A woman sits at her laptop looking happy representing how to get out of your own way

Here’s a hard truth about personal growth: Most of the barriers that are standing in between you and the version of yourself that you want to become are not coming from other people or the world around you. They’re coming from inside of you. To create positive change in your life, you have to learn how to get out of your own way so that you can feel happier, have better relationships, and reach your full potential. 

The challenge is that these internal barriers to happiness and success are silent sleepers. They  whisper to you in the form of half-conscious assumptions about what’s possible for you, or in little lies you tell yourself, or in old patterns that you don’t know how to change. Sometimes it takes support from someone like a good life coach to begin recognizing your internal barriers for what they are so that you can begin making real progress. 

I’ve created this article to help you begin thinking about the common barriers people face, based on my own experience as a counselor, a life coach, and a human on her own journey of growth. I hope it helps you step aside and make space in your life for greater clarity, direction, and growth. 

If you’d prefer to listen, I’ve also created an episode of the Love, Happiness and Success podcast on this subject. You can find it on this page, YouTube, Apple podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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How to Get Out of Your Own Way: Be Honest with Yourself

The number-one way that I see people getting in their own way is by failing to be honest with themselves. To be fair, being honest with yourself isn’t easy. We all feel resistance to looking at the aspects of our personalities and our choices that make us feel bad. Being honest with yourself requires self-awareness, courage, and the ability to sit with emotional discomfort. But it is so worth it. 

When you’re not being honest with yourself, you’re getting in the way of your own personal growth. Avoiding important truths can make less-than-ideal circumstances easier to tolerate… and that’s exactly the problem. You don’t want to tolerate your life, you want to take control and steer your ship in a positive direction. You cannot do that if you are using defensiveness, denial, or playing mental games that blot out reality while keeping you from becoming self-empowered.

The truth is your friend. It really will set you free. But don’t make the mistake of believing that being honest with yourself means being self-critical or beating yourself up for your imperfections. When you love someone, you can be honest with them while also being kind. You can demonstrate love for yourself by telling yourself the truth while maintaining self-compassion

Interestingly, developing a more supportive relationship with yourself makes it easier to stay in contact with the truth, because you won’t need to use mental gymnastics to hide things from the mean, scary critic who lives inside of you. So you can feel better about yourself, while also unleashing your potential for personal growth. A win-win! 

Self-Limiting Beliefs and Getting Out of Your Own Way

Your beliefs hold so much power. They’re an invisible force that shapes your life, so it’s very important to choose them with care. 

I use the word “choose” deliberately. There are always multiple ways to look at just about everything; that’s why two people can have the same experience and tell very different stories at the end, both of which are valid and true in their own way. Your beliefs are simply the meaning that you make out of your experiences, and meaning making is an active, creative process that involves making choices. 

You can choose beliefs that are helpful to you, and that make it easier to live the life you want. These beliefs will be characterized by your empowerment and agency, rather than your victimization. They will acknowledge your enormous potential for growth, rather than telling you a false story about your skills and strengths being an unchangeable part of who you are. They will help you feel worthy of love and respect, rather than making you feel toxic shame or self-pity. 

But, we all have some beliefs that do not support our goals or our personal growth. Learning to recognize and dismantle these self-limiting beliefs is an important part of getting out of your own way. It can be hard to notice your self-limiting beliefs, or how they’re draining your motivation. They can reside in a very deep place that’s not totally accessible to your conscious mind. They may genuinely feel like “rules” of the universe, rather than a story you’ve made up about yourself (or one you’ve inherited from someone else). 

This is where working with a good life coach can be incredibly helpful. A big part of the coaching process is uncovering these self-imposed limitations, challenging them, and replacing them with more helpful mindsets that move you forward. As you begin noticing your limiting beliefs, you’ll start to reframe the things you “can’t” do as things that you have chosen not to do. This is how you get out of your own way and get back in the driver’s seat of your life. 

Using Your Habits to Get Out of Your Own Way

We all have habits, whether we’re thinking about them or not. Your habits can be something that “just happens,” or they can be something you design with intention to create the life you want for yourself

Every big goal you have for your life requires supportive habits. If you want to get ahead at work, you need to regularly engage in habits like planning your time and learning new skills. If you want to take good care of your body (and I hope you do), you need habits like brushing and flossing every day, eating nutritious meals, getting enough sleep, and exercising regularly. 

The magic of a habit is that eventually you can do it without having to think about it. It requires less mental energy than a task you have to do just once. You don’t have to wrestle with your willpower to get yourself motivated to brush your teeth before bed. You just get up and do it, because it’s a deeply ingrained habit that you started forming as a small child. In fact, I would bet that brushing your teeth is a part of your identity. Deep down, you believe you are the kind of person who brushes their teeth. Not doing it would feel weird and wrong. 

If you feel like you’re getting in your own way, try harnessing the power of habit (especially a keystone habit) and looking for ways to build a routine that is more supportive of your success. Breaking bad habits can be even more important than creating new ones; if you’re doing something that’s destructive or self-defeating and you don’t know how to stop, getting support can be the most important thing you’ll ever do. 

Stop Self-Sabotage and Get Out of Your Own Way

Setting goals is fabulous, but not everything we do is in service of our conscious goals. No one’s goal is to play nine hours of video games on a weekday when they need to be searching for a job, and yet someone is probably doing that right now. 

