Most of us have some areas in our lives where we could do with some “improvement”.
Bad habits, destructive thought patterns, and unwelcome emotions are a constant companion of most people.
Fotunately, there is a huge selection of self-help systems available, in all conceivable forms and manners, with the explicit aim to help us change our habits and behaviour.
Unfortunately, most of them don’t work – and if you don’t believe me, just take a good, hard look at yourself and your surroundings. 😉
(And if you are one of the people who happen to have gotten good results from any one self-help tool, and now think that this tool has to be the be-all and end-all for everybody, I’d strongly encourage you to take a second good, long, hard, look at the world around you.)
Now, I’m not saying that all the methods in these books never work at all. But the ones that work, that help people change their habits and behavior patterns, do so under specific circumstances, or only for a limited number of people.
One might be tempted to think that certain preconditions need to be met, that people would have to reach a certain state by other means, in order for the self-help tools to produce any real and lasting improvements…
And in a way, that is exactly what happens.
Let’s take a look at a random example: Just for the sake of this essay, let’s assume you’re one of the people who have a really hard time getting started with certain kinds of tasks before the deadline is almost upon you.
This, in turn, leads to all kinds of inconveniences: Missed deadlines, half-finished projects, useless discussions with other people, a constantly annoyed boss or partner, and a lot of unnecessary stress in general. Hence you want to get rid of this habit, and change your behavior accordingly.
If you’ve ever been suffering from a “bad habit” like this, or anything comparable, I probably don’t have to tell you how hard it is to change your behavior. 😉
In fact, chances are good that you’ve already tried all sorts of tools, tips or techniques to change all kinds of habits and behavior from which you’ve been suffering. Eating habits, relationship habits, work habits, exercise habits… you name it, most people would like to change it.
Of course, there is the odd person who actually manages to turn the boat around in a big way. Some achieve that with one of the gazillions of techniques which are promoted everywhere, and some by sheer willpower – the latter usually after a good, hard shock and with a very urgent reason to change their lives.
Since I reckon you’d rather not face a life-threatening health crisis, a failed marriage or a lost job, just as a motivation to change certain habits in your life, we’ll leave these extreme cases aside in this essay and focus on the everyday changes which most people want to achieve without big drama. 😉
Compared to the vast number of people who seriously try to change their lives with such methods, the number of people who actually achieve any lasting, positive changes is small. (Again, take a look around if you don’t believe me!)
Now, part of that is, of course, due to the old problem that most people want to reach a goal, but almost nobody wants to actually do the work to get there.
But leaving that aside, there is also a deeper issue with all the self-help tools which are supposed to help you change your life… Let’s get back to our example and say you’ve got the habit of pushing certain things off until right before (or even shortly after) the deadline, and you would like to change that.
Instead of trying any “proven” methods to change your behavior, you sit back and start reflecting: Why do you actually do this? Is there a reason?
And apart from all the annoying inconveniences, trouble and stress which this habit brings you – what else do you get out of it?
If something is this persistent in your life, it usually has a role to fill, so… which desire or need do this habit (and its consequences) fill for you?
After some reflection, you might realise that by scheduling your tasks in that way, you are constantly busy and stressed out, way more than you’d have to be. Some more reflection brings the realisation that this busyness and stress are, in some weird way, “benefits” to you: They help you feel valued and important. After all, if you’re constantly busy and always have a to-do list a mile long, you are one of the important people, right? Without you, nothing would get done – as clearly proven by the number of tasks you still have to perform!
At this point, it might dawn on you that changing your habit of procrastination won’t be quite as simple as you thought – just applying some time management exercises or some model of behavioral change probably won’t cut it. ‘Cause, after all, there is obviously some deeper need inside of you which needs to be fulfilled: the need of being valued, of being important, of filling a role.
And unless you can somehow satisfy this need, or get rid of it, it won’t simply go away. Either your attempts at changing your habits will end in failure, as they might have done umpteen times before, or you will simply develop some other “bad” habits elsewhere in your life. Instead, something more fundamental has to change in order for you to get rid of your procrastination habit.
