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Poking the Beast: The First Step in Making A Change

Updated: May 20, 2021

Hello, and a special welcome to new subscribers! It's been awesome connecting with so many of you this week. I feel a little bit less insane, and that's thanks to you.

I've been hearing a drumbeat from many of you, or maybe it's more of a scream...


Pardon the shout, but that's the tone I'm hearing. The back end of the pandemic (at least in the U.S.) feels like falling over the top of a waterfall. It seems like an opportune moment for change, but the force is overwhelming and we're not sure how many broken bones we might have on the other side.

Our brains are screaming at us to take heed (or advantage) of this reboot situation—while our bodies keep sauntering along, doing the usual. It would feel pretty great to actually implement something new, but trying feels like marching in place in front of a brick wall, waiting for it lift like a garage door into your dream house.

Switching directions, to find another way in, requires risk. It's hard to know who or what to trust and whether our choices are the "right" ones. And when, inevitably, we make less-than-awesome moves that lead to heartache, injuries, financial ruin, or other charming life lessons, it gets even harder to trust our instincts to leap—or hang back and rely on routines that have shielded us from pain (at least in theory) up until now.

So the stuckness settles in for a while longer.

Last weekend, I was in a friend's backyard, playing with her brand-new puppies and her 15-month old daughter, who was born just before the world went into lockdown last March.

I know how to hang with puppies. I'm less adept with babies. Though I had one of my own (nearly 10 years ago), I generally feel like I'm fumbling a football when I try to hold a squirmy little one now. This particular one can be especially squirmy since she's had so few opportunities to interact with people outside of her immediate family.

So, as she sat safely her mom's lap, I reached a single finger toward her and waited to see if she would meet me half way. She did, and we had an E.T. moment. Actually, we had about 35 of them. Our fingertips touched and pulled back with accompanying boops and beeps to signal contact.

By the end of the hour, she was toddling my way and, later, happily in my arms. With that, she took a leap of faith on something new.

Change is hard and scary, and it can seem impossible to imagine yourself in a truly different circumstance: comfortable in your skin, setting boundaries at work, moving, achieving a degree, scaling (or quitting) a company, or having a family. You want it. You're clear on that, but you keep getting stuck in the usual because the usual is so much safer than the unknown—even if "safer" isn't so great.

If leaping hasn't worked, the way out of the stuckness is to reach out and touch the new thing—to see if it burns—before you're ready to wrap your arms all the way around it.

Research shows that the average smoker can take 30 attempts to quit smoking before they're successful, and knowing that it takes multiple attempts reduces frustration and increases the odds of success. Nicotine is a drug. Not everything will be so difficult to change, but the parallel is helpful. If we know it takes a while to replace or build a new habit, we're more likely to keep trying even when we don't pull it off the first time, or the 16th.

My clients tell me every day how hard change is, and they're not wrong. To do something different—effectively different without having to THINK so much about it—you have to know you're not going to get hurt in the process. And "hurt", in this situation, can mean hungry, lonely, scared, bored, sad, anxious, or anything else you're not super-keen to feel.

We have to poke the beast to see if it'll bite. I'm mixing my metaphors now, but you take my point.

Will eating an extra piece of fruit each day (or jogging a block) feel like a cumbersome, annoying chore? Maybe, but you have to try it to find out.

That first touch can be featherlight, but it counts big. It's the on-ramp, the first indication to your primitive brain that it might be okay to come back for more. In fact, it might be satisfying in a way you can't even conceive right now. Most of the time, the new thing doesn't bite. It might not turn out to be exactly the right thing, but if you've been contemplating it for a while, more than likely, it's going to feel pretty good.

If there's a thing you've been trying to try, consider whether you genuinely want to do it or not (the actual change, not the result), and if you do, poke the beast, just a little bit to start.

  • If you want to write an essay, write a sentence or an outline. (A sentence can be whole paragraph, btw!)

  • If you want to try a dance class or volunteer thing or dating app, look it up. Call somebody; ask a question; drive to the parking lot and then turn around and drive home.

  • If you want to make a career or relationship move, dig around it. Write down the "what if" you see in your head. Do some research. Talk to somebody who has been there. Try it on for size.

  • If you're lying in bed and things are really hard, take one, clear, deep breath—and a stretch for extra credit.

Most of my clients thought about reaching out to me for months before they actually did. Getting started on any new thing is always the freaky part. It gets easier after that, especially if you give yourself carte blanche to walk away if it isn't your thing.

What are you tempted to try?



Speaking of poking the beast, I wrote a raw and very personal article in HuffPost last Friday in response to the Matt Gaetz scandal. (If you're blissfully unaware, he's a Republican congressman from Florida who is being investigated by the F.B.I. for sex trafficking.)

The essay is about a choice that was forced on me as a younger woman and the power we all have to choose, consciously and on purpose, who and what we welcome into our lives—from the food on our plates, to the work we do, and the company we keep.

It was scary to write, even twenty years later, but now that I've touched it, I'm pretty sure it can't burn me anymore.


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