Kelly McGonigal –True Willpower: How to Create Change through Self-Acceptance, Desire, and the Present Moment

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This episode’s guest is Dr. Kelly McGonigal. Kelly is a health psychologist and award-winning lecturer at Stanford University.

A leading expert on the mind-body relationship, her work integrates the latest findings of psychology, neuroscience, and medicine with contemplative practices of mindfulness and compassion from the traditions of Buddhism and yoga. She is the author of The Willpower Instinct and Yoga for Pain Relief.

In this episode, Kelly McGonigal and I speak about:

  • Willpower
  • How to create the desire for change
  • Acceptance of the present moment versus a desire for change
  • Curiosity being a key ingredient for science as well as intuition
  • The over-masculinization of science
  • Kelly shared how she overcame a debilitating fear in her life

Kelly McGonigal is a featured presenter at the 2013 Emerging Women Live Conference, October 10th-13th in Boulder, CO. If you can not attend the event, you can still participate via free livestream.

Tune in to listen to my conversation “True Willpower” with Dr. Kelly McGonigal.

Subscribe to Grace & Fire on iTunes.

Transcript:

Chantal Pierrat Welcome, Kelly!

Kelly McGonigal: Hi, how are you doing?

CP: Great! It’s so great to have you today. I’m excited about our conversation.

KM: I am too, I’m looking forward to this.

CP: Well, I thought we’d just launch into the concept [that] is the subject of your work, your latest book being The Willpower Instinct. The term “willpower” is just such a trigger. It’s edgy. And I was wondering if you could start by telling us what you mean by “willpower.”

KM: I want to first even just acknowledge how edgy that word is, because it seems to imply a kind of judgment. When most of us talk about our own willpower, it’s almost always in the context of not having any. And it can almost point to a sense of lack or inadequacy, like, “I just don’t have what it takes to meet the challenges in my life or to reach my goals.” I wanted to reverse that sense that we have. I actually like using the word “willpower” now, even though it often triggers this immediate sense of, “Oh God, that’s something I don’t have. Please don’t remind me how little self-control I have.”

When I was working as a health psychologist and a health educator, the Stanford School of Medicine would send me around to help people make behavior [changes] and talk about stress management and healthy choices. And everywhere I went, people told me they already knew what they were supposed to do and they didn’t think they could do it. In fact, they said they couldn’t do it. They couldn’t make the changes. They felt like failures at the whole self-improvement game.

I thought, “This is something we need to radically rethink.” So many people felt like they simply did not have the inner resources to do what matters most to them, to improve their health and to find greater meaning and joy in their careers and in their family. So I’m re-staking a claim for willpower and define it as the ability to do what matters most—even when it’s difficult, even when you have self-doubt, even when you are exhausted—and to actually choose the thing that is most meaningful and important, and [access] all the resources that allow us to make that choice.

CP: Right. Here’s a question I have: What do you think is necessary to actually create change? It’s one thing to say, “Oh, I know these things, these are good for me. I need to make this change,” and yet we don’t do it. What is that ingredient that first kicks off the action and the habits? How do we cultivate that desire for change?

KM: I talk about four sets of strengths that support willpower. The first one is what I call “wantpower.” And it’s different than what you just said. You said, “Oh, I know this would be good for me.” How motivating does that sound? “This would be good for me.” It almost sounds like somebody else is telling you what you should do. Wantpower, instead, is this inner drive, maybe an intuition, a sense of meaning or purpose that really comes from within and allows you to have a vision for what you want in your life, what you want to contribute to the world, how you want to be in the world.

We are really good at knowing what we should do. Most of us could have a whole list of what we’re supposed to be doing, what we should do to prevent cancer and make our kids turn out better—all the things we know we should be doing. But that’s different than truly, deeply knowing what your vision for your life is and what your core values are, what your most important goals are.

So when I have people thinking about increasing their willpower, I often will start people there, with some real reflection to think about what matters most. To give you an example of where most people are starting from, a few years ago Oprah had me redesign and makeover somebody’s New Year’s resolution. And I had so much empathy for this woman, who had made the same resolution year after year to become a better cook. She had this vision that that’s what a good wife and mother would do.

