One of the few benefits that can come from an episode of unwanted limerence is being forced to face some home truths about what you’re doing with your life. There’s nothing like the emotional storm of limerence for shocking you out of heedless complacency.
This is one of the reasons why I strongly advocate for purposeful living as the best cure for limerence – when you are paying attention to what you really want out of life, and organising yourself to pursue those aims, the wild abandon of romantic misadventure becomes much less attractive as a way of livening things up.
It’s a good principle, but the decision to transform your status quo and live with more purpose can abruptly crash into one of the most stubborn barriers there is to personal development: ingrained habits.
Barriers to change
Changing well-established behaviours is tough. It’s uncomfortable. We resist that discomfort, and (somewhat ironically) one of the most stubborn habits that we can train into our subconscious minds is using limerent reverie for mood repair.
Resolving to live a more purposeful life is an excellent decision, but how do we actually begin the process of undoing old routines, old habits of mind, old temptations? There’s no shortage of suggestions available, especially from the positive psychology fans (be your best self! Journal! Paint your room a calming colour!), but a blunt reality for most of us is that practical barriers constrain our options, even if we succeed in getting into the right mindset.
Life is not an open buffet of tantalising possibilities, it’s a series of trade offs and compromises. At some point, enthusiasm, will and determination are going to need bolstering with concrete plans to secure a lasting change. You might decide that your purposeful life is all about teaching people how to skydive, but if money is tight, bills have to be paid, and commitments have to be met, how do you find the time and resources to start?
This behavioural barrier isn’t only a problem at the start of the reinvention process, either. Relapsing back into old habits even after a period of success is depressingly common. Ask the number of people who sign up for the gym every year with a mountain of good intentions and resolve, but then lose momentum after a few months of inconsistent effort. Even missing one or two workouts can be enough to break a run of gains. So, how can we change behaviour in a way that is more likely to stick?
Test and learn
One of the best ways to solve this difficult problem is to approach the new routine you are trying to establish as a test. Combining good intentions with a bad plan is a disaster: it not only fails to achieve what you wanted, but it also demoralises you. Instead, look on every plan as an experiment – go into it with good intentions, but be open to the fact that it may well not work out as you hoped and that’s OK, you can always come up with a new plan and test that one next.
This discharges a lot of the tension that overly high expectations can cause, and it also helps you learn more about yourself and your temperament and your strengths and weaknesses. All valuable information.
One of the pioneers of this approach to behavioural change is Dan Ariely from Duke University who has also written a number of pop psychology books and is a regular on the TED scene. Here’s a good talk that he gave on precisely this subject: how can we remove the friction of old habits and motivate ourselves to behave better?
He was studying behavioural change in some of the most constrained circumstances imaginable (saving money when living in severe poverty), and, as expected, lots of psychological nudges and tricks had some effect, but with varying degrees of success. For me, one of the surprises was that an intervention that I never would have thought of (recording progress by scratching off marks on a coin) ended up being the best tactic for promoting the habit of regular saving.
When it comes to applying these principles to your own purposeful goals, I think there are two big takeaways. First, lots of tactics could help, and so it’s worth testing them for yourself to see how good they are at motivating you. Second, your intuition about what will work may well be wrong, so don’t dismiss ideas too hastily.
A useful reminder that we are in the thrall of subconscious drives that we typically don’t understand very well. The psychology of self discipline really is a combination of small pushes and pulls that move us mostly in a positive direction.
But the path can be a bit winding.