I haven’t brushed my teeth in four nights.
Don’t worry. I brush my teeth every morning (I mean at least there’s that, right?). But somewhere along the way in life I got into this bad habit of going to bed without brushing and, well, for some reason it’s just been a hard one to kick.
My dentist and I have conversations about this often. Basically every time I see him.
It goes like this:
Dentist: how’s that brushing and flossing going?
Me: oh, you know… it’s pretty good. I brush often. I mean, it’s basically every morning… and I flossed like five times today since I knew I was coming here… can I have my free toothbrush?
And every time he does the whole spiel where he tells me about plaque and build-up and “the gum disease gingivitis” and how important it is to brush and floss multiple times each day—preferably after each meal—and then he sends me on my way with my new toothbrush and tiny samples of toothpaste.
Then, that night, without fail, I lay awake in bed thinking about how I should probably get up and brush my teeth.
But I don’t do it.
This whole thing has me thinking about the self help industry.
I know, it’s a leap, but go with me. See, the self help industry is built on the assumption that people want to change their lives—they want to get fit, get happy, get out of bad relationships and into great ones, get going with positive habits (like brushing their teeth, for example)—and they just don’t know how to do it.
And, I mean, at first, it seems like that’s the gist of it, doesn’t it?
Who can argue with helping people make positive change in their lives?
But the major problem with the self help industry, as I see it, is that, for the most part, people don’t need to know what to do in order to change their lives. They don’t need to know the 10 steps or 7 strategies.
For the most part, people know exactly what they are supposed to do.
The only problem is they aren’t doing it.
We have some friends who are going through a tough time in their marriage. We get it. We’ve been married almost four years and we’ve had a few of these times ourselves. We’ve mentioned to them, several times, how helpful marriage counseling has been for us, and each time they’ve nodded their heads in agreement, as if they’re going to call the next day and make the appointment.
But then we see them again a few weeks later, and we ask how things are going, and they get this nervous look on their face because they haven’t called the therapist yet.
No judgement here. It took us three years to get the help we needed in our marriage. Things had to get pretty bad before we were willing to admit we needed any help at all. But although I have no judgement, it does leave me with a question.
What is it that takes us so long to do the things we know will really help us?
In college, I dated a guy who treated me really poorly.
He was an addict. And honestly, when he was sober, he was a really sweet guy. But then he would go on these binges and be gone for days at a time, without much explanation. Or he would say things to me that were hurtful and mean, only to come back and apologize a thousand times later.
I put up with that shit for years—YEARS—before I finally decided to leave him. It wasn’t that I didn’t know what I should do. It was always so obvious. My friends would beg me to walk away and I would promise them, this time, I would. But knowing what to do, for some odd reason, didn’t help me do it.
Every time I would go to break up with him, I would chicken out at the last minute.
Why didn’t I break up with him sooner?
What’s getting in our way?
And I guess that’s the question I want to linger on for a minute. Because while I do think, at times, self-help can be helpful, I also know that once we know the ten tips and sevens ways and twelve “hacks” and fifteen strategies that can get us unstuck, the next question we need to answer is:
Now that we know, why aren’t we freaking DOING something about it?
If you’re anything like me, chances are the obstacles standing in the way of you and your goal are not physical obstacles, although these are always the first things we name: we need more money, more time, a nicer house, a more luxurious schedule, a better toothbrush—one of those fancy electric ones.
The obstacles standing in our way are almost always invisible obstacles.
Our greatest obstacles are most often things like fear, insecurity, self-loathing, guilt, a bad attitude, complaining, etc.
And to discover these invisible obstacles, we have to pay very close attention to ourselves.
So, for example, when I pay close attention to myself at bedtime, here’s what I see: I watch myself fold laundry, do dishes, take the dog out, sweep, check Twitter, and not leave any time for my nighttime rituals. I don’t wash my face or brush my teeth. I don’t use my essential oils or take my vitamins. I basically just collapse into bed.
And then I think about what I would tell a friend who was struggling to make time for herself at the end of the day, or the beginning of the day, or any time of the day; and it all snaps into place. I wonder why that woman I’m watching doesn’t value herself as much as she values other people and things.
Bingo. There’s my answer.
Not to mention a more productive place to start than trying to strong-arm myself into brushing my teeth every night.
Are there obstacles you’re facing that you can’t seem to overcome?
Maybe it’s an addiction. Or a bad relationship you need to leave. Or maybe you have been waiting to quit your job, or to stand up to someone who is bullying you. Or maybe you have a creative project you’ve been putting off with a thousand excuses. We all have something.
Whatever yours is, I have a challenge for you.
Put aside the articles and the listicles and the self-help books for just a minute. Stop trying to figure out what you are supposed to do next. You already know. Let go of excuses like money or time or better connections. Those excuses are no longer serving you. In fact, they’re distracting you from the real obstacles.
Instead, watch yourself. Pay attention. And when you see yourself from the outside, in, look for signs of fear or insecurity or self-loathing or a bad attitude. When you find it, take a deep breath. Withhold judgement. Give yourself a radical dose of grace and hope and love.
It won’t fix your problems right away. But in a roundabout way, it will give you what you want.