When I talked to her about it, she hated cooking. She actually was bad at it, nobody in her family [was] particularly [good at it], but there was this nagging sense that this is how a woman should be, she should be able to cook. So she kept recommitting to that goal and then failing at it. And when we talked about what actually brought her meaning and joy, we came up with a whole bunch of other things that she actually was willing to invest her time and energy in with a very different outcome.

So that’s what I call wantpower. There are lots of ways to get in touch with wantpower. Because I teach meditation, I often share with people some traditional meditations that are meant to help you get in touch with the part of you that really wants to be happy and to be healthy. But there are also great exercises coming out of modern psychology that look at how you can actually remind yourself on a daily basis of what your values are.

CP: Right. You know, it’s interesting, something you just said was that—and this comes up for me when I’m thinking about desire versus really accepting the present moment and how things are. Is one propelled a bit by a state of not being satisfied with how things are? What’s that conflict, where we keep being told, “We need to accept the present moment and dig in,” and yet I think it’s healthy, sometimes, to feel a little frustration when things are not going well. That’s an ingredient for this change. I’m curious to see where you stand on that.

KM: Yes. This is a paradox that comes up all the time, because I do teach meditation and I’m also in communities where people have really embraced the idea of acceptance—that we should accept things as they are and find a kind of peace around that. At the same time, we desire a kind of engagement with the world. And that engagement, almost always, is triggered by a gap between your ideals and what is in the present moment—a gap between your ideal actions and your own behavior, or your ideal world and the world you actually see when you look around.

I can come to terms with this paradox most directly through practice, by discovering that when we actually accept things the way they are—really sincerely acknowledging and not resisting in a way that keeps you stuck—and then we reconnect with our values, it often propels us to take action that can transform what’s present with a very different flavor. And this can be true for personal change or for much bigger change.

One way that I have people think about this [is] there’s an exercise I like to do where I ask people to think about something in their life that they’re resisting or highly self-critical of. And [I ask them] to really check in with what that feels like in your body, how much energy is available to you when you think about this thing that you see, you wish it weren’t true and you’re so frustrated, and notice how little energy is available for taking any kind of positive action. And then flip it and think about something that brings you meaning or a really important value to you or even something that brings you joy. [Then] notice how much energy is available when that is what you put your focus on.

That’s how I think about pursuing goals. Pursuing goals from a place of resistance—“The way things are are wrong, there’s something wrong with me, I’m inadequate, my life is inadequate”—that doesn’t actually give us energy for action. That’s the way that the human world works. Action is required of us, and there doesn’t have to be such a conflict between acceptance and engagement.

CP: Right. So tell us a little bit more about this, because in the same token, especially in your book, self-acceptance is a key part.

KM: Yes. So actually, I had started off by talking about the four strengths, the four sets of resources we need. And the second one is mindfulness, which includes an element of self-acceptance. Once you have a sense of what it is you’d like to create or maybe what it is you’re ready to let go of, you kind of have to understand the process of how you’re creating the opposite, whether it means becoming aware of how it is that you lose your temper or how it is you procrastinate or how it is that you end up smoking a pack of cigarettes every day.

Whatever the change is, take a close mindful look at what your triggers are, what it is you say to yourself—is there a story you say, like, “Well, it will be easier to change tomorrow and I trust that tomorrow is when I will begin the first process of change. Today I don’t really need to”—notice all that stuff that’s going on that ends up with the result of something you don’t actually want or you don’t want to continue.

I sometimes use the word “curiosity” to describe how it is that we pay attention to the process. And that’s very different than a process of trying to analyze what’s wrong so you can fix it. When you get really curious about how something is unfolding, you end up seeing a lot more, including maybe how your emotions are playing a role or the friendly lies that we tell ourselves that allow us to continue with a certain pattern.

And from that curiosity often comes a genuine compassion for how difficult change is or how sticky certain behaviors are. If you can actually see how your own self-doubt or your own anger or loneliness is feeing a certain pattern, it’s actually hard not to feel compassion for yourself. And from that compassion and that awareness, then we actually cultivate a kind of insight into ourselves that lets us make decisions about what we are going to do that would transform that pattern.

