So far in this series, I’ve written about the story of me recognizing that my initial plans were a big project, not just a single post and I’ve written about how your internal stories can affect you, your practice, and your habit-building process. Today, our project is to consider the arc of your habit-building story.
I’m not going to drag us into a debate about the application/validity of hero/heroine myths and I am not going to get into all the possible variations on stories because we would be here all week. For the sake of my time, your time, and the utility of this comparison, I’m going to choose some parameters for our discussion.
The Story Parameters
When we are asked what a story is about, the knee-jerk reaction is to think of story in terms of plot – the series of events that happen. I prefer the definition that says a story is really about how the characters change in response to the events in the plot.*
Of course, those changes will only make sense if the plot follows an arc of some kind. And while there are many variations about what goes in what part, the most pervasive arc is the one we are probably most familiar with – a beginning, a middle, and an end.
In the beginning, characters and settings are introduced and the current ‘normal’ is established and then disrupted in some way. In the middle, tension rises as the characters are reacting/responding/trying to adjust to the disruption. At the end, the characters have come to terms with the disruption, they have made changes or have been changed in response to it, and they establish (or start to establish) their next normal. **
If you think of the habit you are building in terms of a story, you are choosing the disruption in your ‘normal’ but it can still play out in a similar way.
Beginning: Recognizing your normal and deciding that it needs to expand to include a new habit. Figuring out what your character (i.e. YOU) is like – What you will enjoy doing or be able to do to build your new habit. Identifying your setting – Where and when will your practice take place? Do you need to change anything in your ‘normal’ setting to facilitate this?
Middle: Figuring out ways to make this disruption (your practice) work for you by exploring/working through the various challenges/obstacles/setbacks/victories/self-discoveries that arise as you respond to your practice.
End: You have responded/adjusted to the disruption and now your practice is part of your next normal. Challenges may still arise with the practice (you may take on a new disruption/practice) but, even if you revisit what you learned in this habit story, those challenges/new practices will be part of a new story.
Alternatively, the story of your habit building might end when you decide that this is not the right story for you. Sometimes, the things you explore in the middle of the story help you to realize that you don’t want the ‘next normal’ that this story is leading you to. In that case, you can take the story in a different direction towards a new end or you can take the lessons of your current tale and start a new one.
One of the first useful things about using a story as an analogy is that you can recognize that there are different stages in your process and that there will be specific situations and feelings that will arise in each one.
When you read, listen, or watch a story, you don’t expect to have the same information or the same feelings at each stage in the tale. The same is true when you are building your habits.
The way that you feel as you are discovering things at the beginning is different than how you feel as you are meeting challenges or finding victories in the middle. It’s okay to feel differently about different points in the story of your practice.
What part of your story are you in?
And I think that one of the reasons that habit-building can be so frustrating is that we often don’t realize what part of the story we are in.
For example, if you haven’t been thinking of your habit-building in terms of a story, you might be trying to rush your progress. Once you have made a plan and done some practice, you might think you have everything sorted out and things will be easy from here. If you are in that mindset and an obstacle pops up, you will be extremely frustrated and you will probably give the obstacle more meaning than it deserves. You might see it as a sign that you haven’t been working hard enough or that you chose the wrong practice.
However, if you have thought of your habit-building process as story, you’d recognize that the plan and the first part of your practice is only the beginning of the story. You’d be expecting the challenges and the required adjustments that come next. I think it would be a lot easier on your brain if instead of thinking ‘Oh, this challenge means I messed up.’ you could think ‘Oh, I’ve reached the challenge stage! How can I adapt to meet this first one?’
I don’t mean to imply that thinking of the process as a story will make every adjustment easy but knowing that challenges are an expected part of the process will make it easier to be kind to yourself as you adjust. You have no reason to blame yourself for obstacles since they crop up for everyone who is trying to create a habit-building story.
What are you feeling right now?
And, it is good to know that the feelings that you have at every part of the story are perfectly normal. While your feelings may run the gamut at any stage, and those feelings are all OK, there are specific things that are typical of different parts of your story. You’ll feel a mix of hope, confusion, anticipation, and overwhelm at the beginning, the middle will be a mix of victories, frustrations, and maybe even anger/the desire to quit, and the end will include pride, excitement, positivity, and maybe some regret.
If you are feeling very frustrated, it might be a comfort to know that that means you are probably in the middle of your story and that you are learning to adapts to the challenges. You don’t have to stay in this story, of course, but the frustration is not automatically a sign that you have chosen the wrong practice.
If you reach the end of your habit-building story and you are feeling some regret, that’s perfectly normal too. Sometimes our stories include regret that we didn’t try this earlier, regret that we took a longer path, or a feeling like regret, a kind of sadness, about finishing something that we have worked on for so long. Those feelings all make sense and we don’t have to be hard on ourselves about them. Since we know that those feelings can crop up at the end of a story, we can recognize and accept them instead of pouring energy into trying to fight them.
Are you trying to rush the story along?
It’s natural to want to rush your habit-building story along. I’m sure that’s why the training sequences in movies are almost always include a montage – we just want to zip through the challenging bits and get to the skills and the muscles.
But sadly, we can only see our own montage when we look back.
The story of how we built our habits has to happen in real time, there’s no other way to do it.
We have to figure out our beginning, address the challenges in the middle, and then enjoy our next normal at the end. It’s not possible to do things in a different order when it comes to establishing our wellness practices.
So, if you haven’t been able to figure out your practice yet, you are probably just at the beginning of your story. If you seem to be facing a bunch of challenges, you are likely in the middle. Even though it would be great to jump ahead, it’s probably easier on your brain and on your body if you don’t.
After all, you can’t face the challenges in the middle of your story until you have the information from the beginning. You can’t have the expansion you seek at the end if you haven’t gone through the changes and growth in the middle.
Your story won’t be complete if you haven’t changed in response to your experiences.
Try to remind yourself that the work you are putting in at this stage is an important part of your story and, even if you can’t see the progress yet, you are, indeed, moving toward your satisfying conclusion.
The growth you seek comes from the process of experiencing the whole story.
Today, I invite you to consider yourself as the main character in your own story.
You may be at the beginning of that story, somewhere in the middle, or you may have the end in sight, but all of those stages are valid and valuable and it is ok to feel however you feel about them.
Please be kind to yourself as you consider where you are now, how far you have come, and the parts of the story that lie ahead.
No matter which stage you are at, your effort counts and your hard work matters.
Here is your gold star for your efforts today, no matter what they might be
*I think I first encountered this approach in a Lisa Cron book but I’ve seen so many variations of it now that I can’t be sure. I do love her work though.
**I heard the phrase ‘next normal’ in a John Green podcast (possible Anthropocene Reviewed) a while ago and I just love it. Forget ‘new’ normal, NEXT normal includes a great sense that we aren’t getting back to anything, we aren’t creating a new constant state, we are part of something that will continue to change.
For the second year in a row, I’ll be posting a Go Team! message every day in January to encourage us as we build new habits or maintain existing ones. It’s cumbersome to try to include every possibility in every sentence so please assume that I am offering you kindness, understanding, and encouragement for your efforts right now. You matter, your needs matter, and your efforts count, no matter where you are applying them. You are doing the best you can, with the resources you have, in all kinds of difficult situations and I wish you ease. ⭐💚 PS – Some of the posts for this year may be similar to posts from last year but I think we can roll with it.