162 - Laziness is exhaustion

04-03-2024

habit-building

A client of mine who’s a clinician recently told me she feels happy any time her first patient of the day (8am slot) cancels, but right after she feels guilty for feeling good about not working.

She wonders if there’s something wrong with her.

The story of behavior change is the story, borrowing Jonathan Haidt’s analogy, of the Rider and the Elephant. In his book The Happiness Hypothesis, Haidt offers an analogy: Imagine your rational side is a Rider and your emotional side is the Elephant it has to mind. The Elephant is big and demands all of the Rider’s strength to not run amok.

Instead of investigating the feeling—Am I overworked? Am I not sleeping enough?—the clinician suspects something is wrong with her. She blames herself. Notice the conditioning in how she’s supposed to feel that sows seeds of doubt in her ability to acknowledge her feelings. Societal narrative instructs us that only the Rider should have a voice. Our emotional responses, society teaches us, are unreliable.

Do this long enough and a break happens inside. You’re two split power centers inside. One the Rider, who thinks they are reasonable and rational, who cracks the whip; the other the Elephant, who’s frustrated at being ignored, who’s had enough. Managing the tension between them eats up your energy.

I asked my clinician client to track the things that made her feel alive and those that made her feel lousy. I imagined the list as a door opener to understand why she felt lousy, when she felt so, and what tended to also happen around those times. If that same happened with a friend, what may she say to them?

Try as she might, she held back on the lousy. She would judge those feelings harshly. “I know I’m supposed to be doing my job and my feelings shouldn’t matter.”

Feelings are not sacrosanct. Children mis-regulate emotions all the time. My three-year-old daughter throws a tantrum over every other dinner. It is the job of adults to help kids manage their emotions. Disappointment is okay, rage is not. The Elephant is out of control and there is no Rider (under-developed prefrontal cortex), so adults step in.

As adults, we carry forward this view of feelings for ourselves. We treat ourselves as children. We call out our feelings’ misdirection. And it is not all wrong. Some feelings are incidental—maybe your upset is just hunger. Yet, some are integral—maybe the anger you feel after reading the stinker in your inbox points to a sense you’re being manipulated and to a need to redraw boundaries. Feel your feelings with the intention of accepting and releasing them, not to repress and retaliate against them.

“The more instinctive a behavior becomes,” write Dan and Chip Heath in their book Switch, “the less self-control from the Rider it requires, and thus the more sustainable it becomes.”

This mirrors, by the way, literature on habit change. The advice you may have read about might be more tactical—make it easy, make it attractive, and so on—but the thinking is the same: Get the Rider and the Elephant to see eye to eye.

The first step to doing so is to pay attention to your Elephant. Don’t just call her lazy. She’s exhausted.

You are exhausted.

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