As you walk out the front door, you do a mental check to make sure you’re not forgetting anything. “Keys, wallet, phone. Check.”
The classic three-tap check hasn’t failed you. The smell of fresh pinewood brushes your nose as you step down the stairs of your wooden porch. On the second step, it happens — again.
Your foot breaks through the wooden stair, sending you tumbling. It’s not like you stomped on it with all your strength; you expected more from the high-quality lumber you installed recently. It was more like stepping through a soggy saltine cracker, the board crumbling to pieces.
“What the hell!” You proclaim, frustrated. “I just replaced that step a few weeks ago. How can this be happening again?”
On your way back from work that day, you swing by the hardware store to pick up yet another board, this time even stronger wood than the last one. After dusting away the splinters, the new board and a couple of nails secure the step back in place. At least you’re getting better at replacing steps now, you figure. Good as new — but you’re frustrated. You’re tired of bruising your shin, twisting your ankle, and taking a spill every time this stupid thing breaks.
It’s not just the physical injuries, either.
There are all kinds of consequences when this happens. You end up late to wherever you were headed, you feel flustered and disheveled. You assume that your poor craftsmanship is to blame for why the step keeps breaking. Not only that, but you must be a pretty terrible carpenter for something so simple to break this many times. This shouldn’t be that hard.
Enough Is Enough
Frustrated, you reach a breaking point. “GAH! I can’t keep living like this.” You devise a 30-day, no-step-breaking detox. For the next month, you’ll use the back door instead of the front. It’s inconvenient, and it’ll cause some discomfort, but hey, there’s no way your foot is going through that front step this way.
The perfect plan.
Over the course of the month, you trip over a tree root or two, but it’s not a big deal because that front step remains unbroken. Success.
A week or two in, you discover a new issue where you keep stubbing your toe on the kitchen table leg because the light switch is on the other side of the room from where you have to exit in the morning. Basically, just bumping around in the dark. So there are still issues, but just… different ones.
One month later, you did it. The step remains unbroken and while you may have gotten a little roughed up along the way, there were no major injuries. Success. Happy with your progress, you begin using the front door again, but now you try to avoid that second step as much as possible.
Two weeks later, you’re running late, carrying a few too many bags for one trip and making your way out the front door, when CRACK. The step breaks, and you take a tumble that looks like the spring fling love-child of a somersault and a cartwheel. It’s not pretty.
“How can anyone be so bad at this?”
“You’d think I’d be better at this by now.”
“Why can’t I avoid this fate? What’s wrong with me?”
Looking For Answers
While I could continue this lovely little lumber analogy, I think that gets us where we need to be.
The deeper I go into understanding the Twitch, the more it seems a lot like the above story. In an attempt to solve what seemed like the problem, I’ve focused far too long on the symptoms and largely ignored what I now know to be the underlying causes.
The Twitch is an impulsive, unproductive response to discomfort — a distraction from what we don’t want to feel in a given moment. It comes in many forms, but it can manifest as everything from online purchases to social media scrolling, and beyond. It can look like avoidance of a task, a person, or procrastination that sabotages us from reaching our real potential in work and life.
In many of those Twitch’y moments, it feels uncontrollable. We wonder why we can’t seem to get our act together or figure out how to live more intentionally. Rationally, we know it’s not good for us to be on screens for multiple hours per day, or spend money that would be beneficial for us to save, yet for some reason it still happens.
Well, the Twitch (and the mechanism that drives it) isn’t operating from a place of rationality.
It isn’t an act of the conscious mind; it’s a subconscious behavior, desperately trying to protect us from something we fear (even if it’s ourselves). It distracts us from feeling what we’re not ready to feel and gives us something stimulating to avoid it.
Distractions Can Be Helpful
Sometimes, we need to rely on distractions to get us through a time of distress when we don’t have space or emotional capacity to deal with the actual issue in the moment. This is an actual strategy from Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, or DBT for short. Distractions let us cope with difficult situations and help get us through — nothing to be ashamed about. We rely on these tools to help us cope until we can dive deeper into figuring out the underlying issues.
But that’s exactly the thing — these Twitches themselves aren’t the problem that needs addressing. It’s not that working on being more intentional will ever be a bad thing. It’s just that, as you’ll see below, there’s more to the picture when viewed holistically. To live more intentionally from a place of maintaining our lives in a healthier way long term instead of depending on these Twitch-like coping strategies, we need to dig deeper.
