In January, I decided that I wanted to be able to kick up into a handstand.
While this is easy for some, it took me six months of effort to actually do it.
The pursuit of this goal allowed me to clearly identify various mental spaces that we go through whenever we’re trying to accomplish something. While this goal is miniscule in comparison to many goals that we endeavor to accomplish, it nevertheless caused me to confront each stage in its fullness.
Use the following as a guide to assess which stage you are at in whatever goal(s) you’re pursuing. Being able to identify what stage we are at gives us enough perspective to push past it. It’s like climbing up the watch tower when we feel lost in a maze so we can see which route to take to escape. Each stage often feels concrete and final, and it’s often hard to see what lies on the other side of that stage. This guide is meant to give you a sneak peek at the next stage so that you have the confidence and awareness to move toward it.
Stage 1: Disbelief.
In every yoga class I attended, the instructor would stop the class and provide time to practice inversions. I’d watch as people around the room would—seemingly, without effort—kick up into perfectly vertical handstands.
I tried not to make eye contact with the instructor, who might encourage me to try. Standing upside down on my hands was so outside of the purview of what I thought was possible for me that I would do anything to fill up that time. Pigeon pose. Child’s pose. Plank. Anything but try a handstand. Standing on my hands seemed not only extremely hard, but also dangerous. I was sure that I would kill myself if I tried. I imagined the various ways that I would surely break my neck if I attempted this stunt.
This is the stage in which our goal is not even a goal yet. It doesn’t even occur to us as possible and/or something we want for ourselves.
Stage 2: Inspiration.
Then one day I was at the gym and saw a woman gracefully invert herself into a handstand. She looked so cool. I wanted to be that cool. I asked her how she did it and she showed me the proper form. My feet barely got a foot off the ground when I kicked up, but she assured me “you’ll get there.”
This was the moment where my “I couldn’t possibly” was shattered. As soon as I realized that it was possible for me, it began to matter to me that I learn how to stand on my hands.
This is the stage where we begin to want the goal. Even if it seems hard, we now know that it’s something that we can have for ourselves if we’re determined. We become inspired by the idea of going through whatever we have to go through to achieve this goal.
There now were actionable steps that I could take to achieve this goal. It was almost the new year so I decided to add “learn how to handstand” to my list of resolutions. I was inspired by the idea of proving myself wrong about what I am capable of. I was so inspired that I figured it would be easy for me to do. All I had to do was believe that I could, right?
Stage 3: Frustration.
Wrong. Once I actually began practicing, I realized that being inspired by the idea of getting into a handstand did not help me with the logistics of actually doing it. No amount of inspiration alone was going to take my legs that extra 45 degrees to vertical. I became upset that it wasn’t easy for me like I thought it would be.
The way we become trapped in this stage of frustration is when we get upset about not meeting our initial expectations of ourselves. In the inspiration of the previous stage, we develop a concept of what meeting the goal will look like. Our goal often seems easy and like it will be fun to accomplish. When the inspiration is no longer present, the goal begins to feel like a chore. Then, in the actual pursuit of the goal, we think that our concept of how to meet it is what should happen.
The way to move beyond this stage of the goal is to set aside our expectations of what it should look like and how long it will take us to accomplish the goal, and do our best to re-find our original inspiration.
Stage 4: Doubt.
Doubt gets us off the hook for the discomfort of frustration.
It is possible to skip this stage if we’re willing to witness our frustration with equanimity and not try to avoid it. I, however, did not skip this stage. I went to the heart of it. After trying to kick up every single day for several weeks and feeling like I wasn’t making progress, I began to wonder if maybe it just wasn’t possible for me. I figured that maybe my arms weren’t strong enough to hold me up. A yoga instructor told me that my hips might not be flexible enough.
I got down on myself because I felt like there was something about me that wasn’t enough to do a handstand. Not confident enough. Not strong enough. Not trusting enough.
In this stage, we tend to feel resigned and relate to ourselves as if we are a fixed thing, which isn’t a match for our goal. We lose sight of the fact that we are pure potential that can be morphed to meet any goal. This stage is home to the “who I am is not enough” belief. This is the stage where we come out of the flow of achieving our goal and into our minds to come up with reasons why we can’t make it happen. We believe in these reasons and if we’re not careful, we will let ourselves off of the hook for having to accomplish our goal.
“Well I tried, but it’s just not for me,” is code for “I have evidence that I might fail and I don’t want to put myself at risk of failure.” When this happens, it’s game over unless we’re willing to see through the illusion of “I can’t do it.” As soon as we’re willing to dis-identify from the concept of ourselves that we created to justify not accomplishing our goal, we can move to the next stage.
Stage 5: Willingness.
I finally realized that it was ridiculous to believe that there was something insurmountable about my anatomy or brain wiring that would prevent me from standing on my hands. I call this stage willingness because it occurred when I was willing to consider that I was strong, flexible, confident, and trusting enough. I let go of my reasons why I can’t do it and my expectations of how it’s supposed to look—and started just trying stuff.