So, why is that? Why do any of us engage in self-sabotage? We might believe that it’s a failure of willpower or self-discipline, and that can certainly be part of what’s happening. But I think it’s more useful to explore the other goals you might be trying to accomplish through “self-sabotage,” particularly the goals that are lurking in your subconscious mind.

The guy who can’t stop playing video games may have an unconscious goal to avoid the anxiety of job searching, or the possibility of rejection, or the overwhelming sense of uncertainty he feels about making a big decision about his future. Playing “Skyrim” for nine hours straight could be a great way to accomplish those goals, at least for a little while. At some point, he’ll notice the sun going down and the bad feelings will start creeping back in. He may wonder why he is the way he is and decide that it’s because he’s just a lazy loser. That thought is going to hurt, and to get relief from that pain, he might have to play some more “Skyrim.”

You can see how the cycle of self-sabotage perpetuates itself. When you notice yourself doing something that’s self-defeating, try to be curious about why that is and the deeper underlying feelings you might be trying to manage. Then you can choose to deal with those feelings in a better way that does not hold you back. 

Support for Creating Positive Change

We all get a little stuck sometimes, and that is what life coaching is for. Getting support from a life coach can help you increase your self-awareness, uncover your limiting beliefs, form positive new habits, and put an end to self-sabotaging behaviors. That is how you get out of your own way and take charge of your future

I wish you all the luck on your journey of personal growth. And if you would like some support from a therapist or life coach on my team, I invite you to schedule a free consultation

With love, 

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby 

P.S. — For more advice on getting unstuck and building the life you want, check out my “Moving Forward, Fearlessly” collection of articles and podcasts.

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How to Get Out of Your Own Way

The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast with Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

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Music in this episode is by The XX with their song “Intro.” You can support them and their work by visiting their Bandcamp page here: https://thexx.bandcamp.com/. Under the circumstance of use of music, each portion of used music within this current episode fits under Section 107 of the Copyright Act, i.e., Fair Use. Please refer to copyright.gov if further questions are prompted.

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby: This is Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby, and you’re listening to the Love, happiness, and success podcast, a hard truth but a liberating truth about personal growth. Work is this most of the barriers that are standing between you and what you want are not externally imposed. Even if they feel that way, most of the time, they are coming from inside of us. And so, to create positive change in our lives, we have to learn how to get out of our own way. That’s how we can feel happier, have better relationships, and reach our full potential. And that is what we’re going to be talking about on today’s show.

Our musical inspiration today is the song intro by the band The XX. You can learn more about them on their bandcamp page, thexx.bandcamp.com and I am also so thrilled to introduce you to my guest today. Today we’re going to be talking to Dr. Sophie Mort about how to get out of your own way. You may be familiar with Dr. Sophie’s work from Instagram, but she is the real deal. She is a clinical psychologist with a master’s degree in neuroscience, and she’s on a mission, y’all, to bring the tools of psychology out of the therapy room and make them accessible to you.

So she and I are on a shared mission. In that way, it’s like, how do we make these ideas useful for people? And Dr. Sophie is doing a great job. Since 2018, she’s helped thousands learn more about themselves and increase their well being by making it concrete. She has a number of books out, including her latest one, unstuck five steps to break bad habits and get out of your own way.

And today, she’s doing a deep dive with us to talk about how to apply her ideas to this situation that we all struggle with, which, how do I stop being my own biggest limitation? So I’m so glad she’s here. Dr. Sophie, thank you so much for doing this with me today and sharing your wisdom with our listeners. Mort or more. I kind of want to say this with a French accent. Sophie, would I be wrong in that? How do you say it?

Dr. Sophie Mort: It is a French name, but it also means death. So I think sometimes it’s better to say rather than Dr. Death. Sophie mort so that it doesn’t get too morbid before we even start.

Lisa: All good. Yeah. Sophie Mort. Right. Got it. So, Sophie, you are a doctor, Sophie, a registered clinical psychologist. You have a master’s degree in neuroscience, and you describe your mission as bringing the tools of psychology out of the therapy room and making them accessible, which I am so behind that.

And I know that you’ve helped so many people learning about themselves and how to increase their well being. And you have two books now. Congratulations. The first is A Manual for Being Human, and then your most recent one is (Un)stuck: Five Steps to Break Bad Habits and Get Out Of Your Own Way, which is just like what we all need. I need this. I don’t want to make this whole podcast about me, but I’m very interested in what you have to say, Dr. Sophie.

Sophie: I pretty much wrote the books I needed to read too, so do not worry. I wholeheartedly hear you on that.

Lisa: No judgment. I think all psychologists are vulnerable. We’re sharing a human experience, and I, often with podcasts and even writing articles, they have to come from within. And I think when we do have a personal connection to the work, it’s not like we’re above all this. So I’m glad we’re alike in that way.

How to Get Unstuck

So to jump right in, I am so interested if we could begin with where this comes from for you. I mean, when you were thinking about, okay, what would really be the most helpful thing for me to be talking about and communicating? How did you land on just the concept of getting unstuck? And how did you come to the realization that, you know, when people get really stuck, it’s often because of their internal obstacles. I feel like there’s got to be a story behind this.

