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10 Bad Roads We All Take (and How to Take the Good Road)

Here’s a question for you: Would you rather take the bad road or the good road?

The answer is rhetorical and self-evident. Here’s another question: How frequently do you take the bad road? If you’re the least bit human, your answer is probably “With more regularity than I would like.”

“Fork in the road” is a metaphor I use with clients to illustrate that they can choose how they think, the emotions they experience, how they behave, and how they act on and react to their world. Too often, people take the bad road without awareness. They don’t even realize they took the bad road, nor do they see the option to take the good road.

The Bad Road

The bad road is bad because it causes us to react in ways that don’t serve us well. The good road is good because we respond in ways that nourish our souls and enrich our lives.

The 10 most common bad roads many of us take are as follows:

  • Unmotivated or determined
  • Negative or positive
  • Stressed or relaxed
  • Distracted or Focused
  • Critical or supportive
  • Cold or compassionate
  • Destructive or healthy
  • Unhappy or happy
  • Alone or connected

Worrying about the past/future or focusing on the present

Assuming you know that the good road is good and the bad road is bad, why would you continually take the bad road? It is a simple, but not easy, choice. It’s simple because, of course, we all want to take the good road.

But it’s not easy because there are three forces, all of which are unconscious, that propel us down the bad road before we even have time to make a choice.

Our primitive instincts, emotions, and reactions have been perfected over 250,000,000 years since living creatures first crawled out of the primordial muck. These instincts, rooted in our primitive brain, served all living beings well for eons. But over the last several thousand years, these instincts can now do more harm than good.

Second, most of us acquire psychological “baggage” that may have protected us from some perceived threat when were young yet leads to dysfunction in adulthood.

Psychological baggage involves ways of reacting that are unhealthy and potentially destructive. Examples of psychological baggage include low self-esteem, self-criticism, perfectionism, fear of failure, and need for control.

Third, our primitive instincts and psychological baggage can cause us to react the same with such frequency that they become ingrained in us as habits. These habits become so deeply wired into our brain circuitry that, when faced with similar situations, we react impulsively with no conscious regard as to whether our reactions help us.

The Good Road

Thankfully, our evolved brain, specifically, our prefrontal cortex, enables us to recognize the bad road, see the fork in the road, and, ultimately, choose the good road.

This brain structure is involved in executive functioning, which enables us to plan, identify options, and make deliberate choices. Taking the good road requires that we engage our prefrontal cortex and suppress our primitive brain.

Awareness: Awareness involves recognizing when you’ve veered onto a bad road. Red flags that can alert you to when you take a bad turn include the following:

  • Negative and unhelpful thinking
  • Unpleasant emotions
  • Unhealthy behaviour
  • Poor effort
  • Conflict with others

Awareness also includes your understanding of why the road you are on is bad. Some basic criteria include any road that makes you unhappy, unhealthy, unproductive, and disconnected from others. By having clarity on why the bad road is bad, you fuel your determination to get off the bad road as quickly as possible.

Another essential component of awareness is seeing the fork in the road and, in turn, the good road. There is no way you will leave the bad road until you see that you have an option.

You can also gird your motivation to get off the bad road by detailing why the good road is good. The more clear and compelling the rationale for taking the good road, the more power your prefrontal cortex has to override your primitive brain.

Commitment: Once you see the bad road for what it is and you see the benefits of taking the good road, you must marshal all of your psychological and emotional resources to propel you off the bad road and onto the good road. This is when making a “consistent conscious commitment” at every opportunity is essential for you to get off the bad road.

A consistent conscious commitment means being deliberate in choosing the good road, being fully committed to that choice, and making that committed choice at every opportunity.

Making this consistent conscious commitment has several essential benefits that will help you to take the good road. First, it enhances your sense of control over a situation that had previously felt out of control. Second, it bolsters your determination to get off the bad road. Third, you are activating your prefrontal cortex, which fuels this shift, and, in doing so, you reduce the power of the unconscious forces to continue to drag you down the bad road.

Persistence: Admittedly, even with this consistent conscious commitment, you may still not be able to get off the bad road immediately because the unconscious forces have been dominant for so long. At the same time, with each effort, your conscious forces will gain strength, and those unconscious forces will steadily lose their influence.

At some point, as you persist in your efforts, you will find that you will turn from the bad road to the good road. This new experience will be self-reinforcing: You will feel good; your thinking, emotions, behaviours, and interactions will be better; and, quite simply, you will be happier.

Without realizing it, you are slowly rewiring your brain to avoid the bad road altogether. And with each fork in the road you take, the bad road will become less used and more overgrown until it is no longer navigable.

Gotta Have a Plan

You can’t wait until you next go down the bad road to decide what to do. As you begin to go down the bad road, you can’t just stop and spend several minutes trying to engage your prefrontal cortex and figure out how you can take the good road. Often, life just doesn’t allow for such deliberations.

To facilitate your taking the good road at the fork, you can make a plan for the next time you are faced with such a challenge. First, identify the common situations in which you take the bad road. Ask yourself questions such as when, where, with whom, and why you are pulled down the bad road. It’s easier to recognize and respond to a situation if you have already identified when it is likely to occur.

Next, make a plan that you can immediately implement to take the good road. It involves specifying what you want to think, say, and do when that situation arises again. This plan must be clearly defined and well-practised because it has to be faster off the line than those unconscious forces, all of which are well-trained sprinters who react instantaneously when the starting gun goes off.

I would also encourage you to visualize yourself taking the good road as often as you can. Visualization is a way to get more repetitions of seeing and feeling yourself in those “fork in the road” situations and taking the good road. When you then have your first encounter with the situation, you’ll have already begun to retrain your brain to see and take the fork in the road, so taking the good road in real life will be that much easier.

Lastly, when you experience that situation and are, in fact, able to take the good road, review how you did it to further ingrain what worked.

If you still weren’t able to take the good road, see if you can figure out why, make changes to your plan, and continue to be determined to take the good road next time. I’m confident that awareness, commitment, and persistence will ultimately prevail, and you will soon find the good road a joy to travel on.

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