Why Trying to ‘Turn Over a New Leaf’ Keeps Us Stuck
It’s time to think about self-transformation in a different way
Several years ago, I was on an academic fellowship and pretty sure I was failing at it.
I’d envisioned myself getting to my office early every day, spending several hours virtuously writing, and then knocking off at 3 p.m. for a run. Instead, I was lying awake all night agonising over everything I’d said that day, sleeping until 11, and rolling into my office just in time for lunch.
By the time I got to my desk at around 2, I’d be drowning in self-recrimination. My office — this hard-won space I’d been so excited to occupy — now felt like the scene of a crime I had committed against myself. I’d killed off my chance for a good day before I’d even gotten out of bed, and there was nothing I could do to resuscitate it. So I’d occupy myself with some busywork, just trying to tolerate being there until I could go home and try again tomorrow.
If you don’t get why I didn’t just do some actual work when I sat down at 2 p.m., then this article is not for you.
It’s for everyone who 100% gets it, because you’ve had similar mornings or afternoons or weeks or months. It’s for everyone who has abandoned a project or a programme or a commission or a degree after making a mistake or dropping a ball or letting yourself down, because clearly there was no coming back from that.
When you’re inside this logic, it seems totally self-evident. Like: No, I clearly can’t start work at 2 p.m., wtf. Or: No, I obviously can’t reply to the email now when I should have done it six months ago. Or: No, I can’t ask my advisor for help when I didn’t take her advice last time.
When people offer us these kinds of options, it’s like we’re being asked to feed a fish that’s floating belly up in the bowl. Like: What part of beyond repair do you not understand?
There are good reasons we wind up thinking about change this way, but it’s a problem in the guise of a solution. The more we try to do it right from the beginning, the more stuck we become. But we don’t have to stay stuck, provided we’re willing to think about…