Even though this is only a random example and might not even apply to your life, I think some congratulations are in order at this point! Together, we’ve taken a closer look at this bad habit (which is of course totally imaginary, since real people never ever procrastinate any of their tasks… 😉 ). And what we have seen, much to our surprise, is that there is something beneath it – and that something looks surprisingly like… a turtle!
By looking beneath the obvious habit, we’ve noticed that it stands firmly on the turtle of “I need to feel important”.
Having glimpsed that first turtle, you’re now in hunting mode and don’t want to stop there. So at the next occasion, you sit down again and reflect some more: Why is it that you want to feel important? Aren’t you getting enough acknowledgement in your life? And why is the admiration of other people important to you at all?
With some patience and persistence, you manage to catch a glimpse beneath the first turtle, only to discover that it, too, stands firmly on yet another turtle.
(Looking beneath turtles isn’t always easy, btw. If you try it at the front, they might snap at you, and boy, that can hurt! And if you try it at the back, well, I’ll leave that to your imagination. Either way, this whole looking-beneath-turtles business can be a painful and rather messy thing!)
This second turtle might be something like “my parents were never proud of me”. Or “I’d like to get a raise and thus need to look busier than my colleagues”. It could also be all other sorts of things. Turtles come in all sizes, forms, and colours.
No matter how your second turtle looks like, you feel that it, too, can’t be the end of the journey. Thus you take heart and risk yet another peek below this second turtle, and then below the third, and the fourth.
Having gotten this far, it probably won’t surprise you much if I tell you that from this point on, it’s turtles all the way down. 🙂 (Fortunately, other than in the original story, in this case there is actually a downmost turtle. But we’ll get to that in a second.)
Eventually, once you’ve come almost all the way down, you will encounter one or more turtles which are based on fears. The fear of not being loved, or of being alone. The fear of not having enough, or of losing things. Whatever your fears are: Once your turtles look more and more like fears, you know you’ve almost reached the end.
At the very bottom, though, beneath the last fear-turtle, there is solid ground again. And that ground, inevitably, is going to be a variation of the theme “I might not survive”, or some similar, very primal, fear.
No matter how the particular “bad habit” you set out to change looks like, and no matter how many turtles have piled up to support it… in the end, they all stand on the same ground.
At this point, you might (rightfully) say that you set out to change some undesirable habit or behavior of yours, and not to play Turtle Jenga or engange in theoretical (and fruitless) psychoanalytic studies… Well, I’m glad to reply there is actually a rather practical and applicable lesson in all of this. 😉
As you are staring at this tower of turtles, you might realise just how rigid and solid it has become over time – and how forcefully the turtles are pushing upwards to support all your habits and behavior patterns at the top of the pile.
If you just file off a bit here or there at the topmost behavior which is only the very tip of the iceberg, the turtles beneath it will simply stay in place and rebuild that habit at the earliest opportunity.
Or, in simpler words: Your attempts to “just change that annoying habit” will not last much longer than most people’s new year’s resolutions to lose weight…
But what if you should really persist? If you, by sheer doggedness, or maybe by sheer luck, manage to get rid of your procrastination habit?
Well, the turtles will still be there, won’t they? And they will still be pushing something upwards, towards the light. If you have removed their previous toy, chances are very good they’ll find a new one. (After all, turtles are patient, long-lived and persistent.)
And sooner or later, you’ll discover that there is some other bad habit, maybe one you hadn’t even noticed so far, which is making your life more miserable than it would need to be – and then the whole cycle of self-help methods starts over again. Meanwhile, the turtles will still be standing there, all piled on top of another, patiently supporting your next bad habit…
If you really want to achieve lasting, far-reaching change (instead of just continuing to fight against yet another bad habit for the rest of your life), you’ll need to tackle the foundation.
Now, I don’t recommend attacking the bottom ground with its very primal fears, at least not for starters. For most of us, working through the mud and the rocks at the bottom is the task of more than one lifetime. If you start out with such a big task right at the beginning, chances are good you’ll just end up frustrated (and with all your bad habits still in place).
Instead, what I would advise you to do, is to reach down as far as you can at this current stage, grab the downmost turtle you can reach right now (even if that is still a long ways up from the bottom!), and gently shake it loose.
