How to Deal with Barriers to Effective Action

“It is not because things are difficult that we dare not venture. It’s because we dare not venture that they are difficult.” – Seneca

Once you have an understanding of what your most deeply held values are and what specific goals you have set to begin to live those values, it is important to recognize that barriers arise along the way.  You can begin to build up awareness and skills to deal with barriers to effective action as they come up in your life. Rather than allowing the experience of discouragement towards an unmet goal to cause you to give up, feel confident that you are prepared to handle the inevitable obstacles that arise along the path towards living a values-based life.

“F-E-A-R:” Barriers to Effective Action

We often get in our own way when it comes to living the life we truly want.  Harris (2009) explains that psychological barriers usually get in the way when it comes to making positive life changes.  These barriers can be understood through the acronym F-E-A-R:

F = Fusion

When we embark out in the world, ready to make positive life changes, there is a natural tendency to experience an accompanying emotion of fear.  It is scary to change, even when that change is positive and desired.  Many people are more comfortable sticking with what they know, even when that reality is painful and causes suffering, than to venture out into the unknown.

When making life changes, expect your mind to create thoughts such as “I can’t do this,” “This is too hard,” or “I’m going to fail.”  These thoughts don’t have to get in the way of your goals if you choose not to fuse with them. When you fuse with these self-defeating thoughts, you are getting in your own way from moving forward. Practice cognitive defusion exercises to begin to detangle yourself from thoughts that try to prevent you from maintaining your forward momentum.

E = Excessive Goals

Sometimes when we desire to make positive life changes, we get very excited and try to change too much all at once.  Recognize that this is unrealistic and will set you up for failure.  Don’t do this to yourself.  Instead, begin to learn how to set realistic goals that are outside of your comfort zone enough to push you, but are still within reach.

Consider what resources you have at your disposal to reach your goals.  Examples of resources include time, money, skills, and physical health.  Begin to recognize how much you have to give at this point in your life as you set your goals.  What changes can you make to gain access to or free up additional resources?  Practice setting small, intermediate, and long-term goals underneath the larger umbrella of being both challenging and realistic.

A = Avoidance of Discomfort

It is common to experience uncomfortable thoughts and emotions during times of change – particularly anxiety.  If you are not willing to tolerate distress, don’t be surprised when nothing changes.  You must be willing to move through discomfort.  This is the path towards growth, change, and renewal.  When we spend our lives avoiding discomfort, little change occurs.

How can you begin to gradually move out of your comfort zone and experience the type of discomfort that promotes growth and change?  Consider your values as you evaluate what it means to you to be “uncomfortable.” How much might you have missed out on in life as a result of avoiding potential discomfort?  Growth can be scary. Recognize that those growing pains will pass and that you will come out on the other side with greater wisdom, knowledge, and strength.

R = Remoteness from Values

If you lose touch with the deeper values underlying your goals, it is easy to become detached and lose sight of why you are doing all of this hard work.  Recognize that maintaining your motivation requires you to stay in touch with the deeper meaning and purpose behind your actions.  Harris (2009) explains that this barrier to effective action commonly occurs when:

  • We can’t or won’t access our true values.
  • We confuse rules and morals with values.
  • We “talk about” values, but don’t really “connect” with them.
  • We adopt the values of our parents, important others, or community, rather than our own.

How can you begin to anticipate and deal with the inevitable psychological barriers to effective action?  Recall that “effective action” means doing what works towards reaching your goals that are in the service of your deeper values.  If your actions are ineffective, you may find that they cause you unproductive suffering or keep you “stuck.”  When you feel prepared to deal with these psychological barriers, you will be ready to handle the feelings of anxiety and fear that come up during times of change.  Make the choice to accept the inevitability of uncomfortable thoughts and feelings on the path towards living a purposeful, values-based life.

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Harris, R. (2009). ACT made simple. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.

Featured image: Looking death in the eye by Alaskan Dude / CC BY 2.0

About Laura K. Schenck, Ph.D., LPC

I am a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) with a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Northern Colorado. Some of my academic interests include: Dialectical Behavior Therapy, mindfulness, stress reduction, work/life balance, mood disorders, identity development, supervision & training, and self-care.

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