How to Overcome a Behavioral and Emotional Rut

Every single one of us has been pleasantly surprised by an experience.  However, we usually don’t give these experiences the attention they deserve; depriving ourselves of valuable lessons that could be serving us well at this very moment; specifically, if we are experiencing a period in our lives that can best be described as a behavioral and emotional rut.   

A Pleasant Surprise

A pleasant surprise likely adheres to the following general parameters.  We are presented the option to participate in something that seems unappealing.  Yet, perhaps through obligation, we take part in the dreaded activity and surprisingly enjoy ourselves; defying our expectations.

The Present and Past Color the Future

Whether a future activity is viewed as pleasant or unpleasant is largely determined by our current perspective and mindset.  We view a future possibility through the prism of our present emotional world.  However, assuming that we are currently in an emotional and behavioral rut, future activities are more likely to be colored negatively; for example, attending a party, dancing, serving food at a homeless shelter, ordering an unfamiliar food item from the menu, attending university far from home, or accepting a career opportunity on the other side of the world.

A present chapter of life marked by an emotional downturn likely shrouds future opportunities with negative assumptions; as difficult memories of past similar events warn us about the future.  Our attention tends to linger upon challenging past experiences in order to protect us from a similar outcome.  If we are invited to a party but are feeling anxious about attending, we will likely focus on memories that confirm a similar experience; consequently, and understandably resulting in a choice not to attend.   

Predicting the Future

However, let us recognize that since the event hasn’t happened yet, we are inevitably participating in predicting outcomes.  While we may have ample reasons to believe in our abilities to know the future, there is always a chance that our worst fears won’t come to fruition.  The unknown is what allows for the potential of a pleasant surprise.  

It’s also fair to suggest that a particular experience could be worse than anticipated as well.  However, the main point is to recognize the inherent fallibility of prediction; the future could unfold in any number of ways.  To assume a negative end is an unbalanced view that focuses on negative past experiences to predict the future at the expense of other possibilities.       

Remembering a More Balanced Past

However, if we were to broaden our memory palette, we would likely encounter a vast array and more balanced sequence of images; some fun and exciting while others nerve-racking and marked by boredom.  Perhaps from this more equitable acknowledgment of the past, we can make a different choice about future opportunities.  

Comfort with the Familiar

Coming from the opposite end of the experience spectrum are those activities that are comfortable and feel safe, often through familiarity.  When faced with the unease and uncertainty of an unpredictable future, we often choose the activity whose outcome is better known through repetition and habit.  It feels safer and more secure to repeat familiar behaviors and choices versus the anxiety that often stems from choosing something different, new, or unaligned with our current emotional world or mindset.  For example, maybe I’ll stay home and watch a movie with a family member or friend instead of venturing to a party where I will anxiously need to interact with strangers.    

Lingering on a Negative Past

I’m not suggesting that we should ignore our fears.  They are informed by past experiences and often contribute to an effective survival response, alerting us to danger and keeping us safe.  In addition, it’s also true that those future activities that we connect to a negative outcome might prove to be every bit as uncomfortable as our predictions.  However, our attention tends to linger upon and amplify those negative past experiences, overwhelming the numerous memories of joy that accompanied similar activities.  

Actively Remembering a Positive Past

If we find ourselves in a behavioral and emotional rut, feeling a bit down, and closing off from the world and its opportunities, it can be helpful to actively remember those past positive experiences; when a particular activity was perhaps even thrilling.  I’m not suggesting that we completely ignore our internal warning system; but rather, bring equal thought and balance to elevated moments from our past; to create a new window to a future that is open to positive possibilities as well.        

Create A New Relationship with the Future

To create a more balanced view of the past and open a door to considering new future behaviors and choices, I recommend three avenues of thought that can help challenge ourselves and lift us out of these behavioral and emotional ruts. 

1. Search the Past for Positive Experiences

First, we must remember similar activities from our past that were beneficial; when we attended the social gathering and enjoyed ourselves.  We might be surprised by the number of positive experiences from our past if we look more broadly.  Without remembering examples of events that led to elevated emotional benefits, it will be difficult to see anything but dark outcomes to similar future opportunities.  

2. Search the Past for Pleasant Surprises

Second, let us attempt to recall those pleasant surprises from our past; where an outcome was different from our negative expectation.  This doesn’t need to be directly related to the opportunity in front of us.  For example, maybe earlier in life, we were filled with trepidation and anxiety upon moving across the country to an unfamiliar place full of strangers. Yet, perhaps this experience proved ultimately beneficial.   Remembering this sort of pleasant surprise can serve us well when considering whether to attend an event; as we open to a wider array of possible outcomes.    

3. Create a Healthy Disengagement

Third, it can be very helpful to distance ourselves from possible outcomes in general; positive, neutral, or negative.  If we are worried that we will be uncomfortable or bored; consider the fact that this outcome won’t leave any permanent scars.  Granted, it is up to each individual to evaluate their circumstances to determine the level of personal discomfort they can currently afford.  There is no need to force oneself into terrifying circumstances.  The purpose of this process is to create a new space that allows for a positive possibility which might soften concerns of a negative one. 

Creating a Safe Distance

Perhaps it would help to view these opportunities as potential experiments; as if we are scientists examining ourselves at a distance to determine if the outcomes lean positive or negative.  By viewing ourselves from a point of safety, we disengage from the phenomenon that arises in our experience and prevent over-identification with negative thoughts and emotions by simply observing them in the light of impermanence that’s inherent to all things. 

It’s the difference between two possible thought cycles; over-identification and healthy disengagement.

Over-identification

Oh my!  That was so awkward and uncomfortable.  I had no idea what to say to that person.  The silence was terrible!  Both of us were looking for a way out.  God, I hate this!  I knew this would be dreadful!  I hate parties.  She must think I’m so lame! God, I’m such an idiot.  Can’t talk to anyone!  No wonder I don’t have friends!  

Healthy disengagement

Oh my!  That exchange was sort of uncomfortable. I had no idea what to say to that person.  How embarrassing. Huh! Sort of funny too.  I wonder how it will go with the next person.

This is awkward.  I don’t feel very comfortable right now. Huh!  Ok.  Interesting. Maybe I’ll stay for another thirty minutes to see if anything changes.

Huh! This isn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be.  Interesting. Maybe I’ll conduct another experiment in the future.

In over-identifying with our experience, we amplify our thoughts and emotions into seemingly life-altering permanence; accompanied by brutal self-criticism that can determine our self-worth and provide ample feedback to reject future opportunities; closing ourselves off from the world.  A healthy disengagement recognizes the impermanence of any moment; that thoughts and feelings will come and go; creating an internal environment separated from self-worth determinations, a new internal space that is open to life’s opportunities and safely distanced from their outcomes.    

Moving from Negative to Positive Assumptions

From this vantage point, we can take valuable steps to change our choices, habits, and behavioral patterns that have fed our current emotional rut.  In making a slightly different decision, we create the potential for a positive outcome that provides the lesson to inform how we treat future opportunities.  We take the initial step that will eventually lead us from the thoughts, emotions, and assumptions tied to our current emotional and behavioral rut and into a new world of elevated thoughts, emotions, and perspective.  It starts with awakening to the positivity that’s inherent to an uncertain future; then making a slightly different choice and allowing the evidence from that experience to inform our next decision; eventually creating the blocks to build a new dwelling of self-confidence and belief.