Why You’re Stuck and How to Get Unstuck

I just finished reading Peter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline. It’s about creating learning organizations but there were a lot of concepts that can be applied in multiple ways. One of them is creative vs. emotional tension.

When you break it down, building a business is nothing more creating a plan that breaks everything down into a series of steps or goals. The advice is to start with the end in mind and work backwards. And this is usually where I hit my first roadblock. I’m the master planner but I failed miserably at execution. I couldn’t figure out what was happening. How can I want this so bad yet repeatedly get nowhere.

A goal is defined as the object of a person’s ambition or effort; an aim or desired result. Goals are something we strive to achieve. There is this gap between where we are now and what we want to achieve at some future date. This gap creates tension. There are only two possible ways for tension to resolve itself. We can change or pull reality towards our goal. This is creative tension.

The other possibility is that we allow reality to drag our vision down. This is caused by emotional tension. Emotional tension has come in the way of a lot of dreams and caused the demise of many goals.

Creative tension is a positive force. When we hold our goals and ultimately our vision, front and center, we tap into our creativity and explore options to bring our vision to life. Robert Fritz says “It’s not what the vision is, it’s what the vision does.” We use creative tension as the fuel to generate the necessary change to achieve our goals, pulling us toward our vision. It’s about learning how to expand our ability to bring our goals to fruition. In essence we grow into our goals.

However, the discrepancy between our goals and our current reality triggers emotions. In the beginning our enthusiasm is high. We’re committed and excited. But when things don’t happen as quickly as we’d like them to, or we encounter challenges or fears, these emotions can turn to anxiety, discouragement or hopelessness.This is emotional tension. In an effort to alleviate this tension, we fall into the trap of watering down or abandoning our goals in order to relieve it. We’ve reduced our anxiety but at the cost of our vision.

How can we effectively use creative tension to reach our goals and can we eliminate or at least neutralize emotional tension?

To effectively use creative tension, requires only three things.

  1. You must have a compelling WHY. Why do you want to achieve this? It needs to be inner driven – something you truly want, not something you think you “should” have or do because that’s what your mom, spouse, friends, etc. think. Also, you need to make sure it’s POSITIVE – what you want, not what you don’t want. Senge points out that most adults don’t have a real vision. When asked what they want, most will talk about what they want to get rid of. He had one teenager observe “We shouldn’t call them ‘grown-ups’, we should call them ‘given-ups.’” I’ve been trying for decades, literally, to create a successful business. I can’t tell you how many different things I’ve tried and I would quit or lose interest. (Not all of it was a bad thing. I did learn a lot about myself and what I didn’t want and revised my plans.) At one point I tried to talk myself into giving up. I argued if it was really worth all the frustration and disappointment. My already shaky self-esteem was taking the hit for each failure. Why not just let it go, suck it up and get a job and “live for the weekend” like the majority of the population. But I couldn’t do it because my reason why was too compelling. I had a vision for my life. I wanted the flexibility to create my own schedule, pick projects that interested and challenged me and work with people who inspired me. I wanted to make a difference. My why kept me going. I may have fallen but I picked myself back up each time.
  2. Focus on what you want and imagine you’ve already achieved it. This will activate your creative powers. It will energize and excite you. You’ll feel motivated, you are creating your life instead of just reacting to it. In Dan Baker’s book What Happy People Know one of the 5 characteristics of happy people is personal power. Personal power is the feeling that you have control, that you can influence the direction of your life. Tap into that by staying focused on what you want, acting as if it’s already come into being.
  3. Do something that will move you towards your goal. What you want isn’t going to appear out of thin air. You’re going to have to take action. Pick something, try it and if you don’t get the results you want, try something else. Don’t make the mistake I did. When I tried something and it didn’t work, I would try “harder”. You know what the definition of insanity is, right? I thought if it worked for the “experts”, and it didn’t work for me, then I thought I was the problem. I wasted a lot of time when I should have just moved on to something else. I put way too much trust in the “experts” instead of trusting my own instincts.

It’s that simple but needless to say, it isn’t easy. We live in an instant gratification world and our ability to handle discomfort is weak because, honestly, we rarely exercise it. We think discomfort is a sign that something is wrong with us when in fact it’s a normal fact of life. Avoiding it only reinforces our inability to tolerate and push through it. The enthusiasm we had when we started begins to wane. It causes stress and anxiety – emotional tension. Our focus shifts from our vision to our discomfort. And we want relief.

Whether we want to believe it or not, we are not rational, logical beings. We are emotional beings. Our emotions are indicators of our thoughts and our thoughts are formed by our beliefs. We are often unaware of our beliefs yet they drive all of our behavior.

To further complicate matters we treat these beliefs as TRUTHS, unchangeable facts when the truth is, they are nothing but habits of thought developed over time from our family upbringing, religion, socio-economic background and other experiences. The most important thing I learned in my coaching training is we have a choice (another characteristic of happy people) – we can choose what we want to think and believe. (Self-hypnosis is just retraining your brain to have different, hopefully more productive, habits of thought.)

This was an exciting revelation for me and being the introspective, self-help geek that I am, I delved deeper into the subject. What did I believe? Where did this belief come from? Looking back at my childhood, I realized I turned out pretty damn good given my family’s dynamics. Instead of being down on myself, I congratulated myself for making it this far. It was a liberating experience.

However, in order to eliminate or neutralize emotional tension, you don’t need to:

  • psychoanalyze your childhood,
  • know why you believe what you do,
  • you don’t even have to know what your hidden beliefs are.

All you have to do is ask yourself three questions.These three questions will help you get unstuck.

  1. “What am I feeling?” While most of our beliefs are hidden in our subconscious, our feelings are very apparent. We all know what it feels like to be motivated, frustrated, empowered, helpless, inspired, disappointed, happy and sad. Positive emotions fuel creative energy and inspire action. Negative emotions constrict it. Our brain has 3 parts: the primitive brain handles our survival instincts, our limbic is our emotional brain used to build social bonds and the neocortex is the thinking brain, used for logic, reasoning and creativity.  For goal setting purposes, it’s important to know that when you experience  stress – emotional tension – the primitive brain is going to override the thinking brain. Every Single.Time. It’s going to do everything in it’s power to bring back safety. Hence our desire to cave in to emotional tension.
  2. Is this feeling (and the belief behind it) helping or hindering me in achieving my goals? Does it make me feel good? Am I excited? Energized?  Are my creative juices flowing? If not…
  3. What thought or belief would make me feel better while also helping me achieve my goal? Deciding to sleep in rather than get up early and exercise may make you feel better in the short term but it’s not going to help you achieve your goal to get in shape. In fact, it often has the reverse effect in the long run because we broke our commitment to our self and it reinforces self-limiting beliefs. Ask yourself “What mental state would be most productive in this situation? And which version of reality will help me get there?” You can choose! How empowering is that! You can change the narrative, you can rewrite your story. You are now the creator of your life.

Again, the process is simple but it isn’t easy. It requires vigilance in keeping our eye on the prize – why we want it and being aware at any moment what we are feeling and reframing our thoughts.