Keeping Commitments: Shifting your mindset to win the internal tug-of-war

24.02.21 09:23 PM By Heather Kleinschmidt

There’s a daily battle I go through.

What am I going to do right now? What will I aim for with my time? Using only what’s in front of me, what will I convert that stuff into?

It’s a battle because there are always more good answers available than I can possibly actually do…

Different Seasons

There are times in life when we know our aim. We know what we’re shooting for, what we care about, what the general context is, and we therefore know what needs to be done.

But there are other times when things are more murky.

We have ideas that maybe could become an interesting aim — or maybe are a waste of time.

And who’s to say whether something will or won’t accomplish whatever need you’re trying to fulfill?

The Yearning Octopus

On WaitButWhy, Tim Urban writes a quirky description of a character named the Yearning Octopus.

The Yearning Octopus lives inside of you and represents your own various competing internal yearnings (and the specifics of each person's Yearning Octopus are unique to them).

For example...

He writes:

The hard thing about [this] is that you want a bunch of different things — or, rather, there are a bunch of different sides of you, and each of them wants — and fears — its own stuff. And since some motivations have conflicting interests with others, you cannot, by definition, have everything you want. Going for one thing you want means, by definition, not going for others, and sometimes, it’ll specifically mean going directly against others.

And if that weren’t enough, you sometimes have furious internal conflict inside a single yearning. Like when your desire to pursue your passion can’t figure out what it’s most passionate about. Or when you want so badly to be respected, but then you remember that a career that wins the undying respect of one segment of society will always receive shrugs from other segments and even contemptuous eye rolls from other segments still.

— [click to read the original article]

While the Yearning Octopus brings with it much to be grateful for — freedom, consciousness, and possibility — it also creates a dilemma.

What To Do When It’s Your Turn (And It’s Always Your Turn), pg. 15

As Seth Godin writes in his book What To Do When It’s Your Turn (And It’s Always Your Turn), “…freedom means we must make a choice.”

The benefit of following rigid directives is that the responsibility for decision-making is abdicated.

But I’m getting ahead of myself…

Historical Variations

The Yearning Octopus is a unique and clever spin on something that is hardly a new idea.

Sigmund Freud famously articulated the first attempt at a formal theory about this phenomenon, conceptualizing the subpersonalities that live within an individual and that manifest very full lives within your being.

Jordan Peterson has further suggested that this phenomenon is what ancient peoples were trying to identify and represent when they discussed spirits or demonic/angelic forces that inhabited individuals. He argues that they recognized and understood that a single individual is not, in fact, a single individual — but rather is a collection of competing voices (which they termed “spirits”) that together drive the person forward. Those forces inside are constantly on the move, even though that means they come into conflict with one another.

But in the middle of everything going on in life, it’s easy to forget they’re there — to assume that you are one, unified thing. Which, of course, you’re not.

And on that note, it can be useful to recognize an important characteristic about things that compete with one another…

The Collaborative Nature of Competition

When we look at something like baseball, we call it competitive. That’s because at the end of nine innings, one team will win, and one team will lose — and both teams are competing against the other for that top spot.

But the very fact that the game exists indicates a fundamental collaboration that sits at the base of the competition.

Both teams have to collaboratively negotiate, accept, and submit themselves to the rules of the game before the competition can even take place.

The same idea exists when we begin to listen to the many voices inside of you:

They’re all competing for your personal resources.

But they all also want the same ultimate thing: they want the game to be fun, and they want the game to continue and to not come to an end. They want you to “live your best life” (I hate that phrase — but it’s cliché because it’s a real thing).

As long as the fundamental collaboration is kept at the center of things, then the competition can be allowed to reign wild (or to reign fairly wild).

It’s only when any voice can’t be heard and conversed with — when it isn’t allowed any place in the game — that the whole game will begin to derail (i.e. that you will begin to derail).

At the same time, though, the competition has to be preserved. There have to be winners and losers, some voices that take precedence and other voices that subvert themselves to those chosen priorities.

Whether it’s your tangible goals — how you spend your time — or the values by which you live, the ongoing competition needs to have space held for it to exist. Unfortunately, this creates tension.

Dealing With The Discomfort

There’s a fight going on.

Lots of voices vying for your attention, endlessly expressing their dissatisfaction.

In the presence of those moments, three threads become relevant:

  1. the ability to tolerate tension
  2. the strength to create space and to sit in stillness
  3. the courage to choose and to act (to buy and hold)

Creating Space

Sitting in quiet. Resisting the urge to engage with distraction.

To hear an idea, a thought — and not rush to (re)act. To just hear.

To let your thoughts speak without assuming they represent you.

Stepping Into Choice

Picking — to the exclusion of all else.

Choosing which battle you’re going to fight, which struggles are worth the sacrifices that will inevitably be called for.

To plant the seeds of momentum. To plant the seeds of your vision of the future. And then to tend those seeds.

Tolerating Tension

It can be easier to embrace the tension of competition when it’s recognized that the competition isn’t destructive — it’s constructive, and it’s collaborative. Those competing entities are vying for the best possible individual outcome for you at the end of the day.

But that knowledge doesn’t take the tension away.

If you want the game to work, you have to develop the skill of moving and choosing, in spite of that tension.

Let it be uncomfortable.

The discomfort is temporary. (And it will return again.) The presence of that tension is not an indicator of progress or lack thereof… it’s an indicator of your engagement with the relevant unknown.


When Pain Wakes Us Up

When pain — or shock or despair or even curiosity — creates a situation that demands your attention, that calls you to something important you’ve been neglecting (a lost voice somewhere in the background)…

Cycle back through the three elements:

  • Create the space to hear.
  • Step into choice.
  • Allow tension.


Finding Joy in the Tug-of-War

As you attempt to move in the world — to reach for new things or to resolve current problems — there will be a constant tug-of-war among all those inner voices.

The discomfort is always there. (Sometimes it’s more deeply felt than at other times.)

Giving into that discomfort and finding distractions or explanations or reasons not to engage is an easy out… but it also comes to collect a debt of regret (eventually).

Learning how to handle the tension — to meet it, to hear it out, and to continue to act on new choices — propels things forward. It’s that courage that carries us out of freeze mode and into living mode. It’s that courage that helps us discover our own multidimensionality.

If you know what the tension is, and you can learn to allow it some living space in your home, then it becomes easier to have a little fun with it.

It’s not about always eliminating the tugs. It’s about learning how to navigate and live well in their midst.

Each week, I do a deep-dive into the question of living meaningfully.

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