And then that’s when the second set of strengths comes in, [which] we can talk about a little bit. Let me just check in with you and see how that whole mindfulness thing feels.

CP: Yes, I mean, I would love to hear that. I love the curiosity. It’s funny, I just interviewed Elizabeth Gilbert and that is her path, following curiosity. And what I love about it is that it’s objective in a way. When you’re curious about something, you remove the attachment, so to speak, to an outcome or believing things should be a certain way. So it’s lovely, it’s open. It feels receiving.

KM: It is. And this is why I love teaching from the science. The book that you mentioned is based on a class I teach called The Science of Willpower. This is a class I created [as a] direct response to people telling me they couldn’t make changes in their lives. And I felt that sense of personal inadequacy [and] frustration. So many people felt like, “Everyone else has willpower, and I’m just kind broken. I don’t have any.” And the science actually helps us understand why change is difficult, why willpower can feel like a really limited resource, and also how we [actually] do have the capacity to train these strengths and increase our willpower.

To bring in the science really supports the process of curiosity because people start to get very curious about how the human brain works. “What does willpower look like in the brain? You mean it’s not just me? You mean stress influences everyone’s willpower? And there’s a reason why I run out of willpower at the end of the day when I’m exhausted and sleep-deprived and stressed out?” And I guess the science gives people permission to see themselves from this point of view that is a little bit less judgmental and a little bit more open to seeing that we really do have the potential to change.

CP: Yes. I love that. The irony of it, especially as you talk—and you are very researched and scientific. I’ve seen you speak and it’s wonderful. You’re also very feminine, too, so I love that combo. But curiosity, even though it’s very mandatory for science, to do science right, but it’s also very feminine in that you’re opening yourself up to receive rather than to push out.

KM: “Receiving” was the word—when you said that curiosity was feminine, [that was] the word that just popped into my mind. That’s because it’s receptive.

CP: Right. Exactly. And the fact that that’s such a key ingredient for science, it feels blended, integral.

KM: It’s such a key trait for intuition, as well. When you really are curious and open and receptive, it can be a lot easier to get good information that is not necessarily intellectual. You start to be more curious about why your body is feeling a certain way, and how different sensations in the body that aren’t exactly emotions can actually give us real clues to the choices we’re making.

And this is one of the things that is a little bit off of the traditional science of willpower training. But when I work with people to cultivate willpower, this is something I’m very interested in: What is your ability to tap into intuition, as well, through directly sensing and opening to information that perhaps your body is trying to give you or that subtle emotions are giving you?

CP: You’ve just hit on something. Now I want to go into 50 million directions. Part of what I was curious about [was] you, being a woman in science and using science as a thrust for your work, but your work has far-reaching implications in terms of consciousness and in the lives of women as we’re pushing for more transformation. So you are crossing lines, and I’m curious to see if you’ve felt, in the construct of science and research, limited, in a way, through that venue in getting at some of the truths that are coming up or expressing some of the truths that are coming up that may not be quantifiable.

KM: I will say that the biggest frustration that I have had is the assumption that science is trying to prove the value of practices or qualities that, frankly, I know are valuable, [but] I’m not interested in getting scientific evidence that compassion is a good thing—

CP: Hallelujah!

KM: —or that meditation works. It doesn’t even come, so much, from the scientific community, but it comes when people first encounter the idea of, say, a science of compassion or a science of meditation. People think that what we’re trying to do is create propaganda and then convince everyone to do these practices.

My favorite research is the research that reveals the process. What do we know about what is required to cultivate compassion? I’m going to start from having compassion as a value. I don’t need science to prove to me that we should be compassionate. But I’m very interested in finding out, what are the barriers to compassion? What are the best ways to cultivate it? How are we transformed by practices?

So that’s something that I find myself often running up against, both people skeptical of the science because they think it’s all propaganda and also an enthusiasm for science from within the community that thinks that that’s what science is offering—a kind of, “See, we told you, we were right all along.” And actually the science is so much more provocative than that.

