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  • Michael Philp

The things that challenge us are often more worthwhile

find meaning in doing challenging work Grove Psychology

Recently, I’ve been discussing with some of my clients about avoidance. The activities that they avoid or the conversations they avoid, or the challenging tasks they avoid. Whether it has been uploading a video to youtube or asking for a raise, they have all had a commonality – avoidance for fear of uncomfortability with rejection. And taking that one step further, a deep seated belief that they are not good enough or not worthwhile, and a fear that being rejected would reinforce that belief. But the most interesting thing to me was how my clients were conceptualising it to themselves.

What I mean by that is, the things that we tell ourselves to make it ok. We look for justifications. We often develop unconscious rules to act by, that help protect unpleasant thoughts about ourselves. For example, if I had a belief that I wasn’t good enough, I might develop rules to prevent that thought from being activated, such as “I must get 90% on all my tests at school”. So long as I’m achieving that goal, my unhelpful thought is not being activated, and I feel okay. However, the problem comes when I’m not confident I can achieve that result. So, now I have a dilemma – risk my unhelpful belief being activated and feeling bad about myself or avoid the test. In this case, avoidance might mean procrastination. Not studying for the test until the last minute, making other things in my life a priority over studying, in which I can then tell myself “I didn’t do well on the test because I left it too late”, which is better than studying really hard and not achieving the desired result, which would mean that I wasn’t good enough.

The examples my clients gave me were similar.

  • “I can’t load a video to youtube because I’m waiting to buy a better camera”. This is better translated as “I’m afraid that my video won’t be good enough and that people will comment how bad my video is or no-one will watch it”.

  • “I’m waiting for a good time to talk to my boss” = “I’m afraid she will say no and tell me that I don’t deserve a raise”.

  • “I haven’t had time to update my resume, I’ve been absolutely flat out” = “I’m afraid to apply for the job because I might not get it”.

“We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills…” - John F Kennedy

It goes on and on. And what’s driving this avoidance is a fear of not being good enough or worthwhile. But here’s the crux – we need to do the things that challenge us because they are often worthwhile. They give us a sense of meaning and purpose. But we need to reframe it – we need to focus on the importance of doing those challenging tasks for ourselves not the judgement of others. The client that was avoiding uploading a video to youtube really enjoyed making creative videos. That is the point of the exercise, not whether the video will be liked by others or ‘go viral’, but for the simple fact that he enjoys the process of creativity.

So the challenge is – do it anyway. The challenging things in our lives is what we derive meaning and purpose from, and meaning and purpose is where we derive happiness.

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