Sometimes, when faced with a problem or tricky decision, we tend to linger near the surface, taking our first thought or reaction as truth.
"I have to speak in public, but I don't want to."
And that's where it ends. A moment of exploration and possibly deeper understanding stuffed unceremoniously under the couch.
When we do this— and we all do it— two things happen:
1. We take our reactions and initial thoughts as truth
2. We don't change and grow
Of course, only scratching the surface is easier. Facing down your fear and uncertainties, prodding and picking at them over and over before they fess up the truth is hard— and we can often encounter unsettling truths about ourselves.
When we get to the truth, we can no longer ignore the dusty things accumulating under the sofa. They start to grumble, begging to be acknowledged.
What can we do?
The first step to radically changing your outlook it so assume you might be wrong— yes, even about your own thoughts and first impressions. Thoughts can become habits, too.
An example? I've struggled with anxiety most of life. When something new and unfamiliar is near on the horizon, I catch myself thinking or even saying something like:
"Oh god, I'm so nervous about meeting with this new client."
But when I stop myself and take a moment to challenge this feeling, I realize, hang on, I'm not nervous or scared, I'm excited!
A similar feeling, but with a different outlook. Nervousness is just negative excitement.
I can't wait for x to happen: excitement
Oh god, what if x happens: nervousness/dread
The first step is to assume you could be wrong. The second step involved a lot of 'whys'.
Five, in fact, as you may have guessed from the title (although, to be fair, you may only need four).
The Five Whys
When you encounter an idea, you challenge it with why, and that response with why until you get to the really good stuff.
I'll get super vulnerable here and share an example from my own life. The thought is this:
"I don't want to play volleyball with the people from your office."
"I don't like it."
"I'm not very good, and I don't want others to see."
"Because I'm scared they'll think I'm not good enough and won't value me."
"Because that's how I'm valuing myself."
Ah. There's something. I could certainly ask one more why but to be honest, I'm not really sure I know the answer. Maybe because the popular crowd when I was in public school were always the athletic bunch, and so I associate that with being valued, being wanted.
Either way, I learn a few things here:
- My reluctance has nothing to do with my not liking sports.
- If you have friends who make you feel like garbage for not being great at volleyball, you have bigger problems than being garbage at volleyball, i.e., picking shit for friends.
Before you leave here thinking that the five whys are only for negative situations, you can also apply them to goals or desires as well to see if you're really on track for the kind of life you want to lead.
"I want to get the six-figure job this year."
"So I can have nicer things. I'm tired of my old car."
"Because having these nice things will make me happy."
"Because then people will admire me, and I'll know I've made it—"
Hang on, we've found the problem here. The beginning isn't so bad, but the end result simply won't do. There are good reasons to strive for a six-figure job, including:
- wanting to advance your profession
- wanting to challenge yourself and learn
- wanting to feel powerful and seen
- wanting to fund your dreams
Striving for a six-figure job with the aim of collecting things and impressing others, will leave you stuck on the hamster wheel of hedonic adaptation and ultimately, not very happy— but that's a tangent for another day.
If you want to really get to the bottom of your deepest thoughts, desires, and ambitions, I recommend giving the five whys a try and seeing what you find.
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