What resolutions for health and wellbeing have you made this year?
Every day we are bombarded with articles, podcasts, videos, apps designed to help us improve our health and wellbeing through things like mindfulness, relaxation, enough exercise, good nutrition and regular sleep. And yet despite our best intentions they are notoriously difficult to stick to.
That’s because wellbeing is often delivered as an inspiring checklist of things to do – but typically miss out on some of the secret ingredients that help you turn a goal into an achievement.
But I’ve learned that if you really want to overcome the barriers to keeping to your resolutions and reaching your goals for change you need to look more carefully into the hidden side of wellbeing.
One of these hidden aspects that gets in the way of action is the assumptions we make about the world and our role in it. Uncovering your assumptions about the world can make a huge difference to sticking to your wellbeing goals. I’ve seen it in myself – and I’ve seen it in my clients.
So, let’s have a look at how this works.
What do you mean by assumptions?
Well, the best way to understand this is with an example and, of course, I’ll use doctors because I know quite a lot about them. Although this idea is important for everybody.
So, take a moment to imagine you are a medical student just starting out on your career as a doctor. You have dreams, hopes, aspirations – and an idea of what you think it means to be a doctor. Perhaps you have a romantic idea of healing the sick, or finding a cure for cancer. Or maybe you see it as a secure and well paid way to make a living.
But it doesn’t take long before you find out that’s it’s a bit more complicated than that. First of all, like many things there is so much to learn. While you imagine you are going to master the indescribably vast (and exponentially growing) knowledge and skills you need to prevent, diagnose and treat illness safely and effectively you soon find out that you also need to learn:
- Communication skills
- Technical skills
- Public health
- Professional ethics
- The legalities
I’m sure many other professions could distil a similar list of all the core competencies required. The point is, whatever the list, all these things are explicit, they are in the curriculum and you know you are learning them. Hopefully you will learn them well enough to pass all your exams.
But here’s the thing: In medicine, like everything else, we ‘learn’ a whole bunch of assumptions about ‘how’ to be a doctor. Or how to be a builder, lawyer or baker. These are all the patterns of behaviour, the unofficial rules, and implicit values and beliefs that dictate the way things are done.
It’s a bit like having an operating system installed. It frames the way you think and act – but you don’t really even ever think about it. And if you ever did think about it you would probably shrug your shoulders and say something like “well that’s just the way it is”.
In medicine, for example, learning ‘how’ to be doctor in the way you talk to people, walk, and generally learn the lingo can be quite a culture shock at first. But sooner or later these unofficial rules, one way or another, become normal and you forget what life was like without them. This forms a large part of our identity and the way we wish to be seen as well.
How assumptions get in the way of change
On one hand, this is a good thing because it helps us fit in and work more efficiently because there’s a whole bunch of stuff that gets put on automatic pilot. But, on the other hand, the problems is that we often aren’t even aware of it.
As we adopt any sort identity, it comes with a set of assumptions that form mental models which affect the way we make meaning out of our experiences. You can think about mental models as a sort of algorithm built up of assumptions that processes all the data we absorb as we go about our day and help us make sense of them and decide what to do in response.
To illustrate this, as a very simplistic example, think about how the following assumptions may affect whether you stop or sneak through a red light:
- Traffic lights are there for our safety
- Road rules are too restrictive
- There are too many road rules
- People who make the rules know what they are doing
- I’m the best judge of the road conditions
Just as the functionality of a computer is constrained by the algorithms written into the operating system, so too are we contained by our assumptions about the world. These world view assumptions then must affect how we talk, make decisions, hold uncertainty or take responsibility. And these are critical things for our performance and wellbeing.
So, to return to our example, let’s have a look at what this means for doctors and their wellbeing.
In my work with doctors repeatedly very similar assumptions emerge as influencing their behaviour. Things like:
- Doctors must always be there for patients
- Doctors who show vulnerability are weak
- Doctors who make errors are bad and deserve punishment
- Doctors must always have the right answer
- Doctors who work part time are lazy
When you openly talk about these types of assumptions it’s obvious how much guilt, shame and fear come with them. The reason is because guilt shame and fear act to protect the assumption. And we need to protect our assumptions because these form the building blocks of our world view and identity. Challenging our assumed world view and identity is a very threatening thing. And so we defend these things mightily – and they freeze us into unhelpful behaviour that makes it very difficult to change.
So, this can help explain doctors don’t always look after their own wellbeing even though they know that they should. Similar types of assumptions might explain why you (and me for that matter) aren’t always able to stick to your resolutions or goals.
How to unfreeze and make change happen
Well, the first step is knowing that we might be operating to an unstated assumption that is freezing us in place. And that’s what this article has been about.
Then we need to carefully, and in a supported way,, slowly uncover the assumptions we operate under. At that point, we have opened the door to installing a different operating system – made up of new assumptions that we get to choose.
The sting is that this can be difficult to do on your own and there is unlikely to be a checklist approach you can easily do. And that’s where good coaching come in and can help free you up to make the lasting changes you want and need to look after your own wellbeing – so you can live and active, productive and healthy life.
So are you ready to to start making changes in your life?
“If not now, when?”
PS: I know this idea can be a bit tricky to get your head around – so feel free to send through any questions you might have.
Kegan, R. G. (1994). In over our heads: The mental demands of modern life. Harvard University Press.