An Introduction to Personal Inertia and Taking Action

I can usually write a blog post in an hour or two but not this time.  For some reason I could not put this post together no matter how hard I tried.  I sat down in December to write a post on personal inertia.  We were on the cusp of 2019.  I was taking stock of 2018.  Did 2018 have a personal theme? What could be gleaned from the experiences of 2018 in order to make 2019 even better?  You know, I was being contemplative.

And then I was in a car accident.  My daughter and I were rear-ended quite hard so much so that the insurance company totaled out my car.  The car of the driver who hit us was towed from the scene.  I really started thinking about my own personal inertia at that point.

What is inertia?

There are two definitions for inertia: 1) indisposition to motion, exertion, or change (“I don’t like or fear change.”) and 2) a property of matter by which it remains at rest or in uniform motion in the same straight line unless acted upon by some external force.  Generally speaking, people tend to be inert.  We develop habits, and we stick to them.  It doesn’t matter if the habits are good or bad.  We like predictability (“I like my car and would like to keep it.”).  We don’t want to be confronted on how we do things, what we think, or how we interact with others.  If it’s always been done a certain way, then most people will continue in this customary fashion from the smallest habit to the grandest cultural traditions.  In terms of inertia, this is called uniform motion.  For the most part, we like to remain in a state of uniform motion and/or rest, and this is not necessarily bad.  Society needs structure and uniformity to function from the nuclear family all the way to level of government.

In terms of health, this is called homeostasis.  The human body requires a certain amount of sleep.  We require vital nutrients, daylight, human interaction, physical touch, exercise, and clean air and water in order to maintain homeostasis.  All of this is part of uniform motion.  When an outside force acts upon this homeostatic inertia, that usually means a stressor has occurred like a virus, toxin, physical injury, genetic mutation, car accident, or the like, and homeostasis has been disrupted.  We are no longer inert.

The same comparison can be made to the emotional self–the mind.  Emotional homeostasis in terms of wellness and looking after our mental health is a priority , and there are any number of factors that affect this from hormones, diet, and genetics to relationships, jobs, and family history–and, of course, trauma.  How we structure our lives in order to maintain our emotional and mental homeostasis is where inertia becomes a factor in either propelling us forward or sabotaging us.

Why is a discussion of inertia worth having? Well, from what I’ve experienced in life personal inertia is often the primary reason we do not take action to make changes that will actually better our lives and set us up for success in the future.  There is another name for personal inertia, and that name is fear.  Let me define this particular sort of fear:

Somewhere between our internal experiences of our lives and our external perceptions lies the reality of the consequences of whatever action was actually taken–the choices we made.  And, this is what I want to talk about because that nagging fear of living in that place–the land of consequences--is often what keeps us locked into our circumstances, thusly, preventing us from ever making the most necessary changes which ultimately gets us where we want to go.

Inertia and Fear of Negative Consequences

In my experience, there are two things that sabotage us when we are presented with the opportunity to take action.  We become anxious because we don’t know what will happen (but we’re quite sure that it will be bad), and this anxiety/cognitive distortion exacerbates our personal inertia, thusly, thwarting our innate resiliency and ability to change; and we can’t overcome our own inertia long enough to implement the desired and likely necessary changes in ways that count.

What does this look like in real life terms?

An example:

Jane is a talented, intelligent woman with two college degrees who has traveled extensively and lived abroad.  She runs a non-profit.  She is multi-lingual and has a large social and professional network,  She is kind, generous, and strives to make everyone around her feel comfortable and welcome in her presence.  She volunteers at her kids’ school and teaches Sunday school classes.  She is well-liked by her neighbors and her community at large, and she is beloved by her many friends.  She met Tom, her husband, in college.  Tom is a charismatic, extraverted man who aims to be the center of attention wherever he is.  He thrives on admiration.  He gave up his successful law practice to become a political consultant, and he excels at this occupation.  He is highly paid and enjoys advertising his wealth and status by driving expensive cars, wearing expensive brand name clothing, and paying for everything in cash.  He is loud, boisterous, and obsequious, but people seem to be drawn to him–particularly women.  He has strongly narcissistic tendencies and a mercurial temperament behind closed doors to the point of being verbally and emotionally abusive to Jane and their three children.  Male colleagues like him because he mirrors back to them their own positive perceptions of masculinity, and female colleagues like him because he is flirtatious but not excessively so giving them a sense of importance.  Tom had one extramarital affair within the first three years of their marriage.  They have been married for 18 years.  Both Jane and Tom are from conservative Christian families who do not support divorce believing that “God hates divorce”.  While Jane doesn’t believe that women should stay in abusive relationships, she will not label her relationship as abusive even though she is verbally/emotionally abused as well as pressured to stay married by both her family of origin and her in-laws in order to keep up appearances and “be obedient” to what the Bible teaches.  During the last two years, Jane is experiencing symptoms of an undiagnosed autoimmune disease and chronic fatigue symptoms.  She is also experiencing depression symptoms.  She argues with Tom daily.  Jane and Tom have verbally violent fights at least once a week in front of their children, and their oldest son is beginning to model some of Tom’s negative personality traits.  

Where is the inertia in Jane’s situation?

  1. Her belief system: She is highly influenced by the promotion of an idea that God hates divorce even though God does not.  This idea is pervasive within some Christian doctrine, however, and has kept many people in very bad situations. (Further reading: Does God Hate Divorce?)  To leave, she would have to overcome this belief herself and likely tolerate a great deal of judgment from her family which could lead to long-term conflict.  She would have to confront her family’s beliefs, her husband’s family’s beliefs,  and her friends’ beliefs that she is sinning against God by leaving as well as her larger Christian community who also believe that divorce is a sin.  The potential loss of support and community represent a huge inertial obstacle to overcome.  For many people, this alone is a giant hurdle that is too daunting to overcome without proper supports in place.
  2. The dynamics of her family system and structure: When a family member with abusive tendencies is admired and beloved within and without the family system, victims of their abuse are robbed of their voice and empowerment simply because no one believes that the abuser is capable of perpetrating acts of violence.  It is the “But s/he was so nice!” phenomenon.  This often leads to victim-blaming (“What did s/he do to cause such  a nice person to act that way?”) Also, there are families who view divorce to be stigmatizing and shameful and try to influence family members to stay married in order to prevent loss of social standing.  This might sound absurd but fear of social injury through shame and rejection is a legitimate fear.  Projecting that fear onto a victim of abuse, while inappropriate and wrong, is very common in family systems.
  3. Fear of the narcissist’s ego-driven response: When one defies a clinically narcissistic person causing a narcissistic injury, there is almost always a negative consequence.  Leaving and divorcing a narcissist can be very difficult to the point of feeling impossible.  Fear of retaliation often overrides the desire to leave.  One often feels that it is better to stay rather than attempt to face off with the talionic rage of the injured narcissist, and that is legitimate particularly if there was physical abuse or threats of a custody battle if there were children in the relationship.  (Further reading: Divorcing a Narcissist)
  4. Impoverished sense of self: Years of living in an abusive marriage and the larger family system impoverished Jane’s sense of identity.  When one’s sense of self is eroded through increased exposure to unresolved conflict, it becomes harder to define the self in terms of the positive.  Over time, the self becomes determined based upon the negative as an image is determined by its negative space rather than its true contents.  This can act as its own inertia as well as it changes one’s narrative.  Constant criticism, a consistent minimization of one’s emotional and intellectual repertoire, an increase in shame and hypervigilance, and mental distortions that skew perceptions of reality all come together to misrepresent the truth of circumstances as well as the whole self and its ultimate capabilities and future possibilities.  Once a narrative becomes edited by distortions, a person’s uniform motion, as it were, is derailed and almost thrust in a different direction.  The distortion of an impoverished sense of self resulting from abuse leading to this particular kind of inertia is hard to overcome.  Certainly not impossible.  Just painful.  And that isn’t a small thing.

How do we begin to overcome our own personal inertia and take action?

Desire.

