Forcing Yourself To Make Progress On Your Outer Goals Vs. Working On The Core Baggage Holding You Back
When you're trying to work past your mental health and social struggles, whether by yourself or with the help of a therapist, here are two broad approaches you can take:
- Use various hands-on strategies to make yourself do the behaviors that move you toward your real life goals, even if you feel uncomfortable or your heart isn't in it as you go after them.
- Focus on resolving the root of your anxiety, insecurities, depression, or whatnot.
Of course, it's not really an either-or choice. In practice most people try to make themselves go after their outer goals as much as they're able, and either try to work on their deeper scars at the same time, or only begrudgingly dive into those waters when their real world progress hits a snag.
Here are more thoughts on each approach. Nothing I'm going to say is mind blowing, but it's something you should be aware of as you work on your own problems, so you can make conscious decisions about where you'll put your energy, rather than stumble along. It's similar to knowing whether any one treatment method you use is trying to suppress your surface-level symptoms or truly heal your core wounds.
Using various methods to make yourself take action on your outer goals
Here are some examples of situations where someone could use this angle:
- You want to make friends, but are afraid of rejection. You try to find ways to go to events, talk to people, and invite them out anyway, even though you feel anxious and pessimistic as you do it.
- You have a recurring insecurity that your friends are going to drop you. Your emotions want you to do things like ask for constant reassurance, or send seven follow up texts if they don't reply to your message right away. You make yourself communicate with them in a calm, collected way, even though you feel needy and frantic on the inside.
- You want to travel more, but are scared of flying. When you can, you use methods to brute force your way through a flight, even though you're miserable the whole time.
- You hate your job and know you have the qualifications to get another position, but aren't confident enough to look for one. You use tactics to gently push yourself to update your resume and start applying to other companies, even as a part of you believes it will never work out.
- You want to enjoy life, but feel depressed and apathetic, and can't find the motivation to do anything that could be fun. You use what willpower you have to make yourself do enjoyable activities, with the hope it will eventually pay off and shift your mood.
Some tools for making yourself bulldoze forward:
- Learning various relaxation or emotion regulation techniques to lower your anxious or hopeless feelings as you go after what you want (e.g., deep breathing, grounding exercises, etc.)
- Learning to mindfully tolerate your nervousness, so you can do what you need to do even if your fear rears its head
- Using an incentive system to encourage you to act (e.g., promising yourself you'll buy a new TV if you get another job)
- Creating an exposure therapy hierarchy that gradually lets you work toward facing your biggest fears
- Building an emotional support network that will cheer you on, and help you weather any nerves or doubts that come up
- Learning new skills so you can outwardly act in a way that helps you meet your goals (e.g., reading up on strategies to make plans with new friends, even if deep down you're sure everyone thinks you're boring and all your efforts will be for nothing)
- Making healthy lifestyle changes, like exercising more often, to boost your overall mood
- Using medication, alcohol, or street drugs to dull your nerves or apathy as you go after what you want
If nothing else, if you can pull off this approach and achieve your tangible goals, your outer life will be better. If you're going to be anxious, insecure, or depressed for the foreseeable future, it may as well be while you have friends, are able to travel, have a better job, and so on.
Though ideally in the process of forcing yourself toward your goals, you'll end up addressing your core mental blocks. Like maybe by making yourself meet people you'll have some positive social experiences, and your conviction that you're dull and unlikable starts to crumble. Or by making yourself search for a new job, in the process you'll realize you have a lot to offer, then feel happier about your career once you've ended up in a new company.
Whether this happens depends on each individual and the factors underlying their struggles. One person may be able to get over their social or flying anxiety as they push themselves to take outer action. Another may progress to a point where they can function better, but their core fears haven't shifted much.
A few reasons people are often drawn to this approach
- For one, there are often outside factors that force them to use it. They're lonely and want friends now, not next summer when they've worked through every last piece of self-doubt. They have bills to pay and need to go to work, anxious or depressed or not. They don't have the luxury of going on a two-year sabbatical so they can focus solely on their self-development.