You’ve heard me describe one of my favorite studies that came out in the last year showing that when people cultivate compassion, the biggest change you see in the brain is the activation of the reward system of the brain that motivates us to consume things—the system of the brain that motivates us to consume chocolate or to buy something or to have sex with someone. This is the system of the brain that is most transformed by the practice of compassion meditation. It actually motivates us to lean toward other people’s suffering the same way we would lean toward something that is desirable.

And to see that in the brain, it actually gives me a sense of what we’re doing in the practice that has already improved how I teach compassion. That’s the kind of science I get most excited about.

CP: For me, after hearing that talk, what it did was it changed how I was receiving the information. I hadn’t heard it quite in that way, but it made sense, why we’re grasping at these things that we think we want—of course, I do want chocolate, I’m not going to cross that off the list. But when you think about it in terms of that bigger picture, I feel so much more fulfilled, and like you said, I want to choose that other value because I would rather have that compassion, and the self-compassion feels more satisfying than some of the other short-term things.

So it just makes sense. Yes, I’m grabbing at these things that aren’t really good for me for that short-term satisfaction. But what I really want is over here. So that was the mind-blow of the talk that I got when you were speaking. Powerful.

KM: Something else that sometimes happens [is] talking about the science of this stuff helps me get into doors that might otherwise be closed, like teaching executives and technology workers in Silicon Valley. But I will say that you have to be very careful how you answer [their questions] because I worry about bringing in practices or science that is going to end up reinforcing patterns of suffering or create patterns of personal suffering or the harm that people are doing to others.

One of the most striking questions I got recently was, “What is the ROI of every five minutes I spend meditating? What’s the return on investment?” I had to take a risk and talk about the suffering that was embedded in that question. It would be a lot easier to go out and say, “Well, actually, here’s a study that shows that five minutes a day decreases stress this percent, increases engagement at work this percent.”

There is science that says that, and I feel like that’s one of the things I have to be careful about. When I come in with the science, I don’t necessarily need to present the science in a way that is inconsistent with the philosophy of what’s being investigated.

CP: Right. So interesting. I just think the whole industry, too—and back to the curiosity, which is why I was thinking your perspective was so much more open. I do think that science is used in more of a linear way without the curiosity. The true science has curiosity, but I think science these days, and I see it over and over when I’m looking at studies, that they’re going in with a bias. So the curiosity window is not so open.

KM: This is true. This is actually something that scientists have to also reflect on. It’s the science of everything. Everyone’s going in [with] fingers crossed, hoping their hypothesis turns out to be correct so they can get the next wave of funding to do more research. It’s actually one of the reasons why things like mindfulness training is really helpful for scientists, too. It comes full circle, not just studying mindfulness but mindfulness to do better science.

CP: Right. And I just might make a plug there for the femininity of curiosity. If we can bring more of the femininity into the science, I think it would help protect the true science. I think that whole industry has been over-masculinized, like every area of our culture.

KM: I agree. One of the best examples of that is it seems very masculine that the only kind of science you can publish in a journal is proving that you are correct. There’s no journal to publish a finding that says, “I totally thought this was going to happen, and instead the opposite happened. Wow, I need to really rethink my assumptions about whatever it is I’m studying.”

You can’t publish that paper. In fact, what happens [is] you have to pretend as if that’s what you predicted all along. That’s how people put together articles. They just change their hypothesis and present what happened as if it were their thinking all along. That seems like a particularly masculine way of trying to save face and be right. I wish there could be more of this feminine attitude of discovery and maybe a little bit of self-flexibility.

CP: That’s a little scary. I actually didn’t really know that.

KM: Oops. Well, you know, good scientists don’t do that, but there’s a whole range of shady practices in science, all the way to fabricating data, which is rare but not non-existent.

CP: What scares me the most about that is that it just kills creativity. Once again, these practices are being morphed in different ways across different sectors, and it’s just so interesting to hear how it’s playing out within science.

