I really hate change.
I like things to stay the same, all the time.
The trouble is, if you want to get better at things or do something different, you need to be willing to try new things. And often, trying new things means that you’ll feel uncomfortable and you’ll probably look foolish.
You might even have to fail. In public.
I hate this fact with every fiber of my being.
When I first started new things, they felt terrible. Like taking writing classes with people who’d been writing for a lot longer than I had. Or like the time I went to a non-classical string camp for the first time. It was terrible.
There I was, Juilliard trained and a fully grown up classical musician, trying to improvise and play music in new styles and you know what?
I sucked at it.
The thing that made it even harder was the fact that everyone around me seemed to be having the time of their life. Little kids played rings around and they were having FUN. No one seemed to mind making mistakes and sounding bad. And while, eventually, I realized that a lot of them were also crying at the end of the day, just like me, I also realized that I seem to have an even lower tolerance for being a beginner than most.
Being a beginner at something you’re supposed to be good at is a hard pill to swallow.
I realized over time that some of us have more to lose than others.
After all, I’d been playing concerts since I was thirteen. From a very young age, I learned that the one thing I must never do is…fail in public.
In order to learn new things, we must be willing to fail.
In public. In front of other people. (I’m repeating myself, but this terrible fact is worth repeating.)
Because failing in private isn’t the same. Alas, failure is often more valuable if there’s someone there to witness it.
Failure is hard for everyone but for some of us, it feels nearly impossible to accept. And while we may feel more comfortable, staying in our comfort zone, it also keeps us from learning new things.
You can’t learn new things unless you are willing to allow failure to have a place in your life.
If you’re like me, you might have a harder time throwing yourself into new things easily. But here are some Radically Open Dialectical Behavioral (RODBT) skills you might want to try that could help you be just a little more open to trying new things.
Remember, I’m not a therapist but these are skills that I’ve found helpful in learning how to be more open to learning new things.
A very brief note about Radically Open Dialectical Behavioral Therapy:
Radically Open Dialectical Behavior Therapy is geared towards people who are considered “overcontrolled,” which can include experiences like perfectionism and compulsive striving. These overcontrolled traits often stem from core issues around fear and loneliness.
At the same time, being overcontrolled is also a pro-social skill, meaning that society often rewards us for working hard, never allowing for failure, and sometimes harsh critical thinking. Because we are rewarded for these behaviors, we often have a hard time letting them go, which creates a vicious cycle and means that a lot of folks who struggle with perfectionism and excessive self-control often suffer in silence, often deeply lonely and isolated.
I know that I’m one of those folks.
RODBT can help people like me loosen our grip on our control, in a safe way, in small doses, so that, over time, we may learn to be just a little bit more open to change and trying new things.
Here’s a set of skills that I’ve learned that I’ve found helpful:
A Flexible Mind VARIEs
RODBT is full of acronyms to help us remember new skills and frankly, it can make your brain feel like alphabet soup. But stick with it and over time they might start to feel a little bit more natural:
V: Verify your willingness to experience something new
Start by checking out your willingness to try something new, on a scale of 1 to 10 (1 being completely unwilling and 10 being very willing). At this point, all you’re going to do is notice how willing you are and what level of resistance, if any, you might be feeling.
A: Check the Accuracy of hesitancy, aversion, or avoidance.
Here are some questions you can ask yourself to check out the accuracy of your hesitation or avoidance of the new thing your trying to do:
- Do I think I already know what will happen if I do this new thing?
- Do I believe that I already know all of the facts about the situation I am in?
- Have I tried this new thing in the past and if so, do I believe or assume that it will be useless for me to try it again?
- Is there a chance I don’t really want to change how I behave or think?
- Do I secretly hope that I’ll fail at this new thing so I don’t have to change? If so, is this helping me or preventing me from achieving my valued goals?
- Do I assume there’s no possibility that I’ll enjoy myself or learn anything new?
Your answers to these questions might help you better gage how accurate or inaccurate your emotions are around trying a new thing.
R: Relinquish compulsive planning, rehearsal, or preparation
I don’t know about you but this one is really hard for me. Since I was a kid, I’ve been trained to practice, practice, practice (see you at Carnegie Hall), so I instinctively prepare for everything, no matter how big or small.
And while this might help me feel safer and better prepared, it also makes everything exhausting.
I can’t tell you how many pairs of socks I’ve passed over because I needed to 1) check online to make sure I got the best price and 2) make sure that I bought the *best* socks, with the exact right color/pattern/fabric.