By doing this, you will achieve two things: First, the turtles above it, and the bad habits which rest on top of them, will inevitably also become dislodged. Things will start to get moving and changing, sometimes in surprising areas or in unexpected ways. Once the turtle you have grabbed has lost enough of its footing, some turtles further up will also be starting to slip – and then changing the habits which rest on them is a lot easier than it was before.
(And in case you were wondering, yes, that is one of the reasons why self-help methods might show good effects for some people, in some circumstances – their turtles where out of balance, maybe only ever so slightly, and the additional push of the self-improvement methods toppled a few of them over.)
The second thing you will achieve is even more profound: If a turtle somewhere further up shifts its weight, this affects the balance of the whole pile of turtles, all the way down. And if it shifts its weight far enough, some turtles further down might also have to move in order to rebalance…
(Think about how carefully balanced a pyramid of artists is, and you’ll get the idea. Turtles have four feet, granted, and thus stand more solidly – but they, too, have to shift if there is enough movement further up in the pyramid!)
At this point, chances are good you will be wondering about the big, pink turtle in the room: This is all nice and well, but… how on earth do you do that?
Identifying the turtles all the way down was hard enough, but is somehow still doable – at least as long as you invest the necessary patience, persistence, pain tolerance, and internal honesty.
But however would you shake loose a turtle in such a solidly built tower?
Well, I thought you’d never ask. 😉
In order to achieve this – to go further than your obvious, surface-level “bad habits” or “undesirable” behaviors”, and actually chip away at their foundation, I recommend two good, solid working tools:
The first is journaling. Or, in other words: the simple act of writing things down.
My advice is to do this on actual paper, with an actual pen. There is a quality to handwritten notes which note-taking of any kind on an electronic device simply doesn’t have.
The rest of journaling is simple (although, as usual, simple isn’t the same as easy). Just sit down for some time, focus on the topic at hand, and write down what comes to mind. If you’re stuck, don’t give up, but stick it out – more things will surface if you persist.
It can be helpful to ask questions (“why” is particularly prone to leading you further). Then write down anything which comes up: emotions, thoughts, memories, anything. Don’t censor things because you think they “can’t be true”, or “aren’t important” – oftentimes, that’s the most interesting stuff, since there are clearly parts of you who’d rather suppress this.
When you’ve written down all that you can in any one session (or you run out of time), put things away until your next session (which hopefully won’t be too far out). Your subconscious will continue to work on the issue, and might come up with new insights between the sessions, too. Just write them down as well whenever you can.
If you pursue in your journaling, you will, over time, reach deeper and deeper into the pile of turtles, until, eventually, you’ll hit rock bottom – or, if not rock bottom, at least the downmost turtle which you are able to reach at this point.
By that time, a lot of stuff will have come up, and quite a few things will deserve processing, letting go off, or dealing with. Do whatever you have to do in order to clear things up, and put old things to rest, while you’re on the way downwards.
Just going through that process will have shaken loose quite a few turtles, and shifted others. Some might even have fled to greener pastures, where they will be left undisturbed, throwing some irritated glances back at you.
At this point, you can just continue journaling to work on unsettling more and more turtles (and eventually getting rid of those bad habits which were the reason you tackled all this in the first place), or you can employ the second method in our arsenal: Tapping.
Tapping, or to call it by its official name: Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), is a great tool for processing old memories, stuck emotions, unwelcome thoughts, and quite a few other things.
Unlike journaling, which is mainly a mental (and partly emotional) exercise, EFT works on several levels at once: on the mental and emotional level, but also on the etheric body (life force), and in extension on the physical body.
Since this essay is already rather long, I’m not going to go into much detail here (maybe another day, if there is enough interest?). The gist is this: During EFT, you tap (hence the name) on some points on your head, and optionally also on points on your hands. These points are part of the body’s energy system. At the same time, you bring up either the emotions, thoughts, etc which you want to let go off or which are bothering you, or you bring up the things you’d like to rather think, feel, or be, but feel a resistance to (or both).
Instead of focusing just on what you don’t have (yet), EFT allows you to process what is there, warts and all, even if it’s highly unwanted or painful.