But I want to go back to—you were going to do two more points, and I want to get those in. But one more thing I had a question about [was] mindfulness—and we’re talking about this mindfulness in terms of creating change. Can we bring it back to the very impetus of change, almost like where you went to the wantpower? How can we use mindfulness, and is that the right technique?

A lot of times people don’t even know what they want. They can’t identify their desires, and that’s where I find a lot of women [who] are going to be listening to this. They’re either at stage of, “What is it that I want? I know I have so much fire, [what is] my purpose?” Or they’ve identified what they want but they just can’t figure out the steps. And maybe it’s not mindfulness, [but] how do you tap into that desire?

KM: It is a kind of mindfulness. OK, let me give you a definition of mindfulness that creates a little bit of a loop here. The definition of mindfulness I like comes from Shauna Shapiro, who’s a psychologist at Santa Clara University. She came up with this definition that mindfulness has an intention; a quality of attention, how you pay attention; and a certain attitude that is accepting and compassionate.

But it begins with intention—the assumption that you are already oriented towards something that matters, whether it’s your own health and well-being or faith, spirituality, family. There’s something that you’re oriented toward, and you apply this quality of attention and this attitude of acceptance and compassion to that intention.

So in a way, you really do need to figure out what you want before mindfulness comes into full play, but you can kind of go backwards. I found that when you train a quality of attention and you try to bring in an attitude of acceptance and curiosity and self-compassion, it does make it easier to identify an intention or goal.

One of the practices that I use is a meditation practice of asking yourself questions. There are a lot of different versions of this. I have versions for people who are dealing with chronic pain and illness, versions related to anxiety and depression. But there’s a really basic one where you simply ask yourself, “If anything were possible, what would I welcome or create in my life?” Another question is, “When I’m feeling most courageous and inspired, what do I want to offer the world?” And the third question is, “When I’m honest about how I suffer, what am I willing to let go of, or what do I want to make peace with?”

The meditation is not trying to answer those questions from the intellectual mind. But [you’re] repeating those questions in your own mind and then sitting in silence with the body and the breath and what it feels like to ask yourself those questions. My experience is that when you approach the practice of figuring this stuff out in that way, with basically mindfulness, you start to get images and you start get memories and you start to get ideas that are different than what would come if you tried to answer those questions intellectually.

CP: Right. Beautiful. And I love how you’re bringing in the body also. It’s so easy, in meditation especially, to ignore that piece.

KM: I’m a little bit obsessed with the body. Whether you look at the science or you look at the actual process and talk to people about their experiences, the body is where it’s at when it comes to cultivating these qualities of compassion or self-control. I’ve now ended up bringing in the body to pretty much everything I do, whether we’re talking about recovering from addiction and using yoga practice and uncomfortable sensations as a way of training for that moment of craving or withdrawal to using the body as a way to cultivate self-compassion by actually embodying that feeling state and the attitude of nurturing and care. The body’s such an amazing vehicle.

CP: Yes. I always say that the emotional realm is actually within the physical realm. It’s connected.

KM: The mind is in the body.

CP: And the mind is in the body! That one I always forget, you know what I mean? It’s so easy to just cut yourself off.

KM: We think that the mind is the brain. And the brain is this one component of the mind. If you think about the mind as being your memories, your emotions, your thoughts, your sense of identity, your sense of self, these are just as much created by every other system of your body, [like] your immune system and especially inter-reception and proprioception—your ability to sense your own body—play a huge role in our emotions and in our sense of self.

It actually turns out to be a very healthy way to be in touch with our emotions and to have a sense of self that is not dictated by other people’s preferences or stories in your head about who you are and who you should be. When people come back to their body, it almost always creates a healthier version of whatever people are experiencing, even if it’s suffering.

CP: Right. So good! And, of course, the feminine lives in the body.

KM: Right! It’s the understanding.

CP: That’s the current understanding. I feel like masculine energy tends to live more—and again, you’re using body in a different way. You’re bringing the mind into it. But the masculine is more about mind and mental energy, and this goes back to different—I don’t know what school you want to be part of here, whether it’s yin/yang.

