Over the years I have known people who participated in weekend workshops with popular, charismatic self-help gurus whose message, when you boiled down the rhetoric, videos, and promotional literature, was pretty simple: Just do it!
They encouraged participants to leave the unhappy relationship, declutter their minds and homes, make that positive change in their lives, and become the people they want to be. But what really happens when we just do it?
Having a positive outlook and telling ourselves to just do it doesn’t seem like a bad way to approach life. After all, looking back on the times when we did change—implementing a new exercise or weight-loss program, quitting smoking, or being more assertive—it might seem like we did just do it. But normally we can’t. If we lack the self-awareness or emotional skills required to implement genuine change, we won’t be able to sustain it.
It is not surprising that many people find the just do it approach both reassuring and compelling. In a time of conflict and uncertainty, when traditional roles and morality seem to shift like blowing sand, with many of us struggling with the burden of work and family responsibilities and financial uncertainty, it is deeply comforting when an expert gives you a simple, clear directive that bypasses complexity and excuses.
But does this approach really work? And what’s at risk?
What devotees of just do it do not realize is that this sort of positive thinking—the you-can-accomplish-anything-if-you-really-try attitude—is only one part of the strategy we need in order to accomplish our goals.
Here’s what I think usually happens to such people but is rarely talked about: they attend a self-help weekend intensive. Or maybe they listen to a magnetic speaker on a podcast or a YouTube video and feel pumped up, excited. The inspirational teacher offers a simple answer to the problem that’s been haunting them—maybe why they haven’t been able to do what’s good for them or why they can’t leave a destructive relationship and commit to a healthy one. They feel relieved, maybe even a little silly. What the charismatic teacher said sounds so true. “Why didn’t I see it? Now I’m going to just do it,” we might say to ourselves. For a few days, we stay on a good path, eating in a balanced and wholesome way, meditating, saying no to various temptations—whatever it might be. We feel as if we have found the solution to our problems.
But then we hit a snag. We fall off the wagon. At first we fight the descent, but usually only with mixed results. Now we have a second problem, and it’s even bigger than what brought us to this point. It’s called shame. We have failed. In our state of humiliation, we imagine that all the other people who applauded and hugged the self-help guru after the workshop are just doing it. What we don’t realize, and nobody likes to admit, is that they, too, feel like they are backsliding and are privately imagining that this method is working for everyone else but them. And the sad thing is that it isn’t us, or them. It is the idea that anyone can effect deep and lasting change—and remove or alter behavior and feelings that might have been years in the making—by using what amounts to only conscious willpower, the power of wishing.
Here’s why you can’t just do it: we are complex beings, composed of varied (and sometimes conflicting) ideals and beliefs, values and motives. Our intense drive to succeed at work may clash with a need to spend more quality time with our family. Our wish to be fit and sexy might coexist with a penchant for sweets or cooking elaborate dinners for friends.
We are ambivalent about working through and getting rid of what we complain about. While it clearly bothers us, we may also gain a hidden benefit from holding on to our problems.
The desire to make changes and get better often coexists with a secret, hidden investment in staying stuck. For example, a woman who endlessly caters to the needs of those around her and feels very deprived and neglected may secretly think she is a nicer and kinder person and ultimately better than those who set limits and take better care of themselves. Focusing on her self would feel selfish, and she avoids this at all costs. The overweight middle-aged man who puts off having regular physical checkups—and angers his wife—preserves the illusion that he is not aging and avoids the bad news from the doctor that he secretly anticipates (or thinks he deserves).
People in these kinds of situations are usually unaware of the unconscious investment they have in staying in the prison they are consciously struggling to escape. The just do it approach usually fails because it misses both this secret investment and the cost of giving up our problems.
Imagine you are in a boat on a lake. The boat is anchored, although you don’t see the anchor. A coach or workshop leader is cheering from the dock. “Just start rowing! You can do it! Take that first step. Just do it!” No matter how hard you row, the boat will rock and you will go in circles, but even if you work with everything you’ve got, the boat will not move very far…unless you figure out what’s keeping you stuck. You have to find the chain and pull the anchor out of the water or all of your effort will be useless.
The anchor? Past experiences, unseen wounds, unacknowledged trauma, emotional conflicts that beg to be seen and understood, as well as the “gain” we derive from our problems. And until we understand all of this, we will be held back, stuck in one spot, and our attempts at cheerleading ourselves to change will never work.
Telling a person with an anchor in the water to row, pushing that person to just do it, is not only unrealistic but it can make the person who is struggling with this hidden anchor feel pretty bad about him- or herself. In addition, running away from or ignoring our problems and conflicts—by willingly forging ahead without understanding them—doesn’t mean we are free of them. In fact, what usually happens is that we continually play them out—against other people and ourselves.
The Rewire Me Moment is that we only begin genuinely changing when we face our feelings and conflicts instead of doing an end run around them. And then we can change in ways that are more realistic and permanent and make us feel freer and more alive.