Sophie: Of course. So I don’t know what you think about this, but as a psychologist, I tend to see people in kind of two phases of their life. The first one is when there’s some kind of crisis going on. So this might be panic attacks, it might be OCD, it could be relational issues. But it’s normally people seek out therapy when they’re struggling. 

And so I wrote my first book based on let’s give people all of the tools to understand how they became who they were, what’s kind of keeping them feeling like they can’t move forward. So how they’d understand their mental health and a barrage of coping skills so that they can move through that rather than have to sit on long waiting lists and perhaps fork out money that they can’t afford. So that’s the first bit.

The second part is often that once people have moved through this kind of acute crisis, they’re raring to go. They are so excited about getting into their life, and it’s quite a wonderful thing to see. But often this is when you assume, oh, well, they’re ready to make change in their life, so let’s just send them out into the world, and they’ll just do what they want to do. And then you realize that they get stuck for a variety of reasons.

So that’s the first kind of driving factor as to why I wanted to write this book. But the other driving factor is that during the first lockdown in COVID-19, I read this book by Bronnie Ware called The Five Top Five Regrets of the Dying. Have you read it?

Lisa: I have not read it. I have heard about it and have read excerpts. It is on the list. It’s in the stack of 25 books that I have sitting over here in my office.

Sophie: But there’s nothing like a pandemic to get you really thinking about what’s important in life. And so I read this book and the top one regret, so the number one regret is I wish I had the courage to live the life that I wanted instead of what was expected of me. I might have got that. I might have paraphrased phrased that slightly.

But reading that and thinking about people being on their deathbed regretting that they hadn’t really lived or at least lived in the way that they hoped to firstly felt like a kick in the stomach, which led me to think, oh, my goodness. How do I make sure that I don’t feel like that? But also my clients too, my friends and family. And I started speaking to my friends and family about it and realized that a lot of people were having these thoughts.

What happens when we get to leave the house again? What happens when we get to choose what the next part of our life looks like? And so tying these two things together, there’s the fact that a lot of us really want to make sure we live a valued life. But if we go back to the regret saying, I wish I had the courage, I work with courageous people day in, day out, right, who’ve overcome huge obstacles and who are so ready to run out into the world and choose what they’re going to do next.

So I know that courage isn’t all you need. It’s a huge first step. Like, wow, huge, huge first step. But the next steps involve, for example, understanding the science of habit, understanding how we get in the way of our own decision making, understanding self sabotage, intergenerational patterns, the drama we create in our own relationships, and offering ourselves compassion. Because what you said about in the intro about sometimes the things that get in our way are actually inside us rather than outside of us, is a really scary thing, I think, to face.

And a lot of us already criticize ourselves too much, right? Other people live their lives better than I do. Other people would find this thing I’m struggling with so easy. So when we consider self sabotage, when we consider that we might get in our own way, the last thing I want to do is make people more critical of themselves. I want to say, you know what, there’s a really good, generally evolutionary reason for the reason that we get in our own way. It makes total sense. It’s the way your brain’s developed. But when we truly understand the whys and hows of how it happens, we can offer ourselves compassion and choose to do something different. So that was probably a long answer to why I wrote this second book, but I think it covers the main points.

Lisa: So beautiful, really. I mean, recognizing that there’s a difference between that healing work that we could do as psychologists and also that growth work that comes from that foundation of health and really understanding that there is a different pathway for people when they’re hoping to achieve that a different set of skills, strategies, understandings. And that the goal here is really to be teaching those.

And that I love what you’re saying too, that it really begins with self compassion. Because I totally agree with you and I don’t know about you, but I think we can all relate to doing this in our own lives is that it is much easier and hey, let’s admit, more comfortable when we are able to feel like the innocent victim or that something is being done to us. That even though it’s difficult and there is a struggle, we can shape a flattering narrative in some ways compared to this truth, which is so difficult and humbling, which is that I probably have more control over the outcomes I have been experiencing.

Breaking Out of Self Sabotage

And while that is a very empowering idea that extreme ownership, that if I’m responsible for this, that’s a lot and how easy it is to go into self criticism and self blame for maybe not having known how to operate in a way that really helps you get what you want. And so if we could just begin with that what do you think are some of the most important ideas when you’re helping your clients break out of that self critical, self blaming narrative? Because that in itself will keep you stuck, won’t it?

Sophie: Yeah, I think the first thing is recognizing that and I think this is quite amazing that almost everything that we do as humans has a purpose. Let’s say for example, and I’m sure we’ll get into this in more detail but let’s say for example, you procrastinate over setting up I’m going to choose a big example like setting up your own business yet you find that you’re really good at getting every other task done no matter how complicated it is. That’s not because you’re trying to ruin your own life.

There’s often really good reasons such as when you sit down to do the work it’s so frightening and you envision failing or being laughed at or being told well, I told you you shouldn’t do that or being shamed for changing if you become really successful and therefore procrastination happens to protect you from your perceived outcome. So I think this is the first thing that I say to people is if you’re doing something, not only is probably every person you know doing a version of this, but there’s a really good reason. And it’s probably because you’re doing your own version of coping. It’s just that that coping style is no longer working for you.

