship inevitably contains challenges and obstacles. The greatest gift in this process is the peace of mind that is found in relieving ourselves of the self-recrimination we often experience when we fail to fulfill our self-imposed resolutions and promises. Refusing to punish yourself with blame and shame when you don’t follow through with your decisions is not equivalent to letting yourself off the hook. But rather, it’s an opportunity to reassess your true priorities and recognize whether your heart is truly in this or whether it is just another “should” that you feel obligated to fulfill. Telling the truth to yourself BEFORE you make any promises to others is always a good idea. It can spare you a lot of suffering in the long run.