“But First…” Is a Bad Habit That’s Been Stealing My Happiness –
I woke up with happiness this morning, anxious to write about an idea I had for an article. I went into the office feeling inspired and excited about writing it. It was 8 am. Right now it’s 4:30 pm and I’m just getting down to the writing process.
I turned my computer on, intending to head straight to my writing and thought to myself, “I’m going to get to this writing in just a minute, but first…” and I checked my email.
If it had been a horror movie, that would have been the moment when the eerie, creepy backtrack started to play. Just the way it does when a really dumb film character slowly reaches out with one hand to open the basement door in the old abandoned house of a dead serial killer. Everyone watching is thinking, “You idiot! DO NOT open that door! Can’t you hear the music?!”
Well, that was me as I navigated to my mail app and opened Pandora’s inbox. Before long I was lost in unsatisfying busy work.
I’m not going to even bother to ask if you’ve done this, used “but first” as a way to procrastinate taking action on a useful or important task. The tendency is universally human. We all deflect ourselves from taking meaningful action at one time or another. If you haven’t used email as a distraction before, you probably don’t own a computer. But there are other ways of shying away from one’s true focus and present happiness than checking email. You may have done it by opening the refrigerator door, or by opening a copy of the National Enquirer.
The question is, “Why do we put off and delay the activities that are healthy, satisfying, meaningful and useful to us?”
Turns out there is a great deal of recent scientific research that explains this bewildering behavior. Seems underneath the surface we are stuck with a sense of “bad” that colors a good deal of our experience and leads us in directions not optimal to our happiness.
I recently interviewed Dr. Geoffrey Carr, an author, therapist and happiness expert on the subject of avoidance, how people can actually feel good and what tends to stand in our way.
The Three Feelings That Intrude on Our Happiness and Productivity
I learned about something Dr. Carr calls “intrusive feelings.” Intrusive feelings are complex, but basically there are three types of intrusive feelings.
• That something bad is going to happen. This is the feeling of fear. Fear comes in many flavors such as anxiety, nervousness, worry, apprehension, panic, dread, and terror.
• That something bad has happened. This is the feeling of pain. We say we feel hurt, loss, sadness, longing, heartbroken, devastated, despair, or grief.
• That we ourselves are somehow bad. This is the feeling of shame. Shame includes feeling embarrassed, humiliated, guilty, inadequate, useless, repulsive, dirty, or flawed.
Besides presenting live in front of audiences, one of the most impactful activities I can engage in professionally is writing. I love communicating, have the strong desire to inspire and help others and simply love to write.
So what’s the problem? Why on earth would I delay engaging in this activity?
Well, freedomhabits is becoming successful. We’re growing our subscriber base and people are showing interest in the content we’ve been producing. Looking at this situation from the perspective of intrusive feelings gives me some insight into my behavior.
• The result of this success for me internally is performance anxiety. Some part of me feels scared that I won’t be able to keep my audience’s attention. I dread the possibility that they’ll stop being interested, go away, or unsubscribe as soon as I post something that doesn’t meet the mark. This is the feeling that something bad is going to happen.
• Like every other blogger out there, I’ve experienced the pain of having pieces of writing that I’ve worked hard on be completely ignored. This triggers painful childhood memories of having been ignored in the past, the “something bad” that has happened.
• Finally, really putting myself out there in writing—on show to be judged and critiqued by an invisible audience—brings up a feeling of shame, that somehow I’ll be seen as bad or inadequate in the process of communicating what is true for me.
I described my doubts and fears to a good friend who listened attentively and then said laughing, “Well that’s absurd!” He told me about a friend of his he had directed to the site and how much they had gotten out of it. Of course often I will hear later from subscribers or readers what a difference something I wrote made in their lives, but in the absence of a direct feedback, posts gone viral and people taking to the streets in mass celebration, I imagine that people are disappointed with it. Admittedly absurd.
So yes, I feel silly admitting all of the above, but it’s really a good example of why we might unconsciously distract ourselves from things we most want in our lives, when really we could be moving forward with immediate and effective action that directly supports our happiness.
You probably know somebody personally who has a talent, a skill, or something to offer that they continue to procrastinate on, delay, and find excuses for not engaging. They have a book they’re writing, an album they’re producing, a small business they’re starting, a stand-up routine they’re working on, an important letter they haven’t sent, a crucial project with a deadline, a resume they plan on submitting, an art project they’re creating – yet they’re constantly finding reasons to run away from completing what they most want.
The Practice of Disruptive Mindfulness
Becoming aware of the intrusive feelings that float in the background of our attention is vital work for anyone who wishes to experience the joy and fulfillment of true freedom in their life. Everything we want for ourselves in the domains of money, health and relationship depend upon the ability to experience these feelings as they are without confusing them with the actual reality of our current lives. This is not easy work.
And it doesn’t end there.
In addition to establishing a reliable mindfulness practice to catch our reactivity as it occurs, we also have to take action. We need to prove to ourselves through experience that our intrusive feelings are not an accurate measure of our real limits. We need to practice behaving in ways that demonstrate the freedom we always retain to participate and act in our lives, even while these intrusive experiences arise.
Disruptive mindfulness is the practice of paying attention to patterns that are held in place by intrusive feelings and then gently challenging those patterns in small ways, consistently over time, until a new pattern of behavior is established that allows us to engage rather than withdraw or back down from fully living.
Where have you been allowing feelings from the past to limit your present participation in life?
What do you long to accomplish or experience that you actually avoid because it produces anxiety in you when you move toward it?
Who do you want to connect more deeply with that you fear, because you’ve been rejected in similar circumstances in the past?
Finally, what small step could you take to challenge the belief that those old intrusive feelings should be the basis of your decisions and actions now?
If you’ve had some experience with mindfulness practice in the past and want a refresher on how to engage it, or if you’re new to the practice of mindfulness, you can take our free course to put the mindfulness part of the equation in motion.
The ability to design small simple actions you can take that will challenge the old limits you unnecessarily get stuck behind is an invaluable life skill. We’re currently designing a course that will help. Stay tuned.