That’s the first thing. And the second thing I really want to say is when we take ownership and say maybe I’m doing something that’s getting in the way of my own life. We’re not saying that there’s never going to be a circumstance where someone else is to blame. We’re saying even when someone else is to blame there may be something that you can do that empowers you to make change.

So a really good example and it’s such a hard truth is let’s say for example your partner is continuously mean to you and when I say mean I mean either something like chipping away at your confidence every day to being all out cruel. We often think I need them to change in order for my life to be better.

Now, in many scenarios ideally we communicate what we need from our partner what we need to change and they change. If this doesn’t happen though and we get stuck thinking I just need them to change I just need them to change I just need them to change and they don’t change.

We become extremely disempowered if we feel like we have no options we can gain learned helplessness. Right? There is no way out of this. When we recognize that actually by saying there is an option and it is, for example, me leaving it is for example, going to couples therapy that’s perhaps more of a middle ground when we recognize that even in extreme circumstances where someone else is doing something we still have an option.

I think it’s a more nuanced way of seeing that even in the darkest times we may get in our own way and that even in the darkest times we may have options that don’t come to us naturally and we just need to consider if there’s one tiny thing I can do in this moment what is it? Because by naming that thing and taking that action I might be able to break free and feel more in control of my own life.

Lisa: Yes, absolutely. That makes perfect sense. It’s the agency that comes from being able to decide how we want to respond and understanding that those responses themselves can be very powerful and I completely get what you’re saying. So by trade I’m a marriage and family therapist and it’s all about that.

Well, that’s the systemic impact. And I think sometimes it can be difficult for any of us individually to understand the power that we have, particularly in relationships. That when any part of the system changes or says, I’m actually not going to participate in this with you the same way anymore, it changes the entire system. And it’s incredibly powerful. But it is not obvious.

And often, in my experience, personally and with clients too, the habitual ways of being the ones that keep us stuck, they feel familiar, they feel like the right thing to do. It feels almost like you’re doing something wrong when you are responding to these old situations in a new way because they’re so unfamiliar. That in itself requires a lot of courage.

Understanding the World’s Traps

And so I really resonate with what you’re saying, that there are so many good, legitimate, understandable reasons for why we all do the things that we do. And there’s no judgment here. It’s worthy of reflection because then we can begin to make different decisions from an informed stance.

Sophie: Yes. As opposed to reactive, you know, scrolling on Instagram at nighttime. I was thinking about this recently and about how it’s been really important to understand that social media has been built in order to hook us in. So when we start scrolling, we lose track of time. Obviously it’s built so that you just keep scrolling, keep scrolling.

But it is a very disempowering idea to simply think I am nighttime scrolling because of the way the phone is developed. An example of self sabotage is basically or an example of what we’re talking about in terms of how we get in our own way is when we give in to that kind of narrative. We say, well, I have no power, it’s the phone.

Whereas actually when we say, you know what, it is the phone and I have the option to put it away at night, put it downstairs, set up a nighttime routine which involves, for example, brushing my teeth, reading my book. There is nearly always something we can do, even in situations where the world is built for us to fall into its traps.

How Your Habits Affect Your Success

Lisa: And I feel like we might be kind of moving in towards this other concept that I know you write about in your book, which is the role and the power of habit when it comes to getting unstuck, getting out of our own way. Is that what you’re starting to talk about?

Sophie: Yes. I mean, I’ve been thinking about this recently. I don’t think you can have any comment or any conversation when it comes to what we do every day without bringing habits into it. So for example, I think it’s something like over 40% or around 40% of every action we engage in every day is habit.

So the arguments that you have with your partner are likely habitual. They may not be exactly the same, each argument, but they’ll have the width of a previous argument or the same structure as a previous argument. It may be that we often assume that habits just come to down to drinking coffee in the morning, going to the gym, getting our job done. But actually there isn’t really an area of life where habits don’t play a part. Even things such as gossip, right. The thing about gossip I don’t know about you, but in school, for me, gossip was such a big thing. I went to like a girls school and the way that people would play power games was quite extraordinary. So someone would come in with something that the other person wanted or they’d got a good grade.

The other person, instead of saying, oh, I’d really like that thing, or your grade makes me reflect on the fact that I’m not doing so well. Instead of doing that, they would get a one up. So they were feeling one down and they’d get back to one up being like, she thinks she’s so good with her new thing. Have you seen how smug she is now? She got this good grade, and then everyone else would kind of play their own part.

So I think habits are everywhere and that we can’t have a conversation without it. But so, yes, we’re kind of transitioning to that topic. But also, it’s kind of the way I view the world.

Dealing with Other People’s Opinions

Lisa: Yeah, but God, I mean, you just shared a story that was poignant, first of all. And I know it’s very common, but also what that does in terms of shaping that internal narrative, like, I can’t get anything good. I can’t get a good grade because if I do succeed or move up in my own life, I’m going to get torn apart by this pack of baby wolves in their little school uniforms. How does that get internalized into what people feel capable of? That it’s almost like not even safe to achieve 100%?

Sophie: And so this is something that I think is really interesting about self sabotage. So often self sabotage is talked about. For example, we procrastinate because we fear failure, or we believe there is a glass ceiling in terms of what we are allowed to achieve, how much happiness we are allowed to feel.