I began to share my goal in others, and asked them to hold me to it. I asked different instructors to watch me and give me feedback. I watched videos online. I tweaked little things, kept what helped me get a little further, and scrapped what didn’t work. This is the stage in which we are open to the idea that no matter how bleak our current results may seem, our goal is nevertheless possible. We may still be a bit skeptical about the feasibility of our goal, but our belief in ourselves outweighs our uncertainty just enough that we try out new actions.
This requires a willingness to assess what’s not working. This stage is usually productive, but can cause back peddling if we begin to look so much outside of ourselves for the answer that we stop trusting our own ability. Sometimes, outreach can be a mask for our distrust of ourselves, but often times, it is a necessary step to get to the next stage—self-reliance.
Stage 6: Self-reliance.
At some point, I had gotten enough different and sometimes conflicting advice that I realized no one else could do this for me. I stopped practicing my handstand in yoga class. I stopped asking people to watch me. I practiced every day by myself, and patiently witnessed the frustration and doubt that sometimes washed over me.
A line from my favorite poem by Mary Oliver sums up this stage: “One day you finally knew what you had to do, and began, though the voices around you kept shouting their bad advice (…) You didn’t stop.” This is the stage where we’ve received enough coaching that there’s nothing left but to do what we know to do—until we’ve achieved our goal. We can no longer pretend that we need to gain more knowledge before we’re ready. When realize that the barriers are within, we retreat to do the work that only we can do for ourselves.
Stage 7: Complacency.
In one of these private practice sessions, I kicked up enough that I had a second of hang time. This second’s pause in the air was sufficient proof that I could do this. A big part of my desire to achieve this goal was just to prove to myself that I could. I was so close that the desire to prove it to myself waned. I didn’t practice once for the next week. It was like stopping a mile before the finish of a marathon because I was tired and I knew I could have made it if I tried. “Close enough” I told myself.
This is another dangerous stage. It’s easy to stop here and be satisfied. We can still partially claim the goal as our own, even though we haven’t really achieved it yet. This is also the stage in which we have to confront our pre-goal identity. Although it may seem inconsequential, “I can’t do a handstand” fit neatly into my identity of not-that-good-at-yoga. We often get some benefit out of our belief that our goals won’t actually ever happen. If we believe that we can’t really achieve our goals, we’re off the hook for having to try to do the things that goal-achievers do.
Not-that-good-at-yoga is a comfortable identity. To protect myself from feeling like a failure, I had an arsenal of reasons about why I couldn’t do a handstand. Realizing that I was so close to actually doing it caused me to confront the falsity of my beliefs and adjust my identity. If we’re not careful, our resistance to being wrong about ourselves might stop us cold in this stage. The only thing that will get us through is honoring our commitment to ourselves.
Stage 8: Integrity.
After a week of avoiding my goal, I realized that “close enough” did not align with the promise that I made to myself. I could not feel good about crossing handstand off of my New Year’s resolutions just yet. I knew I had to re-up my efforts and honor my word to myself. I gave up my complacency and began visualizing myself kicking up effortlessly and hanging peacefully in that inverted position.
Stage 9: Accomplishment.
Then one day, when everyone had left the room after yoga class, I popped right up into a handstand. As far as I could tell, I didn’t do anything differently from the hundreds of other times I had tried. I was the very same self as the self who believed she couldn’t do it for so long. But for some reason, all the practicing and tweaking and repeating and visualizing and believing coalesced in one moment and I was up.
It felt so ordinary and easy. It took me a second to realize that I was actually standing on my hands. When it dawned on me that I’d accomplished my goal, I realized that all that really changed in my life was that I could do a handstand now. No one was around to celebrate. Nothing changed about me. I realized that while I built up the idea of a handstand being so hard to do in my head for so long, actually doing it was easy. There was just a tiny difference in effort from the time that I tried the day before.
Something that often stops us from attempting goals is that we are confronted by the gap between where we are when we start them and where we would need to be to achieve our goal.
It seems impossible to go from point A to B. But that’s because we never go from A to B. We go from A to A.1 to A.2 to A.3 to A.4 to an infinite number of A point somethings until we finally, easily, gracefully, reach point B. We don’t realize that achieving even the hugest of goals is, in reality, really just one tiny, totally manageable step at a time.
It was never hard to practice my handstand. It wasn’t hard to seek advice. It wasn’t hard to visualize. All that was hard was when I believed I should be further along than I was, and that if I failed, it would mean that I wasn’t good enough.
Goals are never hard to achieve. All that’s hard is our own resistance to the spaces we have to go through in order to achieve them. As long as we are willing to witness ourselves through these spaces, we can achieve any goal.
Author: Brandilyn Tebo
Image: Jonathan Petit/Flickr
Editors: Catherine Monkman; Katarina Tavčar