We have to look under the deck where it’s dark, musty, and can be pretty scary.
The Analogy Breakdown
Jumping back to the story we began with, let’s look at how this all comes together.
The wooden step breaking is the symptom of the underlying problem. Sure, a broken step is a problem, but it’s not the problem. You might assume it’s your incompetence, the quality of the wood you’re able to get, or anything else on the surface. Without the broader awareness and acceptance that allows you to see things for what they are, you’ll continue focusing on this step as being the problem.
Buying a new board for the step is using a distraction to cope with the pain of the problem you see. Sure, they keep breaking, but you can solve the problem for the time being by installing a new board. It resolves the issue of no longer having a step there, definitely. But it does not address what’s causing it to break so often in the first place.
Anxiety is always thinking this might be the time that your foot goes through the board. Never knowing when it’s going to snap, always wondering if you’ll make it down without injury. It’s the fear you feel and the desire to avoid the pain if it were to happen.
Procrastination and avoidance is the unconscious habit built over time as your subconscious works to avoid painful experiences. As the fear builds, you begin taking longer to get ready to leave, and you drag your feet when it comes time to go. You might even avoid dealing with the issue entirely and just try skipping that step entirely. Over time, you begin forming beliefs about who you are as a person based on these unconscious habits.
“Oh, I’m just late all the time, that’s just me.”
“I’m really not a social person, I hate leaving the house.”
“I’m just a bad planner, that’s why I’m always scrambling when it comes time to go anywhere.”
The 30-day challenge is like banning yourself from buying anything for a month, deleting social media, going on a super restrictive diet, or whatever else we do to address the Twitch (the symptom).
You won’t break any steps when you don’t walk on them (I assume), but instead other coping strategies and Twitches tend to pop up. If you’re detoxing social media you might then cope with food, like I often have. If it’s not this, it might be that. We all have a variety of ways we deal with painful emotions and discomfort.
An important note here is that these challenges do provide growth opportunities, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with them. I’ve been pushing myself to grow through these lifestyle changes and habit efforts for the last eight years.
I’d be willing to bet that every time you install a step, you’ll be incrementally better at doing it. You’ll learn about carpentry, types of nails, stair-building techniques, and maybe better types of wood along the way that are all helpful!
Every improvement helps you cope with the challenges below the surface. You’re making meaningful improvements in life along the way, too.
But as good as anyone can get at all the above, the problem isn’t the step — or your ability to re-install it.
It’s the termites. (Boom, plot twist right at the end of the movie!)
Looking Beneath The Porch
The termite mound underneath your front porch, unmentioned in the story, is the discomfort causing the Twitch symptoms to occur.
This, is the problem.
There are a myriad of things this hoard of tiny wood-eaters could represent, but to generalize: these are ignored emotions, general emotional dysregulation, unmet needs, not being able to trust ourselves or others around us, and more.
These are the traumas that lead us to prioritize other’s needs over our own, operate in boundary-less ways, emotionally enmesh ourselves with others (our worth is correlated to how someone else feels about us in a given moment), and generally be pretty mean to ourselves.
Without a healthy way to cope with all the above (and so much more), guess what happens? We Twitch. Our attention starts to tell us how freaked out it is by trying to bounce away from whatever we’re experiencing at the moment. It’s why Twitter suddenly becomes so appealing the second we open a new blank document to start writing.
Our attention is speaking to us, telling us what we’re afraid of and what we need right now. In many ways, it’s trying to tell us what our emotions can’t seem to get through. The ones we either ignore willfully or don’t feel at all because we’re not in a position to handle them. Instead, they get compartmentalized and pushed away.
Self-compassion is the process of being kind to ourselves while we figure this out and beyond. Sure, our attention is speaking to us! But if it’s too painful to hear what it has to say, we’re not going to hear it at all. This is a big part of where self-compassion begins to play a healing role, changing the way we speak to ourselves rationally and emotionally.
The analogy falls apart a bit here because I’m not convinced that love and compassion would have much effect on a population of insects, but who knows.
The exterminator is… therapy. With a substantial self-compassion practice and all kinds of work, you could probably find those “termites” and deal with them. But it might take a long time to get there without a good therapist. It’s taken me seven years of writing here and then fourteen months of weekly therapy to get to where I’m now able to see the termites and actually start removing them.