However, actually, a lot of people will self sabotage because they’ve internalized envy, right? They’ve internalized other people’s envy of them and how people attack them when they do something well or successfully. So, for example, when I was writing my first book, near the end of writing the book, I found myself totally unable to keep writing. Totally.

I painted my entire kitchen. It did not need painting. I learned a new language. I mean, I didn’t succeed, but I started to. And I really thought at first I must be procrastinating because I am so terrified that this book is going to be terrible and everyone’s going to hate it.

But actually, when I asked myself, if I complete this, what do I think will happen, it was that I thought I would be torn apart by other women who wouldn’t say, oh, wow, the book’s so great. Not that when we talk about fear of success, you’re not fearing being like, well, some people are fearing things, doing really well, but often we’re fearing other people’s responses.

So my fear was someone literally saying, oh, my God, have you seen Sophie? She’s got a book now. She thinks she is very British expression, the tits. And so I was so nervous. Conversation repertoire. So the reason I stopped writing is because of exactly what you said. I grew up around gossiping bitchy, for want of a better word, teenagers. And I’m sure I was exactly part of the problem. I’m not saying it was just them.

And therefore, when it came to me nearly completing a task, I could hear their voices in my head, tearing me apart. So I just stopped.

Lisa: It’s such a bind. Either the book will be an embarrassing failure or it will be a success and everybody will hate you. You’re going to paint the kitchen. This is the only reasonable answer in that moment. Yes, anybody would do the same.

Sophie: Yeah, and also the success didn’t mean it had to sell a lot of copies. I just meant a success in terms of it’ll be out in the world and I’ll be able to say, I’d written a book. So, yes, it’s a real bind.

Lisa: And this so beautifully just illustrates the entire concept. Without the kind of self awareness that you’re talking about, we’re so vulnerable to these inner narratives that it’s like we don’t even know that they’re there. We just stop writing. And why am I not writing but really being able to do that deep work and pull up those stories and then say, you know what? I hated those girls then, actually, and I think I probably still hate them.

So you know what? Here’s what I’m going to do. And I don’t know if that was your process, but I mean, that’s where we get to make choices when it comes into the awareness.

Sophie: 100%. And also, I often think about the anxiety equation. So anxiety is like estimation of threat over, if you imagine, like, the divide sign over estimated resources to cope. And so for me, it was thinking, okay, so what’s the worst case scenario now? Actually? How likely is that to happen? And if it did happen, worst case scenario, if it did happen, what would I do? And actually, the reality is exactly as you’re saying, I’d probably be fine because I’m not really friends with those people anymore. I don’t really value their opinions.

Practicing Self Compassion

And then my next question to myself is, what do I need to do now to manage the emotional state I’m in and to gain the level of support I’d need in order to complete this task? So I think often, firstly, recognizing that we sometimes get in our own way is a practice of self compassion, recognizing we all do it and there’s a good reason for it, finding out what’s driving it for you, figuring out how you’re going to soothe yourself to manage to overcome that thing, and then testing out your new theories.

So, for example, for me, it involved finishing my work and finding out, is it really true that I’m going to be torn to shreds if I finish a book. And actually, you know what? There were some people who weren’t very supportive, but the people who really matter, oh, man, they wouldn’t care if I wrote a book or not. They were there through thick and thin and I love them for it. And so now when I wrote my second book, when that fear thought came up I was like, yeah, I’m okay. I don’t need to protect myself from that. So yeah, it was a multifaceted way of overcoming self sabotage.

Lisa: Absolutely. I mean, it’s really a sequential process and I appreciate you saying that too, because one of the things that I’m always aware of in this format especially, is that we can make things sound like they are easier to do than they actually are and there are a lot of different pieces.

It is a process. And going back to that like, self criticism idea that there’s a lot here that requires support and intentionality and that it happens sequentially over time because I think sometimes when people don’t hear how it should be and then feel able to do it immediately, that’s just another thing for them to beat themselves up for. So I do appreciate you saying that.

Sophie: There’s one thing I’d just like to add to that. If we can go back to the example earlier where I said if you’re in a relationship with someone that continually means mean to you and you’re waiting for them to change, that moment where someone, likely a couple therapist, says, and so you waiting for them to change is disempowering yourself.

“You need to make a decision,” can be one of the most shocking and painful things you hear. Because in that moment, what you’re desperately hoping is for someone to say, you don’t deserve to be treated like this. You’re right, they should change. I’ve been in that chair having someone say that to me and it can feel so invalidating.

So it really is a slow process that when broken down exactly like you say in a podcast, can feel like we’re just saying you’re getting in your own way, sort it out. Your life’s going to be easy once you do. Stepping into that position where we say, maybe I have a little bit more control over this situation than I think is ultimately empowering, but it may not feel that way in the beginning.

Lisa: Absolutely, that is so true. It is often the opposite. We want to feel justified, we want to feel validated and to feel empowered, to be encouraged, to grow. It’s not always that. But we’re also, I think, coming back to one of the first points and again, this could certainly be beyond the scope of this podcast. I’m sure you write about it extensively in your book, but that very first step of how to even begin to uncover, unearth, how we, the mechanism of what’s happening inside of us, what are those narratives?