And then the feminine is more about the body, sort of like Earth. Feminine expression is more alive in the heart and in the body and in the physical gross representation of ourselves as humans. And masculine tends to be more like consciousness and mental states.

KM: Interesting. There’s a lot of research that shows that when you get stuck in mental states—mental states of making up stories and having false conversations in your head, like lots of us do and just thinking, thinking, thinking—dropping into the body really reduces the suffering of that. In yoga you would call it the chitta vritti: the disturbances of the mind that are characterized by thinking, thinking, thinking. And when you bring in feeling, it changes that experience in a very helpful way.

CP: Yay! Let’s see if we have time to get to your third and your fourth, because we’re stuck here in mindfulness. It’s not a bad place to get stuck to, but if we want to make change, what are the [others]?

KM: The other two are what I call “I-will-power” and “I-won’t-power.” I-won’t-power is like the classic version of self-control and willpower. It’s the ability to delay gratification, to resist impulses that are inconsistent with your goals and values, whether it’s not saying something that you’re going to regret later on or not eating too much of that chocolate that you’re craving or resisting something that you might be addicted to, [like] cellphones or cigarettes.

In fact, I don’t know if you’ve seen this, but I just saw that Sesame Street has a whole new series on this aspect of willpower coming up for the new fall season. And Cookie Monster has a song called “I Can Wait.” Actually, I think it’s called “Me Can Wait,” because he hasn’t fully grasped grammar yet. And it’s amazing! He talks about delaying gratification, and that’s I-won’t-power. We really do need that. We need to train the skill of slowing down, pausing, and not giving in to immediate impulses.

You can train that in all sorts of ways. One of the best ways to do it is actually seated meditation, because the minute you sit down, your mind wants to go one way and you have to pull it back. Your body immediately wants to get up or fidget and cannot stand sitting still, and you have to find a way to resist those impulses.

One of the cool things from “The Science of Willpower” is that it suggests that when you train this sort of basic process of being able to find the pause between impulse and reaction, it translates to any willpower challenge. It’s a kind of generalized strength.

So when I’m encouraging people to apply this to a real challenge, you can practice really short delayed gratifications. It could be that the first time that you notice you want a cigarette, maybe in the beginning all you’re doing is delaying it by five minutes. Maybe right now is not the time to go cold turkey, but you practice noticing the impulse and delaying it. And eventually, that five minutes can become 10 minutes, and eventually people figure out what to do in that 10 minutes that allows them to ride out the craving to smoke a cigarette.

I really encourage people to try these small doses of I-won’t-power. Another common example that comes up a lot is people feeling addicted to their devices. I have students who sleep with their phones, and the first thing they do when they wake up in the morning is check their email and text and social media. To practice I-won’t-power, all you have to do is get out of bed. You just have to get out of bed first, and that’s a form of strengthening this ability.

Another way to train I-won’t-power that’s really simple is, every time you go shopping, when you’re in the checkout line, you look at your cart and you put one thing back that you don’t really need. Maybe it was an impulse buy. That’s a practice of really noticing what you’re doing and making the choice that could be consistent with your goals, or that restrains that short-term desire that sometimes gets us into trouble. It doesn’t even matter if saving money is your primary goal, because when you understand that what you’re doing is practicing the bigger I-won’t-power, that ability to do so is going to show up when you really need it—when your impulses are really pulling you away from your goals and your values.

CP: Yes. I think, once again, we’re getting down to that moment-by-moment. Rather than focusing too much on the future, it seems that if you’re really just looking at these little tiny moments that that’s how you—I think you were talking about building the muscle.

KM: Yes, and this is so important. You have to get into the process of change. One of my meditation teachers has this saying: “Not what, but how.” And we sometimes get so focused on our goal—“This is what I want to have in my life”—but the process of change requires the “how.” When people cannot figure out the full “how”—let’s say I have a goal to get out of credit card debt and I don’t know how to do it tomorrow—the sometimes we give up on the goals because we cannot even conceive of how [we’re] going to get from where [we] are to where [we] want to be.