- Many people are pragmatic and don't want to work any harder than they have to. If they can get what they want relatively quickly by barging forward, they'll take that over stopping to delve into their childhood trauma and hangups.
- Some people are wary of exploring their past. They may think it's an inefficient, outdated waste of time. They might worry they'll uncover something that makes everything worse. They'd much prefer to work on their concrete issues in the present day.
Like I said, in practice many people start by trying to achieve as much as they can in real life. Some accomplish everything they set out to do, and see no need to try to address their deeper wounds. The rest hit a wall at some point. Even if they believe it makes sense to pursue their outer goals despite still feeling some doubts or painful emotions, they just can't get themselves take the next step. For example:
- They can make themselves go to some meet ups, and start the odd conversation, but when it comes time to ask someone to hang out, a wave of anxiety passes through them and they can't open their mouth to say anything.
- They know on paper they should act secure about their friendships, but when they get scared enough of being abandoned their feelings take over, and they can't help but do things like sending a bunch of texts pleading for their buddy not to leave them.
- They can barely make themselves take some short flights, but even if they use every short-term trick in the book, they just can't gather the courage to book anything longer than two hours.
- They could manage to update their resume, and even that stirred up a ton of fear and Imposter Syndrome. Despite trying all kinds of moves to finagle themselves into acting, they can't make themselves use it to apply to any jobs.
- They're on board with the theory that making themselves get up and do something fun could lead them to feel less depressed, but they have an overwhelming sense that it's too tiring and pointless.
That's when life forces them to try to resolve their deeper issues. They have to start exploring their thought patterns, childhood, and unconscious motivations to figure out what's holding them up on a foundational level. Even if they never believed in that kind of work, now they don't have a choice.
Truly healing the core issues holding you back
Obviously the idea here is that if you can resolve your core baggage once and for all, then it will be easy to go after your outer goals. Whatever originally created your fear or resistance will be gone, or at least diminished. It's not even that you have to heal every last childhood scar. You just have to address enough of them that you can achieve what you want in real life. However, if you want to make a project of deeply exploring yourself and stamping out every last unhealthy pattern from your life, you can do that too.
I can't list everything, but here are some broad ways someone may try to heal their root issues:
- Identifying the difficult past experiences, and the false life lessons they may have drawn from them, which continue to fuel their current problems. Some of these will be obvious, while others are unconscious and take more work to uncover. (Knowing which incidents drive your mental blocks on a dry, intellectual level usually won't do much on its own, but once you have that information you can take other steps with it)
- Processing the clogged up, unresolved emotions attached to aversive events in their past. For mild to moderately upsetting episodes people can often process them on their own. For more serious events it's best to work with a trauma therapist
- Getting in touch with their true self, values, and goals, and dropping unhealthy, limited ones that have been imposed on them by their family, society, or their mistaken sense of what will make them finally feel worthy as a person
- Changing how they relate to their own thoughts and emotions. E.g., realizing not every thought they have is the ironclad truth, or that not every intense burst of anxiety or sadness is a danger they must do anything to avoid
- Reexamining some of the self-sabotaging stories they've told about themselves and the world their whole life, and coming up with more helpful, empowering ones
- Learning skills that will let them approach their life and relationships in a more capable, confident, self-affirming way
- Addressing any mental health struggles that have a physical component, like finally finding a medication for their Bipolar Disorder they can be on long-term, or cutting back on the drinking that makes them feel depressed
The clear drawback of this approach is that it can take a lot of time and effort to dig up and truly heal your deeper hang ups. It's not always a multi-year process, but if you haven't had the best childhood it usually takes longer than you'd like.
Going down this path can also be an excuse to procrastinate. You may tell yourself you have to put any real world action on hold until you resolve every last bit of childhood trauma, when you could really reduce it by 25%, and that would be enough to allow you to get out there again.
Like I said, hopefully this article will help you think about the way you want to tackle your own issues. At the moment what could you do to go after your outer goals? At what point will you have to hunker down and work on some of your older baggage? Once you've done that for a while, how might you be able to make a bit more real world progress?