You know what this leads to? Walking around in threadbare socks with my toes sticking out.
So, instead of overpreparing, try this thought experiment:
See what happens if you’re able to be just 1% less prepared. Can you tolerate things being just a little bit uncertain? Can you go for a walk instead of checking that tricky shift in the third movement one last time? Can you order a different sandwich than the one you usually order? Can you go to the movies and decide what you’re going to see when you get there?
Remember that learning new things usually involves making a mistake; otherwise, you would already know the skill! Alternatively, making mistakes doesn’t mean you should stop trying the new thing; it just means you are learning something new.
I: Activate your social safety system and then Initiate the new behavior
Before you take the plunge and try out the new thing, you might feel heightened anxiety or even fear. If so, try activating your social safety system before you initiate the new behavior:
Remind yourself of the Big Three Plus 1 skills and keep using them as you are trying your new thing. This will help you stay relaxed and allow your body to remind you that you are safe.
E: Nonjudgmentally Evaluate the outcome.
And finally, look back at what happened and try being curious, not judgemental, about the outcome.
This is also so hard! I’m someone who is very attached to outcomes so I tend to dismiss anything that I’m not “good” at. And while I’d very much prefer to only do things that I feel comfortable and expert at, this also keeps me from growing and learning.
Therefore, after I try new things, I try to ask myself:
- What have I learned from this experience?
- Is it hard for me to feel a sense of accomplishment because I didn’t do this new thing perfectly? If so, I try to practice accepting my perfectionist tendencies instead of fixing them or getting mad at myself for them. This isn’t easy though and while it takes practice, I also remind myself that trying to get rid of my perfectionistic thinking is like using mud to wash mud off your car—it just makes matters worse. And after all, striving isn’t an inherently negative trait. It’s really valuable and makes us high achievers.
- Am I ignoring praise or negating positive feedback? I definitely do this a lot: ever since music school, I developed the habit of discrediting anything I do. Whenever someone might tell me I played well or congratulated me after a concert, my kneejerk reaction was to always tell them what went wrong: “Oh, I messed up that passage in the coda” or “Omg, I played so out of tune” or “Ugh, I can’t ever seem to hit that shift in the cadenza.”
In an acting class I once took, the teacher told us, sternly, when someone compliments you after a performance, there is only one appropriate response:
So, the next time someone compliments you, practice saying, “thank you,” even if you don’t think you deserve praise. Try not to explain things or criticize your efforts. Remind yourself that by letting in praise, you’re letting in new information that can help counter your beliefs that only perfect performances are acceptable.
A couple other things to keep in mind when you’re noticing your perfectionist tendencies:
- Send some loving kindness toward that perfectionistic part of you. For example, you might want to try saying to yourself: “May my perfectionist self be happy, may my perfectionist self be content, may my perfectionist self be safe and secure.” And before you roll your eyes (and at the risk of this getting truly super too meta), notice this resistance to self compassion and see if you can try it anyway. Being kind to yourself can be like trying a new food that you’re sure you don’t like: try it first and see what you think. If you still hate it after trying it, you can always go back to your comfort zone, no harm, no foul.
- Remember that behaving differently is the only way to learn something new. Feeling awkward tells you that you are learning, not that you are failing.
And finally, remember to reward yourself for trying new things!
This is the step that I always forget. It’s important to pat yourself on the back for taking risks and being brave. What matters is not the outcome but the fact that you tried. Remind yourself that it still counts even if you didn’t perform up to your expectations.
Create a list of rewards so that you can have it handy right after you try new things:
- Curl up with a new book by your favorite author.
- Eat or drink a favorite meal or beverage.
- Take a long hot bath with scented candles.
- Take a nap.
- Listen to your favorite music.
- Watch your favorite TV show.
- Sit outside.
- Go for a walk and enjoy the sunshine.
Get into the habit of rewarding yourself every time you do something new or different, whether you feel like you deserve it or not. Remember that celebrating our creative courage is an important habit to develop that keeps us from burn out and exhaustion.
A Final Thought
Remember: it took us a long time to develop the habits of harsh judgement and self criticism so it’ll take a while to soften those habits and develop new ones around being curious and gentle with ourselves. Just like any new habits, start small and be kind to yourself if things feel awkward. Trying new things can be hard but these skills and questions might make it just a little bit easier.
(If you want to learn more about RODBT, check out books by the founder of RODBT, Dr. Thomas Lynch, and consider seeking out a licensed RODBT specialist.)