The “how” that matters is not the “how” you’re going [use] to reach some sort of end goal of total transformation. The “how” is, what can you do today that is consistent with at goal? And it only needs to be consistent. It needs to reflect the goal. It doesn’t have to get you to the goal. And that is truly how the process of change works. Small, tiny commitments, little experiments that are not just strengthening the willpower muscle but also strengthening your goal. The final path reveals itself as you are taking one small step forward.

CP: Right. We’re just about out of time here, but I want to just take it a little bit into your personal life, if that’s OK. I’m curious to know if you could give us some example of how this work really challenged you, and how you kept falling back into old patterns, but then you had the one breakthrough where this really propelled you and solidified your work.

The reason I’m asking this is because a lot of women that are part of the Emerging Women audience are [at] that point where they’re taking courageous steps to follow the truth, their particular truth—for you it’s this work and other people have different things—and yet they have set-backs. It’s the two steps forward, one step back. But then there’s the tipping point, and I’m curious to hear if you have wisdom or if you could tell us about yours so that it could help others.

KM: Yes. So I have an example that was really hard, and has been really important for me. And it actually is an example of the one strength that we didn’t get to talk about, “I-will-power,” which is the ability to do things even when anxiety or pain, discomfort, or stress are present—to find the ability to step toward what matters, to take action even when every cell in your body is screaming, “Don’t do it, don’t do it, you’re too tired, it’ll be too hard, you’ll make a fool of yourself.”

For me, my big I-will-power challenge was a fear of flying that was a true panic, phobia, irrational, panic attacks just thinking about having to fly in the future. And for years I refused to fly. I kind of tried to protect myself from my own anxiety by setting a rule that I just didn’t do it. I just couldn’t help but notice the consequences of that choice in my personal life and my professional life—not being able to see family whenever I wanted to, not being able to take opportunities that were important.

And I’ve got to tell you, this was the last thing that changed. I’ve used mindfulness and self-compassion to transform all sorts of things—my experience with pain, my physical health, lots of other goals that I achieved. But this fear of flying was the last thing to be transformed by this process, and it came about the same way as every other positive change that I’ve had, which is that at a certain point I couldn’t be in denial anymore that I was increasing my own suffering by choosing fear over choosing action.

Over the process of maybe five years or so, I started to take small steps that included flying. Now I fly on planes every week, almost.  And it’s not a particularly traumatic or stressful experience anymore, but it requires tolerating incredible fear and discomfort. The example that I give is that I would be walking down the gangway to get into a plane, and there’d be a voice in my head that would say, “Turn around. Run like hell. You’re not doing this.” And I had to get comfortable with having that real sense of urgency and fear, and at the same time, allow my body to keep taking one step forward. And it’s this process of living with the opposites, and really grabbing on to the part of me that wants the consequence of flying.

The willingness to do that transformed the fear and the experience of flying. And now people are asking me, “How was that flight? I know you’re so afraid of flying.” I have to be like, “Oh, right, I guess I’m afraid of flying? I don’t know anymore because I do it all the time.” That’s my example, and anyone who’s had a real phobia hopefully will appreciate that. Actually, it’s kind of on par with addictions and other challenges that can really restrict your life.

CP: Yes. Or that are debilitating, [like] a fear that things won’t work out financially, or that “I’m not big enough,” or “I’m not good enough.” It really could be applied to anything.

Well, thank you so much. This was such a pleasure. I feel like, once again, I’m on the phone with somebody who I could talk to for three hours and maybe still not get enough. I so appreciate the time and the insight.

KM: Well, we’ll get to continue this conversation at the conference.

CP: Yes! So excited. Oh, and we should just mention that you’ll be talking about the science of change and your workshop is a little different: “Taking the Leap: How to Transform Habits and Tap into Your Inner Wisdom and Go After What You Really Want.” That’s going to be fantastic.

KM: It’s kind of what we’ve been talking about. We’re going to actually do a lot of the things that we were talking about.

CP: We’re going to do it!

KM: We’ll do those exercises, we’ll embody some stuff. Yes.

CP: You’ll be holding our hands through that process. Great. Looking forward to it, Kelly. Thank you so much.

KM: Take care.