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Getting Started

5, 4, 3, 2, 1, go.


I have been sitting on writing this post with an open tab on my laptop for weeks. And to further procrastinate on writing, I’ve been sorting through my email inbox, watching TED talks, working through all the other tabs that were open on my browser (you know how it goes); all this delay, frankly because of fear that I associated with the task of writing. I know that it takes just one step, laying down one metaphorical brick at a time to accomplish anything. Still, I was paralyzed because of the pressure I concocted regarding the first step. This would be the first time I published anything on the internet in years. This would be the first time I stepped out into the online world as a professional in my new vocation - Marriage and Family Therapy. And it would be the first time that colleagues and seasoned therapists would potentially take notice. 


5, 4, 3, 2, 1, breathe. 


And with that, I am going to move past that feeling of “how hard it is to just get started.” I quoted that from Mel Robbins (whose TED talk I finished just a few minutes ago while procrastinating). Ironically, she is a motivational speaker who proclaims “why motivation is garbage” and “you’re never going to feel like it.” She makes great points. Like many people, I have been waiting for the feeling or the motivation for doing things that I know I should be doing (i.e. eat healthier, exercise, write and read more, etc), instead of simply doing it.


Why is that?


It turns out, figuring out "the how" isn’t the real problem (as is the case for many clients seeking therapy or coaching), although we tend to paralyze ourselves by believing it is. These days, we have the infinite how-to resources of the internet at our fingertips. Moreover, when the rational, executive functioning part of our brain is engaged, we are usually fully capable of figuring out how. Figuring out the why is also not necessarily the problem. Why we should do something that we want to do is often intuitive, yet we lose sight of it under a pile of self-doubt, procrastination, over-analyzing, etc. These are known as coping or defensive behaviors... So what is it we are coping against when we delay doing whatever new thing that we really want to do?


Fear: the hidden barrier to getting started.


It seems in my case, with this LinkedIn debut, so to speak, I’m contending against some fears about putting myself out there, particularly after having made a major career change. And I engaged in several common patterns of coping as mentioned above. Procrastinating is a classic case of avoidance and so is over-analyzing or rationalization. 


Here’s a good opportunity, as a mental health professional, to corroborate such experiences with a note about the brain. Many of our responses, especially to stress-provoking scenarios, are essentially wired in the brain. When we experience threats to our survival, for example, we instinctively respond with fight, flight or freeze. Another variation of this is resistance (fight) or avoidance (flight). When we experience or anticipate emotional threats (i.e. judgement or disapproval from others), the brain is similarly triggered to respond automatically with responses like rumination, anxiety, procrastination, etc. In both cases, the limbic part of the brain kicks in as part of our survival mode and overrides the prefrontal cortex where executive functioning is performed. While physical existence might not be in danger, we can’t underestimate the insidious power of everyday emotional threats to our self-concept.


So as I was saying, in my case of writing this post, I was contending against my fear of going public, and potentially being judged, rejected or deprecated. And I spiraled into an unhelpful pattern of procrastinating, over-analyzing, and perfectionism. When it came to starting this post, I was stuck in a mode that was counterproductive and inhibited me from utilizing my executive functioning to initiate and complete tasks with focus. A simple trick, however, can interrupt the downward spiral and flip the switch from the limbic brain operations to the prefrontal cortex operations.


5, 4, 3, 2, 1…


I like to think of it as not just a countdown, but also a means of leveling up - bringing down the stress responses and gearing up the executive functions to launch. This basic understanding of the brain’s mechanisms is at the root of a myriad of other techniques, from deep breathing, mindfulness, grounding exercises and trauma work, to help regulate a spectrum of stress responses and consciously engage higher order functions of the brain. This is a significant part of therapy for many cases, in which clients work through recognizing and overcoming the barriers that keep them from tackling their problems. Of course, then there’s the work of actually tackling the underlying problems and making real life changes. It’s work that I am privileged to partner with clients on and I’m excited to get started as an Associate MFT. To think, I may have never embarked on this path had I been governed by underlying fear... 


In my first LinkedIn post, I reflected on how to navigate initial career decisions. However, in hindsight, I realized that I was essentially navigating by the fear of not being (or deemed) successful, particularly by the standards of my Silicon Valley context. What I later came to realize was that I would add more value and contribute to the greater good by being true to my true self. Mind you, it sounds simple, but it is not easy! It was at that juncture in my life that I decided to follow my instincts and “specialize in my strengths.” Once I acknowledged and set aside my fears (with the help of a therapist), I was able to recognize on my own, "the why" and "the how"of what I really desired to do. Eventually, this led me to a path that was completely outside the box that I had envisioned for myself! Three years later, I'm getting ready to launch as an Associate MFT. Truthfully, I can't wait to get started. Now, before the anxiety of hitting the publish button takes over… 


5, 4, 3, 2, 1. Let's go.


References:

https://melrobbins.com/blog/5-second-rule-hack-science-explained/

https://www.businessinsider.com/procrastination-linked-to-2-areas-in-the-brain-study-2018-8

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Melba R. Mathew is a registered Associate Marriage and Family Therapist (#115377) under the supervision of Naj Alikhan (LMFT# 98653) 

at Emmada Psychology Center