You would think progress toward a goal would make the work easier. However, as I have learned with weight loss, it seems that whenever I get closest to my goal, something inevitably happens and instead of being 10 pounds from my goal, I am once again 20 pounds away. Some experts say this is because our body has a “set point” and it keeps our bodies in this range. However, I think that I subconsciously sabotage myself. Maybe I have become so comfortable being at a certain weight, living a certain lifestyle, that I’m not sure if I can “be” this new person, so I unconsciously sabotage myself out of fear.
I think the same thing can be true with professional goals. Before becoming a principal, I worked at a place for fifteen years where I repeatedly hit a barrier preventing me from successfully achieving my goals. While I wasn’t comfortable, it had become my norm. Being in a new role in a new district, I have been able to move past that, but I am definitely in the land of the unknown, professionally.
I think my staff is experiencing the same phenomenon. There was no one that worked harder with children that this group of educators. However, no matter how hard they worked, they weren’t getting the results they wanted. The first couple of years the work was hard, but we didn’t yet see the fruits of our efforts, so that felt “normal.” However, recently, our flywheel has begun to move. The work is getting a little easier. The payoffs are starting to happen. It just gets better from here, right?
However, as we started this year, there was a huge sense of discombobulation hanging heavy in the air. I could feel it with myself and with the staff. I kept asking myself how we could feel more anxious when we have reached a place where we are getting settled in strong habits, and routines and our students are starting to make the gains we desire. How could we feel unsettled if we know what to expect? Or did we?
That was a giant realization. We don’t know what to expect. We are on the frontier of unchartered territory. We don’t know what it feels like to have our students make these kinds of gains, and we worry if we can maintain the momentum. Questions of “what happens if we can’t?” bubble just beneath the surface.
Fear is a powerful thing. Fear goes immediately to the primitive part of our brain geared for survival, the amygdala. Because our most important task as living organisms is survival, the amygdala has the ability to “hijack” our brain’s higher order thinking functions in order to protect us. Fear turns on the amygdala which urges us to “fight,” take “flight” or “freeze” even if survival is not actually at stake. However, this prehistoric part of our brain doesn’t discriminate between a saber tooth tiger or a potentially failed goal, and any of those actions sabotage forward momentum and progress. So it is imperative to keep our amygdala in check and stay in our higher thinking brain to move past the fear and continue moving forward. A challenge isn’t a saber tooth tiger; it is an opportunity to learn, grow and improve.
No one intentionally undermines their progress to an important goal, but it does happen. So how do we keep our amygdala off and prevent self-sabotage?
- Be aware of your surroundings. As with any time you are entering a situation with uncertainty or potential danger, you must turn off autopilot and intentionally choose your actions. If you are on autopilot, that overprotective amygdala may steer you away from the very opportunity you need to push through. Recognize that you may feel uncomfortable, but discomfort is not life-threatening so that you can keep moving forward.
- Recognize that you will be stepping out of your comfort zone and make a plan. Growth and learning occur outside your comfort zone. Plan for what you will do to increase your comfort as you face the unknown. Let go of things that don’t matter. Plan for what you will do if things don’t go as planned. Plan for what you will do
- See what you want, not what you don’t. Our brains are powerful and attract what we think about due to the “Law of Attraction.” If we want success, we have to create a mental image of the success. If we think about failure, we are unwittingly willing it to happen. It can be difficult to have a growth mindset and see yourself being successful in a situation you have never experienced. So find an example of someone being successful in the area you desire, and put yourself in their shoes to imagine accomplishing your goal.
- Have grit and don’t quit. Even when it gets hard, keep that amygdala turned off. Don’t run and don’t stop. If you are not growing you are declining (more laws of nature). If you have worked this hard to get this far, you don’t want to lose even a smidge of progress. Even if it doesn’t work out with your first attempt, you will learn information you need to try again, improve, and get closer to your goal.
- Give yourself some grace. Too often, our mindset is that we must be perfect. Trying to be perfect can become an excuse not to try. Perfection scares us and flips the “amygdala switch” because our brain is smart enough to know perfection is impossible, especially in a first attempt.
Self-sabotage to keep oneself at their “comfort” set point is normal, but those who are successful in reaching goals, know the strategies needed to push past existing set points to establish a new equilibrium of success. Use of these strategies don’t mean the journey will be without twists and turns, but maybe at least without detours of self-sabotage. As educators, this becomes especially critical. Not only must we master this skill to ensure we reach our goals of students success in our classroom, but also if we hope to teach these skills of grit, growth mindset and grace to our students so they can navigate their own pathways after they leave us.