During several (or, more likely: many) rounds of tapping, you don’t just work through these issues on an emotional and thought level, as you do in journaling, but the enery body also calms down and is no longer stressed out by these things, and this in turn can affect the physical body (e.g. by reducing muscle tension which was caused by stress).
The whole process is quite simple and easy to learn. Just type “EFT” or “tapping” into the search engine of your choice, and look for instructions on a website, or in a video. Two things should be noted when you look up how EFT works:
First, a lot of the instructions, especially in youtube videos, are rather salesy and might promise you the moon and stars. Ignore their promises and style, and just focus on learning the few tapping points. Once you have memorized them, you don’t need scripted videos anymore, since you are setting out to tap on your own individual turtles.
And secondly, there is a formal way of doing EFT which requires you to rate your issues on a scale from 1 to 10, write things down, phrase issues in a certain way, process stuff in a certain order depending on how they rank on your scale, etc. You can certainly do it that way, but you can also ignore that and just phrase as you wish and tap away. It works either way. 😉
Thus, the short instructions for tapping are: Learn the tapping points. Then start tapping on them (gently!), one after another, over and over again, while you say, think and/or feel the things which are bothering you. Have a talk with yourself about your turtles, any and all aspects of them, while tapping on your face.
That’s it. If you do that for a little while, you’ll feel how things are shifting, turtles are moving, and emotional stress is clearing up.
At this point, we’re almost done.
Remember that we set out to change some of your bad habits, like procrastination. During the process, you have discovered what causes these habits, and what causes the causes of the habits, and so on – and you have started to tackle not just the habits, but the bedrock on which they are built, and all the layers beneath habits and bedrock.
Before I leave you to go turtle wrestling (and hopefully have some fun with it, even if it can at times be painful), I’ve got a few more words of advice, though:
First, as you might have guessed by now, I’m not a big fan of only ever working on surface habits. That’s the strategy which most of the “self-improvement” industry pushes, but remember that this is an industry, and the people who promote this strategy, and the tools to implement it, make their living off the fact that you will always have more bad habits to change, and will thus always need more self improvement advice. I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions from that…
Secondly, I’ve recommended the two strategies which, in my own experience, will allow you to deal with the foundations of these bad habits – with the turtles which are propping them up. Taking that path isn’t always easy (stuff is bound to come up which will be painful!). However, if you honestly want to change your life, you’ll eventually need to go there anyway. So why not just do it right away, instead of laboring for years on surface habits, only to then come back and tackle your turtles anyway?
Also, there might be other techniques out there which achieve the same goal. In fact, it would surprise me if there weren’t any. If you have personal experience with any other turtle-moving techniques which work just as well, please share them in the comments. And nope, for the purpose of this essay, I’m not interested in any surface-level self improvement techniques, or in stuff which you haven’t personally tried. 😉
If you follow my advice and go turtle wrestling, remember that the further down you go, the more settled and the heavier the turtles are. There’s a lot more weight pressing on them from above, and they’ve also had a lot more time to settle comfortably into their place. Shaking them loose, in other words, is going to take more effort, and also potentially going to be more painful.
While it’s generally advisable to reach as far down as you can, there is also a limit to however much you can tackle at any given time. If you feel that something is just too much for you yet, or if in the process you realise you’ve bitten off more than you can chew, then you can always gently pull back up a bit, and continue with your work higher up in the pile.
Eventually, you’ll be able to reach further down. Your work higher up will prepare the ground for that, and as you have already had a good, hard look at that whole mass of turtles, you know what to expect. If nothing else, the simple knowledge of the underlying reasons will help you tremendously in processing the stuff further up.
Finally, I’ve made it sound like this is an orderly tower of turtles which are neatly stacked one right on top of the other.
Real life is more messy (but you knew that, right?). A turtle close to the surface can support more than one bad habit. Some turtles might balance not just on one turtle underneath them, but have their front feet on one, their left hindleg on a second, and their right hindleg on a third turtle further down. Some turtles might hold onto each other, or got their legs crossed.
If you start working your way down and then up the pile, don’t be surprised or disheartened if things aren’t always neat and clean. Just keep jogging turtles to the best of your ability, and they will eventually tumble down – and take not just that bad habit with them, but also a few other things you weren’t even expecting.
Image: Isabela Kronemberger on Unsplash