Sure, I was pretty certain there was something under there, but it was far too painful and far too scary to start poking around in the dark beneath the porch. Without self-compassion, seeing what felt like fundamental flaws in my foundation was terrifying. Through a lifetime of coping, the narratives I built about myself, my worth, and my capabilities became so deeply engrained that it simply became who I thought I was.
After spending 25 years replacing steps, railings, and whatever other wooden household metaphors there are, I just got to a place where I assumed that’s how these things worked.
No matter what productivity system I used (what type of wood I used), no matter what tiny habit I implemented (stair-installing seminars), and no matter how much better I got at doing it, the termites kept eating my weekly planner. I think I mixed my analogies there, but hopefully you get the idea.
When steps break every month or two, you just start to believe that’s how steps are supposed to work. You haven’t seen them last much longer than that, so how else would you know they’re supposed to last decades? Maybe you visit other people’s homes, and they don’t seem to have similar carpentry issues, so you compare and feel incredibly inferior. Bleh.
Here’s the thing, while you may have let the termite population grow on your watch, you didn’t put them there in the first place. They were already there when you inherited the house. When you have enough self-compassion, you can start taking accountability for your part in it and start to work on improving the situation.
The Next Steps
Pun… absolutely intended.
As much as I’d love to beat myself up about why it took me so long to see my lack of self-compassion, doing so would be comedic at best, and cruel-if-not-ironic at worst.
The truth is, I wasn’t ready for it. I was too focused on all the symptoms and the surrounding narrative. If anything, spending seven years writing a blog called Break the Twitch should be a good indication of the perspective (fix the symptom) approach I’ve held. It took the time it took because that’s what I needed to go through to get to where I am now. The same applies to you — you might not be ready for it either, and that’s okay.
You may need to focus on decluttering to create some space in your home, on your calendar, or in your mind. You might be ready to implement some tiny habits, practice showing up for yourself, and stepping into discomfort. Perhaps some strategies around overcoming creative resistance and procrastination, and doing work that scares you will hit home right now.
Underneath it all, when you’re ready, you begin practicing self-compassion and listening to what your attention has to say. It’s not easy, but when you do, it’ll be safer to poke your head under the front porch and see what might actually be going on under there.
The more self-compassion you can deploy, the more clearly you’ll see what’s going on around you — and it might be painful. Eh, it’ll most likely be painful. But the kinder you are, the better you’ll get through it without coping in destructive ways.
Two Ways To Practice Self-Compassion
It’s going to take a long while to get those termites out of there. They’re well entrenched and will be quite resistant to leaving their long-time home. Here are some small ways to practice self-compassion — and remember that it’s a practice just like any other habit.
It won’t be perfect, and even struggling with self-compassion deserves… you guessed it: compassion.
1 / Ask yourself this question
“What’s the kindest thing I can do for myself right now?” This is recommended by Dr. Kristen Neff, who literally wrote the book on self-compassion. Ask this question as often as possible, and allow yourself to answer as honestly as possible.
If you’re being honest, the resulting answers will be less selfish than you think, more productive than you think, likely more generous than you think. At least, that seems to be the case for me. Just remember, this is hard. You will screw it up. And that’s okay.
2 / Speak what you’re feeling out loud
When emotions and thoughts are spinning around in our brains and bodies, they’re speaking a different language. We might not be aware of what it is we’re feeling at all. Doing our best to start putting these things into words can be helpful when feeling avoidant but not feeling in control of it.
“I’m feeling frustrated that I can’t figure this out yet. I should be able to do this by now. I’m angry that I didn’t start earlier, and annoyed that I’m still procrastinating now. I’m afraid of what people will think if I don’t do this presentation well. Etc. Etc.”
Whether you say it out loud to yourself or write it in a journal, putting names and words to your experience will help you see things for what they are. Instead of a thunderstorm of thoughts and underlying emotions that just build into a flash flood. Or a better analogy. I’m 2,134 words into this article (and so are you) and my analogy tank is empty.
If you’re like me, you’re not going to feel good at this. You’re going to feel like it’s difficult, like you don’t deserve it, and you just need to be a better stair-replacer. Trust me, I get it.
Take your time, do what you can to trust the process, and whenever you can — ask, “What’s the kindest thing I can do for myself right now?” Oh yeah, and give therapy a shot if you’re willing. It helps.