Today's Reading

Abhinav continually deployed strategies to reduce his work. Sometimes he tried suggestions he read about in books or followed recommendations from friends. He hired coaches, therapists, and other professionals to help with the change. He would throw all his energy behind the endeavor, hoping this would be the time when he would finally make the change. Yet when the strategies failed, he would be overcome by great disappointment and resignation, which led to giving up his efforts and doing other things to forget he gave up. He would continue his old work pattern and, when not working, distract himself with news, social media, or watching TV. But after a while, the unceasing pulse of his desire would activate, and he would start again, his efforts escalating. This rhythm of overdoing and distractions is well known to all of us who have tried to change our behavior, only to have run out of willpower when life's stresses
got in the way.

In the Emotional realm, the long-unfulfilled desire can permeate our life. We would have either a specific fear of never reaching our goal or a broader sense of anxiety that would expand to encompass all other activities and goals. It's difficult to relax and do enjoyable things if the looming unsatisfied want is always in the background. Even when Abhinav was spending time at home, playing with his kids, or making dinner with his wife, he was experiencing the background feeling of frustration. After all, he'd think to himself in those moments, if he could solve the problem of working too much, he could have many more enjoyable moments like this and change his life around. Many negative emotions show up when we feel stuck. There could be anger at ourselves and the world for being denied the one thing we want the most. A sense of hopelessness, dread, restlessness, and despair is common. After all, what's the joy in living if the thing we desperately desire is never to be had?

These negative emotions are often fueled by our mind, which spins out beliefs or narratives about what past failures mean. Usually, these include the stories of something being wrong with us such that the fulfillment will always be unreachable; something wrong with other people, who can be seen as the direct obstacles or competitors for the desired thing; or something wrong with the world, which is seen as corrupt or organized in a way to never allow the achievement of the desired thing. Sometimes our mind produces unrealistic fantasies of what fulfillment of our desire would mean. Abhinav would fantasize about how completely transformed all aspects of his life would be if only he could work less.

An additional outcome of repeated failures would be the mind's ruminative or obsessive thinking about how to gain our goal while increasingly doubting that it is possible. The obsession with the goal would permeate our life to the exclusion of other goals. It would also make it difficult to maintain peace of mind as we make some advances toward the goal. Are we going to lose it? Could it somehow turn out badly? And what is the chance that such success can
continue? For example, when Abhinav's attempts at working less worked well for more than a week, his mind would proceed to catastrophic possibilities—what if he declined a patient who would not be able to get care anywhere else and he inadvertently caused this hypothetical person further injury or even death? What if there was a catastrophic economic downturn so that his reduced work would financially devastate his family? Despite occasionally achieving
(partially or temporarily) the object of our intense desire, the complete fulfillment and the inner freedom we hope to gain from it would remain elusive.

Another trick that our mind plays on us when we are experiencing action paralysis is to try to mask hopelessness and resignation with the appearance of genuine acceptance. Our inner voice, then, sounds something like this: "I'm fine without it. Maybe this way is better. I'm even better off without it." Yet, despite these thin reassurances and the many distractions we may employ to stop thinking about what we want the most, giving up feels like an impossible option.

Finally, the body cannot but be drained by all the mental, emotional, and behavioral activity that keeps leading nowhere. It's easy to forget that the stress of inner conflict is energetically expensive. If ruminative thinking about past failures and future fantasies continues for an extended period, the body under stress may start showing signs of illness (according to psychoneuroimmunology studies). 

The body does something else—which holds the key to why the whole Wheel of Self stops turning in the developmental way. In addition to being our active vehicle in the world, the body's job is to hold our learnings in our nervous system and make them available to us as we face increasingly complex situations. The learnings don't need to be conscious. Though sometimes implicit, these invisible beliefs are still active in our lives. When we are young, emotionally intense threats, losses, and rejections can be "overlearned." Abhinav's parents, who were immigrants, made many difficult sacrifices so that he and his brother could get the education they did. Abhinav's early experiences affected how he thought of work and sacrifice in his own life, unconsciously pushing him to work more. Memories of his family's struggles and his feelings of sadness, guilt, and fear were still vivid inside him.

Many of us carry such "active" memories in our bodies, whether of our early threats, embarrassments, loneliness, or rejection. Trauma researchers show how the body carries the continued threat of early situations and acts on the present circumstances as if they were the past. This, then, gives us a clue as to why the whole self-system—mind, emotions, body, motivation, and behavior—gets stalled. If the self were, in fact, in danger, it would be rational to hurry, worry, obsess, and get exhausted. The self-system acts rationally but mistakes the present for the past and, in doing so, renders itself ineffective. The stalled self-system is the self in a cloud of time distortion. If early overlearned experiences distort how the self interacts with our everyday reality, we are not acting in relation to what is before us but reacting to what is behind us.


This excerpt ends on page 18 of the paperback edition.

Monday, June 24th we begin the book The Friction Project: How Smart Leaders Make the Right Things Easier and the Wrong Things Harder by Robert I. Sutton; Huggy Rao.
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