self-deprivation, motivation, and the power of telling your reinvention story

The other day I was thinking about restriction-based goal-setting, the kind that centers around giving something up: you know, like No-Spend January, or Dry January, or Sugar-Free January. I realized that I’ve never successfully completed such a challenge – honestly, I’m not sure I’ve ever even tried. There is something about the idea of centering goals and habits around the lack of something that just doesn’t motivate me.

That said, plenty of times I have more or less accidentally gone through a detox of one kind of another. Usually, though, that’s because I’ve added something new – a daily yoga practice, a big work project, a new way of eating that actually sounds delicious and desirable, a performance to rehearse for, a physical goal I’m excited about, even a new baby – that held my interest so completely, and squeezed my available time or energy so much, that it just didn’t leave room for less-healthy things: whether in the form of too much shopping or too many French fries.

For a time, the new job, hobby, activity, project, etc. so excites and captivates me – or just keeps me so busy – that the other, less beneficial habits fall off my radar. Even if it doesn’t wind up being a permanent fixture, that single-minded focus can create a reset that has a ripple effect through the rest of my life.

Not too long ago, my very smart Special Man Friend (SMF)** Eric introduced me to Carl Jung’s wise assertion that “what we resist, persists.” That struck me as so true: when we focus too much on what we’re giving up instead of what we want to add, we’re still putting all our energy into the thing we don’t want. Thinking about deprivation and limitation isn’t particularly exciting for many of us and may result in us fixating on the forbidden fruit. I find it much easier to orient my behavior around possibilities and opportunities.

And my guess is that those who have the best success with restrictive programs are, whether consciously or not, pairing them with a mindset of opportunity and possibility.

In other words, they’re not just giving up booze or Starbucks for 30 days; they’re making a concrete plan for what they’ll do with the extra money and time they “find.” They’re mentally filling the void left by the limitation, so that they’re running toward something they want…not just away from something they don’t.

This is why it’s so important to embrace the idea of lifelong reinvention. The more any lifestyle shift, plan, or goal captures our imagination and sparks desire – in other words, the more we tell ourselves a story about the kind of person we want to be and the kind of life we want to live – the more we can leverage our desires to create what I think of as the right kind of motivation: the kind that gets you in the zone and excited to make the necessary changes, not just throwing one more “should” on the pile.

The belief that those changes will get us closer to our story becoming truth is the first step. After that, we can use a variety of tools – a new diet, exercise regime, or, sure, a “no (fill in the blank) for 30 days challenge” to help us get there. But the tool is just one of many possible tools; it’s not the story itself. And using the tool without a clear sense of the story is probably going to feel more like a teeth-gritted slog than an exciting adventure.

It’s tempting sometimes to think that if we can just eradicate some undesirable habits or tendencies from our lives that the rest will fall into place, but humans are naturally emotional and creative. It is hard to feel positive emotion about the absence of something and hard to get excited about the destruction of one lifestyle or habit, unless we also see a clear path to the creation of another. Preferably one that we really, really want.

So if found yourself giving up on your January challenge by the end of the first week, or made it to the end and now wonder “okay, so what was all that for?” it may be time to think a little more broadly.

What story have you been telling yourself about your life, your limitations, and your potential? Could a bigger, broader, more compelling story give you the desire to run toward it so fast and with so much energy that the things that don’t fit just naturally fall away?

What reinvention story could help you reshape your life, career, spirituality, creativity, health, etc – without having to “resist what persists”?

*Photo by Ross Findon on Unsplash

**I don’t know about you, but the word “boyfriend” feels ridiculous for a woman in her 40s to use about a man in his 40s, so, henceforth “special man friend” will have to do.

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