And I know that certainly one path forward that is helpful could be to talk to somebody like you or like me, like a coach because that can help turn over the stones, bring it out into the light. But I’m also wondering if you have just advice or ideas for people who could benefit from just accessing their own truths related to that. Because without that, you don’t really know what to change or what to work on or what habit even to incorporate to kind of strengthen the practice. Do you have any tips on how to gain that awareness?

Sophie: Yeah, I mean, 100%. So to start with, a really simple exercise is to think about, and I do, as you say, write about this in much more depth in the book. And so this is just a starting point. Think about who you want to be one year’s time, one year’s time, five years time, ten years time. Then write down each activity you do each day. I mean, you don’t have to go into granular details such as, like, I walk over to the coffee machine, I make the coffee machine.

As you can tell, I’m addicted to coffee, so hence why I’m making coffee. But write down the main habits that you repeat every day. Include in there if there are certain arguments that you’re having that are the same with different people, the same people. Include in there the times that you procrastinate. Include in there basically anything that you notice you’re doing over an extended period of time.

Then go through and mark whether they take you towards or away from the person that you hope to be in one year, five year, ten years. Now, some of those activities will be totally neutral. But this is a really good awareness exercise, right? Because a lot of the things we do, we’re not thinking, does this take me towards that person? We’re just doing it without thinking.

So once you start by identifying what’s taking you towards and away from, you can then start thinking, why do I do this thing? What is it protecting me from or driving me towards? And what do I need to do instead? Now, this is a very, very basic beginning point, but it’s a really nice way of getting to know your patterns. And if listing your activities every day is kind of too abstract for you at first, keep a journal and over time you’ll start noticing, oh, it’s kind of weird that every time I’m tired, I fight with my friend, I experience hanger too.

So I’m using myself as a good example because I think we often assume that therapists have it all together. No, I’m an absolute mess often, but I try to live by the advice I give. We try.

Lisa: What a powerful tool. I mean, I love that, because to observe oneself and what you actually do and is there a disconnect between that and what you want to do. But then there comes that curiosity of why is that? And that’s when we can begin to develop the awareness around. Yeah, why is that? And that there actually is a reason that is the foundation.

Sophie: Yes. And if you think about the science of habits, the habit loop looks like this. There is a cue either in the environment or inside us. Now, if it’s inside us. It’s normally a feeling maybe like boredom, excitement, irritation. Then there’s an action. That is the habit.

Reward Yourself

Now this achieves a reward or some kind of a response that pleases you. Now it might be that it gets rid of that boredom or irritation or it gets you something that you wanted and then we can start the loop again. So this means that once you identify anything in your life that takes you away from or towards who you want to be, you can start not only understanding why you do those things, so what is the response you’re trying to achieve, but you can also start identifying the triggers.

And this is the most important thing, is often we might do the same action for a myriad of reasons. Right when you start doing this kind of activity, you create compassion through understanding why you do something. You start to realize that you’re not actually choosing to ruin your own life because actually it’s that.

For example, let’s say you want to stop drinking. Maybe the cue for drinking is clocking off work, walking past a bar, your friends offering you a drink, feeling stressed, the fact that you’ve just seen alcohol in your house. Suddenly you realize, well, no wonder I’m still drinking because all of these cues are constantly everywhere and me trying to quit without removing those cues is kind of trying to stop gambling while sitting in a casino.

So it’s a powerful activity that offers you compassion and and this is the most important thing. Helps you understand exactly how you’re going to move forwards because you already know the cues. You already know what you’re aiming for. You just simply need to change the action in the middle. Again, when I say simply, it takes time, it takes practice.

It may be painful, but with consistency, you will get there and you will start living the kind of life you want to rather than one that you’re just repeating every day.

Lisa: Yeah, what you’re describing is moving from a space of reactivity to a space of conscious response. I could be in the same situation, stay around these same triggers, but I understand this and so I’m ready to act in a different way or potentially changing the environment itself. Yeah. Okay.

So there’s this arc here that first comes this self awareness, being aware of the narratives, the tendencies, the things that pull you, what they are, understanding the relationship between that and the cues from outside of you or within you and making decisions about how to change those consciously. And would you say that that’s when it really turns into a conscious development of different habits? Or how do you see the relationship between those things?

Connecting Your Values to Who You Are

Sophie: I definitely think that’s part of it. I think that what I really loved about what you just said was talking about changing your environment. I think real change happens when you know exactly what you want in your life and what I mean by that is we often assume we should be motivated to do the things we think we should do.

Actually, we’re often not motivated until it really resonates with who we are as people. I often say I’m motivated to find out about psychology because I am a psychologist. I was motivated to learn about the things I’ve written about in my books because I know that these have been problems for myself in the past. I am not motivated to chase someone down the street for a misdemeanor because I am not a police officer. So I think real change happens when first you really know what it is you want. 

Lisa: And then that there needs to be a connection to values and who you are.

Sophie: Yeah, exactly. And so going back to that thing where I said, do this exercise where you see what takes you towards away from who you are, who you want to be actually, that’s assuming that you even know what you value. We aren’t raised to think really about our values in the same way as we’re raised to think about our goals.

So I know your question was about change, but I think there’s just so many exciting things to talk about. I think change happens when you know what you want in life and what you value, when you recognize what is taking you away from and towards the thing, when you recognize what you want to do instead, but when you change your entire environment so that you’re not just constantly triggered into old habits.

