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Structure versus Freedom

A problem that crops up frequently with clients is what I call the desires for structure versus freedom. You know, you love the idea of following a plan, having routine in your life, and establishing goals. That is, you love them initially, until somewhere down the line, you stop loving these things and, instead, find them annoying, confining, and overwhelming. You chafe at the rules and rigidity, quit following the plan, and give up on the goals. Then sooner or later you yearn for them again—and round and round it goes.

If you engage in this self-sabotaging pattern, it’s time to figure out what’s going on. The first thing to observe is if this is a pattern in your whole life—you do it with the gym, food, not watching so much TV, or staying organized. That is, you make promises to yourself about the way you will be and get psyched on getting your life together. You’re energized, the endorphins are flowing, and you’re looking forward to achieving your goals and doing something you know is good for you. You may feel a stab of fear that this time will be like every other time you’ve started and failed at something, but for the most part, your eyes are bright, your brain is in high gear, and you’re full speed ahead.

Then, suddenly or gradually, there’s a shift. Instead of commitments giving your day or life structure and charting a path for you, they’re starting to feel restrictive—making time for a run or the gym is an effort, planning and thinking ahead to eat healthily is a drag, not watching so much TV leaves a big hole in your evenings, and staying organized is just too time-consuming. The plans you’ve made seem unrealistic, your goals far away and unreachable, and the structure you’ve imposed on yourself now bears down upon you until you yearn for freedom and to throw off the yoke of confinement.

I’ve watched clients (friends, too) struggle with this pattern. You feel as if there are two of you: the one who craves routine, goals, and commitments and the one who simply wants to be left to your own free-wheeling devices. This pattern indicates mixed feelings –you desire two (sometimes) mutually exclusive things—and have misgivings or fears about your goals. Hence, you do one behavior to serve one set of feelings (hopes and wishes), then drop it to serve another set (fears), and get nowhere. The only way out of this dilemma to is explore and identify what you like and don’t like about structure and freedom. A good place to start is your childhood, where attitudes towards these constructs developed. To overcome this pattern, you will need to resolve your internal dilemmas. When your intent is singular and unilateral, sustained behavior will follow and you’ll be able to tolerate and benefit from healthy ongoing structure and commitment.