An unfortunate aspect of life is that we often create obstacles, usually unconsciously, that may serve some sort of immediate purpose, but end up being long-term liabilities. These barriers are often driven by some of our most basic needs, for example, to feel competent, to be accepted, to feel in control. Regrettably, these obstacles become intractable and end up preventing people from changing (or even attempting to change) when they shift from being beneficial to being burdensome.
Baggage. Like all of us, you bring good things into adulthood from your childhood. And, as a human being, you probably also bring some not-so-good things, what is commonly called your “baggage.” The most frequent types of baggage include low self-esteem, perfectionism, fear, need for control, anger, and need to please. This baggage causes you to think, feel, and behave based on who you were as a child rather than the very different person you are now as an adult. Most of this baggage causes you to react to the world in an unproductive way that can sabotage your efforts to achieve positive life change.
Habits. When you experience thoughts, emotions, and behavior that are driven by your baggage with enough frequency, they become deeply ingrained habits that dictate how you act on and react to the world. These habits are much like athletes who practice bad technique. This poor technique becomes wired into their “muscle memory” and comes out in competition. Similarly, when your baggage becomes ingrained as habits, they produce seemingly reflexive response even when they are neither healthy or adaptive. The challenge is that, again like athletes, once habits are ingrained, it is difficult to retrain them.
Emotions. Negative emotions, such as fear, anger, sadness, frustration, and hopelessness, can act as a powerful deterrent to life change. For example, many people don’t change out of the fear of failure. They might think, “What if I can’t change, then I’ll prove myself to be even more of a failure than I am now.” They then say, “I’ve been this way for a long time and I’m getting by, so it’s not worth the risk.” These negative emotions become substantial barriers to change by being triggered whenever you feel uncomfortable, incompetence, or unsupported. And the only relief is to retreat back to the way you have been.
Environment. You create an environment that helps you best manage your baggage, habits, and emotions. You surround yourself with people who are supportive of the way you are and make you feel comfortable and safe. You engage in activities that play to your strengths and help you either mask or mitigate those obstacles. Unfortunately, this environment reinforces who you are, even when you don’t want to be who you are, and can cause you to continue down a path that interferes with your happiness and achievement of your goals. This environment may, at a minimum, not support change and, at worst, discourage change.
In all four cases, when you allow these obstacles to control your life, they have the effect of sabotaging your efforts at changing your life in a positive way. Even worse, you feel stuck, frustrated, and helpless to change your lot in life.
Dr. Jim Taylor is an adjunct professor at the University of San Francisco. His specialty is the psychology of business, sport, and parenting. Jim has been a consultant to and has provided individual and group training to executives and businesses.