Because the biggest thing that I see is that people assume that motivation and willpower alone are the things they need to make change in their lives. And I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to use those two things to change your life often.

Lisa: Failing miserably every time.

Sophie: Yeah, exactly. There you go. They often work for a short period of time, and then you find yourself back scrolling, sitting on the sofa instead of going to the gym, arguing with your partner over the thing that you swore you wouldn’t argue about again reaching for something that you said you weren’t going to reach for. So again, what I love about psychology is there’s rarely one answer to any question. Habit change really comes when you address any of those different parts of the equation.

Lisa: This is making me think too, of a book that I read you’re familiar with Atomic Habits. So good. So good. That goes into the psychology, the power of habit. And can we speak a little bit about one of the things that I think we also all struggle with and are vulnerable to? Knowing these things about oneself and knowing who we want to be and knowing what we should do in order to make that happen.

And yes, I should have this routine that supports my- I don’t know about you, but for me and for many of the clients that I work with a point of much discussion is, I know now what I should be doing. I have all this insight, self awareness, how it should work, and yet even though I know that I’m not doing what I really want to be doing, I’m going to do it anyway.

Steps to Become Who You Want to Be

That just the energy of changing your environment, changing your way of being. It takes a lot of sustained effort and certainly so many benefits when you do it. But can you talk about why it can be so hard to do that? And what, in your experience, has helped with that piece of this equation? Not for myself, Dr. Sophie asking for a friend.

Sophie: Yes. I have so many answers to this. The first one that’s most simple is often, actually we try and change too many things in one go. So we’re not just going from being the person who’s living our life right now. The person we want to become is so fundamentally different that we want to introduce ten, fifteen habits into our day.

Now, that is just cognitive impossible, right? You’re trying to do so many things, hold them all in mind. You haven’t maybe scheduled them into your diary. You keep saying, I’m going to do it today. I’m going to do it today. I’m going to do it today. And by the end of the day, you haven’t done it because it just simply hasn’t been planned based on how habit loops work. So that’s the first one.

The second one I want to talk about is quite jarring sometimes to hear, and that is that you’re simply not ready to change. Okay? Now, sometimes this is because there’s a model of change that basically says, we can be in multiple stages, so we can be pre contemplative. This means people have pointed out that the thing that you’re doing isn’t that great for you, and maybe you kind of understand, but you’re really thinking, I mean, it’s not that bad.

Contemplative is where you start to realize, yeah, that thing isn’t that great. I do see that the cons outweigh the pros, but you’re still waiting for this final straw that’s going to tip you over into the edge of taking action. Now, the next stage is preparation, and then obviously, you move through the stages of actually applying your new habit, maintaining it, and hopefully moving through to habit maintenance.

Now, a lot of the things that we want to change, they’re not actually that bad. So this model kind of says, well, you’re not ready, and it sounds quite judgy. So, for example, let’s go back to the drinking example. If you are drinking in a way that is destroying both your life and the people around you, not being ready to change is more significant than what most people experience, which is just this thing, such as this extra packet of crisps, this five minute phone scroll. Not going to the gym today.

Actually, it really isn’t that bad. So the idea of putting in the amount of effort required in the moment to overcome what we call friction that gets in the way of habits simply doesn’t feel worth it. So when I say you’re not ready to change, I don’t mean that in a grand judgy way. I just mean until you really feel like, yes, I must change this thing in order to improve my life, you’re unlikely to push through to make change.

Lisa: Yeah, there needs to be that the amount of energy it takes to change. On the other side of that, there needs to be a real big why.

Sophie: Yes. And even things like — I often say this to clients, if you have someone who’s experiencing extreme panic attacks, they often experience the fastest change than people who are just mildly anxious in an ongoing way because the people who have extreme panic attacks are so desperate. I mean, I’ve been this person, I used to have very bad panic attacks. They will do absolutely anything it takes to overcome the panic.

So they will, for example, have breathing exercises or mindfulness in their ears 24 hours a day. They are practicing their breathing exercises as if their life depends on it because it quite literally does. When you have anxiety that kind of comes and goes and is irritating rather than debilitating, you’re more likely to dabble in the exercises that you need to take you into being less anxious rather than employ them in the way that becomes habitual and changes your anxiety. Does that make sense?

Lisa: Oh, it makes perfect sense. And I’m so glad we’re talking about this because what I hear you saying is something that I’ve certainly found to be true, which is that motivation actually comes from pain, from fear, like all these dark emotions that I think we often hold away from ourselves as being things that are bad and that we want to avoid. But that is actually where motivation for growth and change comes from.

And I don’t know if you have this conversation with clients, but routinely when somebody’s telling me about how upset they are and how and I’m like, that’s awesome that you’re angry. Yes. What does that anger make you feel like doing? Right? And I think that there’s just so much power and value in our dark emotions that is not they don’t get the respect they deserve, I think is what I’m trying to say. But it is the engine of growth.