Put simply, we can begin to take meaningful and effective action in our lives when our desire for change is greater than our fear of change and the potential consequences that our actions could bring.  In terms of inertia, our desire becomes the outside force acting upon our uniform motion which changes our direction or propulsion.

Desire can be an unwanted emotional experience for some particularly if it’s strong because it seems that fear and desire go together in a sometimes awkward and toxic dance.  The stronger the desire the more powerful the fear, and it often depends on how desire manifests.  Desire can feel like ambition or intense focus on a goal.  It can feel like a consistent attraction to specific daydreams or fantasizing.  It can also feel like longing or yearning unearthing a profound sense that you are not living a life meant for you.  You may feel like something is missing drawing you into a sort of quest or search.  In its more helpful form, desire can be an ontological state that motivates an awakening which drives the self to deeper self-actualization–desire freed from fear.  Desire mingling with fear often manifests as envy, jealousy, toxic competitiveness, judgmentalism, and comparisons with others.  Desire can be highly disruptive to the self.

What is very interesting to note is that there is a neurochemical connection between desire and fear, and it is found in dopamine:

“The chemical dopamine induces both desire and dread, according to new animal research in the July 9 issue of The Journal of Neuroscience. Although dopamine is well known to motivate animals and people to seek positive rewards, the study indicates that it also can promote negative feelings like fear. The finding may help explain why dopamine dysfunction is implicated not only in drug addiction, which involves excessive desire, but in schizophrenia and some phobias, which involve excessive fear.” (Society for Neuroscience. “Brain Chemical Shown To Induce Both Desire And Dread.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 9 July 2008. )

How do we take this information and make it work for us? The things that we often fear are quite valid–the loss of community, fear of retaliation and violence, social injury and rejection, fear of God, loss of occupation, inability to survive, and loss of social standing.  This is about survival.  Staying “stuck” and in predictable circumstances–even if we hate them or they’re hurting us–may often seem like the best choice when faced with potential outcomes that we fear should we allow desire to influence us.  Our own neurochemistry can bolster this mindset.  Desire or dread.  What should influence us?

The question of influence, to me, is one of the most important issues we can consider.  When we are influenced more by a fear of potential negative outcomes our natural response will be an inertial one which is to maintain.  Stay put.  Stay the course.  Refuse change.  Do what you know even if what you know is making you miserable and sick or even making your loved ones miserable and sick.  It is an internal battle that must be fought.  Where there is desire, there will be fear particularly when the potential for change is present. In theory, this might sound all well and good, but what comes after desire?

I like this list:

  1. Needs–Your Propulsion System: “When our emotional needs are fulfilled by loving parents and a supportive environment, we have a propulsion system that initially pushes us along a positive trajectory.  In contrast, if our needs have not been adequately met in childhood, for example, if we grew up in an emotionally chaotic family, then our need for love and security becomes a propulsion system that drives us powerfully, but down the wrong path. We will need to let go of our unhealthy needs and reconnect with our healthy ones, so that we can finally power our life inertia with a propulsion system of our own choosing.” (Four Forces of Life Inertia, Jim Taylor PhD)
  2. Self-Esteem–The Pilot: “If you are driven to gain love, a feeling of security, and a sense of competence from other people because you need their approval to feel good about yourself, then others are controlling your life path. An essential part of piloting your spaceship will require that you learn how to trust in your inherent value and capabilities, so that you can be in control of your own self-esteem. This shift will relieve the immense and unrelenting pressure to gain self-esteem from others and put you on a trajectory to gain your own feelings of love, security, and competence, which is the only true way to feel good about yourself. With this genuine self-esteem, you will have the capabilities to take full command and pilot the spaceship that is your life.” (Four Forces of Life Inertia, Jim Taylor PhD_
  3. Ownership–The Guidance System: “If you have spent most of your life doing what others wanted you to do instead of asking yourself what you wanted to do, you may never have felt that you were responsible for your life. Ownership means that you are an independent being who has a cause-and-effect relationship with the world in which your actions matter, your actions have consequences. With ownership, you do have to accept responsibility for your mistakes and failures, but you also get to accept responsibility for your successes and achievements. Additionally, you now have the power to change your life. Once you accept ownership of your life, you will be able to direct your life trajectory with your vision of who you are, what you value, and where you want to go.” (Four Forces of Life Inertia, Jim Taylor PhD)
  4. Emotions–The Fuel: “Children who are raised in families where there is a lot of emotional turmoil will often develop internal lives that are dominated by negative emotions. If your life is controlled by negative emotions, it’s really hard for you to be happy. It’s as if you’re trying to run your spaceship on contaminated fuel.When parents who believe that “bad” emotions will hurt their children and try to prevent their kids from experiencing, for example, frustration, anger, or sadness, the children will end up emotionally undernourished, deprived of the chance to understand and gain mastery over the full range of what they are capable of feeling. That lack of emotional mastery results in an empty fuel tank, leaving your spaceship drifting through life without a means of propelling it, and vulnerable to outside forces that will dictate your life inertia.  When you gain mastery of your emotions — when you are capable of identifying, understanding, and expressing your emotions in a healthy way — you produce a fuel that pumps directly from your soul, burns reliably, and can power your life inertia efficiently in whatever direction you choose.” (Four Forces of Life Inertia, Jim Taylor PhD)

