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The anti-jump muscles

On November 3rd covering

There is a cartoon by the late B. Kliban that I think of often. It’s tragically unavailable, so I will have to describe it for you. The title is “the anti-jump muscles”. The first panel, labeled “tensed”, shows a man standing. The second panel, labeled “relaxed”, shows the man leaping into the air . . . OK, it’s funnier when you see the cartoon.

But this is how the mind really works. Every day I speak with people who are frustrated by the desire to make some kind of change: to be available to relationships, to get more done, to accomplish goals of various kinds. Some of them try different kinds of list-making, goal-setting, self-management techniques that they devise themselves, learn from books or training sessions at work. There are some very active blogs and web sites devoted to this, such as Lifehacker and 43 Folders. There are some clever tools and ideas to be found. They mostly involve methods of setting goals, making commitments to act, discriminating between more and less important things, and keeping track of it all. (Personally, I find that last item is a perennial weak link).

An unfairly oversimplified way of summarizing these “personal productivity” approaches is to Try Real Hard. (Also systematically, and consistently, etc). These approaches can do a lot of good for people, especially people with complex lives. But when they consistently don’t work, it’s time to consider a closer look at the anti-jump muscles.

People are full of complex and contradictory motives. It’s common for people to struggle against themselves, or to sabotage themselves out of unconscious guilt and fear. Sometimes people complain of “lacking motivation” which usually means they have conflicting motivations. They don’t need to push down harder on the accelerator, they need to ease up on the brake. Or, it may be that they need to listen to the part of themselves that is opposing the change.

This is the domain of psychoanalytic therapy. As experts in human perversity, we are trained to listen patiently and to not take sides in the struggle, but to help people deeply know the contradictions in themselves. Sometimes we can help people relax their anti-jump musles, and become able to take great leaps. That’s a good day at the office.

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