Sophie: Yeah. Anger is the energy for change. I always think this. If you’ve had a breakup and it’s awful, and then the moment you feel angry, I’m like, yes, use that to get out of bed and go outside and show yourself what life you’re going to have. So I wholeheartedly agree. But you’ve also touched on something really interesting, which is the most powerful motivators for change and that will keep our habits alive, are intrinsic, not extrinsic I e. Or in other words, it doesn’t have to be negative. It could be flow state. It could be satisfaction. You are more likely to make something habitual if you feel a reward inside your body than if you are being paid or winning an award. Does that make sense?

Lisa: Yes. Okay, so we were just talking about how true motivation and sustained motivation needs to come from intrinsic states. When we actually experience the benefit of the changes that we’re making, that is when they stick and we begin to, I think, not just continue to do them, but be changed, be transformed because of the doing.

Maybe we could talk a little bit more about why it is that these intrinsic states are so much more powerful than any of those external reward. I mean, that’s certainly been my experience. When you feel the benefit, you really experience it viscerally. That’s when it becomes like you’re not white knuckling it anymore. You’re not like, if I don’t have a glass of wine, then I will feel better tomorrow, or whatever the original thing is, it’s waking up in the morning and feeling clear and energized and knowing that it is the result of the decisions that you’ve made.

That’s when you’re like, yeah, starting to live it. Because I think a lot of conventional wisdom is all about the external rewards. Give yourself a treat. Do something nice for yourself. There’s a disconnect here.

Sophie: Sophie: Yeah, well, I think one very small reason for this, of the many, is that the closer or the shorter period between the action and the reward, whether it’s internal or external, the closer those two things are together, the more you get hooked on the action. So let’s say, for example, you’re plugging away at work for a reward that’s like six months down the line. You’re not getting the kick of well done, you’ve done it until six months later.

So you’re just kind of robotically going through it, trying to push through the stress. It’s not really that enjoyable when however, let’s say a marathon is a really good example. So people run a marathon to say they’ve run a marathon. If you do that the whole time, it’s going to be grueling because you’re thinking, I’ve got to get to the finish line.

If you find out what you value about running a marathon, such as community, looking after my body or testing my limits. Sticking to a routine every time you run it, even though you’re aiming for that goal, at the end, you have the queue, which is maybe you see your clothes next to your bed that trigger the idea that you need to run. You have the action, which is you’re running, but immediately, because your value has been met.

You’ve got this kind of feeling of like, oh, I was around my friends. Oh, I did such a good job. Look at me go. Strengthening who I’m going to be in the future. So you have the reward immediately paired with the action. So habits come quicker when the reward is quickly linked to the activity. So this is one of many reasons why extrinsic rewards will rarely ever cause you to gain a habit in the same way as intrinsic rewards. There’s many other reasons, but that’s a quick one.

Lisa: Well, and so instructive too, because if you can find that reward in the process as well as that longer term goal, you’re very intentionally keeping that motivation going when you are connecting with that every step of the way. Yeah, I love that idea.

This has been wonderful. And I guess I’m curious to know. I mean, really, we came together today for the benefit of our listeners who are on this path of growth and figuring out, okay, how do I get out of my own way and how do I begin operating, maybe more intentionally in a more empowered way, in order to get where I want to go? Do you feel that there’s anything important for them to know before we wrap things

 I mean, obviously you go into all of these things in much more depth in your book and I know you have all kinds of stuff online as well, but do you feel like there’s something that we should have talked about today that we haven’t yet?

Sophie: All I would say is that please learn about your habits, not just so that you can get to your goals that link to work and productivity, because I think this is often the only reason that habits are talked about. Please learn about habits so that you understand how to make decisions that are based on real life situations and data rather than what you’re kind of worrying about or thinking about in the moment.

Learn about habits so that you can overcome self sabotage that keeps you going around in circles. Learn about habits so you can stop the drama in your life and break into generational patterns because habits are just when I wrote Unstuck, one of the things I was very aware of is actually a lot of people have written about habits and I didn’t really just want to repeat what everyone else had written about.

I wanted to say this is the foundation, this is just the first step. When you understand it, you are going to be able to apply this data to so many areas of your life, areas of your life that no one at the moment is talking about. Link to habits. So don’t just assume you need to be more productive. Learn this so that you can genuinely get to your deathbed and not have the same regret as the people in Bronnie Ware’s book.

I mean, you might have some regrets. I mean, I’m definitely going to have a lot of regrets even if I achieve all of the things I set out to do. But those regrets are going to be more like I got drunk and shamed myself when I was a teenager rather than I didn’t have the courage to live the kind of life I really wish I’d lived.

Lisa: That’s beautiful. You speak about that so passionately and understandably. So I think our listeners are understanding how this work for you is really connected to such a higher mission, is that by learning about these ideas and understanding how to work with habits on a more personal way in deeper levels.

And I think we’re acculturated around that this is the path to creating radical transformation. So, Dr. Sophie, where would people learn more about you, your work, your book?

Sophie: So I have an Instagram page @_drsoph. I have a website, drsoph.com. And in terms of the book, well, so it’s going to be available first in England and Commonwealth countries, but if you’re buying it internationally, Blackwell’s, I think, is the first place to get international shipping for both my books. But it’s also an Audible and on Amazon, so you can find me there as well.

Lisa: Excellent. Well, your book will be on the top of the stack of 25 books, I’m going to read yours first. But thank you again so much. It was a pleasure.

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