The Destructive Nature of Inaction

Apathy. Complacency. Inertia. Fear. Resistance.

Any or all of these can get in the way of achieving goals and living our dreams.

Not taking action can eat away at our spirit, our mental health and even our physical health.

Eleanor Roosevelt was right when she observed that, “What you don’t do can be a destructive force.” The nagging sense of not following through on our goals or manifesting our dreams can eat at us insidiously, slowly destroying our motivation and self-efficacy.

According to Kristin Armstrong, “Complacency is not okay. Contentment is. They are different.” I find that the line between the two can be difficult to distinguish. For the last several years, I have found myself longing for stability, longevity of circumstance, a place, a history. Yet, I hear the echoes of my younger self urging me not to “settle.” How do I know for sure when I am content and when I am complacent? The state of contentment is positive and nourishing, but as Roosevelt warned, complacency (or any of its paralyzing cousins) is destructive.

I do not have this all figured out, but I do believe that living and aging with power and purpose requires seeking contentment and rejecting complacency and the like.

When we promise ourselves that we will finally make healthy lifestyle changes, but then we become overwhelmed with the busyness and obligations of life, or we decide that making the changes means missing out on what we think we deserve, what we don’t do continues to erode not only our physical health, but our self-esteem. Breaking promises to ourselves hurts just as much as, if not more than, the pain of having a loved one break a promise. We have an obligation to be our own best friend, to be the one on whom we can count, even if the world lets us down.

The line between staying in a relationship for stability and because we said we would and bravely taking another path, when the relationship turns out to be unfulfilling, is not easily discerned. Sometimes, situations like this may come down to recognizing the lesser evil. Life does involve compromises, but when we can see that a situation has more negative than positive, and we still choose not to act, the inaction can destroy us from the inside out.

Career aspirations can be the same. We set goals, but then life comes along and changes our plans. Where is the line between taking risks to step out of a stable, but, ultimately, disappointing situation and the desire to create a history somewhere?

Answering questions like these is not easy, and acting on the answers, when they come, is even harder. It requires constant vigilance and introspection, continually asking ourselves, “Which decision causes me more stress, and which brings me more peace?”

That is what I try to do as I grapple with life decisions, big and small. I have learned that I am always going to be happier if I keep my commitments to myself. In situations involving risk, though, the challenge is knowing if my commitment is right in the present moment. I want to have no doubt, and I am finding that state of certainty to be more and more elusive. That frustrates me because I don’t want to slip into complacency. I want to make decisions based on contentment and joy, not fear.

Gretchen Rubin, writes about her personality framework, The Four Tendencies. Under her framework, every time I have taken the quiz, my results indicate that I am an Upholder. This means that I like habits and readily adopt and persist with them. I meet my own expectations, as well as the expectations of others. This is no surprise to me. I completely agree with that assessment.

I think this tendency may make lack of action or follow-through on my part even more excruciating. I don’t like the uncertainty of not knowing—without a doubt—that a goal I have set or a plan I have made is truly the right path. Because I also feel obligated to meet others’ expectations, I may feel torn between keeping my commitment to myself and meeting my real or perceived responsibility to others.

Even those with other tendencies—rebel, obliger and questioner—are likely to experience the destructive nature of inaction, even if that destruction comes in a different form. Rebels resist expectations, whether their own or other people’s. Obligers might be seen as people pleasers. They keep commitments to others, but they regularly let themselves down. Questioners analyze any expectations to decide if they make sense and will meet them, if they do.

So, Rebels and Obligers, for different reasons, may be more subject than others to self-sabotage. Rebels will self-sabotage because they don’t want to be told what to do—by anybody, even themselves. Obligers always put their responsibility (again, real or perceived) ahead of their own self-interest. Again, they self-sabotage because their healthy habits, lifestyle changes or big moves are sacrificed for their sense that it is always more important to meet someone else’s expectations.

I wonder if Questioners have the healthiest approach. Maybe they are masters of discernment, who find the balance between meeting their own expectations and meeting those others have for them. They will meet either type, but only if the expectations resonate with them.

So, I don’t have the answers and find myself in a frequent state of angst as I try to make the right decision—both for myself and for the people to whom I have a responsibility. How do I make sure that “not doing” something—whatever that is—is not a destructive force? I would welcome thoughts and ideas on this.

“Inaction breeds doubt and fear. Action breeds confidence and courage. If you want to conquer fear, do not sit back and think about it. Go out and get busy.” –Dale Carnegie

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