Why endeavor to engage in this? I’ll let Dr. Jim Taylor answer this:

“When we change our life inertia, we liberate ourselves from those forces that have, until now, propelled us in a direction we would not have chosen. With control of the spaceship that is our lives, we will have freedom from debilitating fear, doubt, anger, shame, and despair. It also means we will have the freedom to hope, feel, accept, engage, and strive. When you are in command of your spaceship you are on track to live a life that will bring you meaning, fulfillment, and well-being. And you can be sure that you will not have to experience the most frustrating of all emotions – regret. Once you have gained command of your life you will not have to ask, “I wonder what could have been?” (Four Forces of Life Inertia, Jim Taylor PhD)

May 2019 be a year of daring to desire and taking action.

Keep going.

 

 

 

 

 

4 Comments on “An Introduction to Personal Inertia and Taking Action

  1. Interesting. Puts me in mind of the term “acedia”, though clearly they are different.

    • Ah yes! Acedia–the “noon day demon”. I read a book about that ages ago by…oh, I can’t recall her name. She wrote The Cloister Walk. It does feel quite similar, doesn’t it? You’ve piqued my interest. I wonder if acedia could be called a form of spiritual inertia…

  2. Your extraordinary way with words … depicting the complexities of truama and this brilliant blog you’ve so bravely developed to share is all truly profound.
    Your insights, research and hope for others who’s lives have also been interrupted by trauma (as mine has) to recover as you you have is so inspiring.
    I’ve come a long way on my healing journey, but some days (like today) I find myself feeling utterly stuck….struggling with that gripping fear… circling around in my familiar maze of indecision…. caught in that old web of analysis paralysis….
    And as if by Devine guidance…. I was lead right here to your post… given over to your whole blog where I’ve found your comfort in your words…. I’ve shed some tears too… over your ability to clearly express the indescribable…. more than anything it’s helped me feel “seen.”
    Thank you for reminding me that im not alone in this inexplicable struggle being a survivor of abuse …. and thank for illuminating this concept on personal inertia….
    It’s timing was like a miracle for me this evening!!
    Your posts I’ve read so far are each filled with so much enlightenment!!
    I’m now a loyal follower who has a lot of catch-up reading I’m looking forward to….
    NAMASTE!!

    • Thank you so very much for you extraordinary kind comment. I am deeply encouraged by it. I’ve been writing this blog for a long time more often than not because I feel compelled to do so. I feel that if we can put meaning to our pain, then it alleviates personal suffering. And, if we can put meaning to someone else’s pain, then perhaps it can alleviate someone else’s as well. And, if my life experiences can be meaningful, then perhaps I can add purpose to what, by any other accounting, should have been purposeless. Your comment breathes life into the vacuum. On those days when I just don’t want to try–and we all face down those moments.

      So, thank YOU. I’ll keep going. Shalom to you as you keep going, too. MJ

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