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Stopping the Slippery Slope Cycle

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I don’t know about you, but for me, when things go bonkers in my life, I tend to go down the same old slippery slope. At 58 years of age, you’d think I’d be better at avoiding this unproductive cycle. The thing about the Slippery Slope Cycle is that, for each of us, there are generally 3 or 4 core thoughts, feelings, fears, or situations that trigger the thoughts, feelings, or behaviors which are the impetus for the cycle.

The trigger may be as small as a piece of feedback that rattles your confidence, or as large as an event that rocks your sense of justice, safety, or equality. Regardless of their magnitude or scope, unchecked triggers are always the divergence on the path that, if followed, take you down the slippery slope.

The bummer is that while the ride down the slippery slope may be a temporary feel good, at the bottom of the slope is a sludge of regret, shame, and guilt that you’ll need to climb out of – and then begin the crawl back up.

Slippery slopes are recognizable because they feel familiar. They are lifelong patterns, and they require self-awareness and intentionality to avoid. Frequently, the first words uttered at the bottom are, “How did I get here again?”

I know I’ve gone down a slippery slope when, suddenly, I’m sitting at the bottom of the hill in a mess of my own making. The side-effects I feel are a result of abandoning any semblance of healthy habits. After I’ve let go of exercise and meditation, and I’ve been eating too many carbs and too much sugar, I feel thicker in my waist, my clothes are snug, and my body aches. I don’t sleep well, I feel resentful and ungrateful, and I snap at people I care about.

Here are the repeated telltale signs that notify me I’m headed over the edge:

  • Instead of a refrigerator full of colorful fresh fruits and veggies and lean grass-fed meats, I find myself impulse shopping to satisfy a yearning for a gooey macaroni and cheese that’s dripping with rich creamy Gruyère, chunks of lobster meat, and crusted with buttery breadcrumbs. I tell myself I deserve this.
  • The idea of a head-clearing walk outside or an early morning workout feels pointless and exhausting.
  • Meditation time is traded for a check of the news, which results in watching an endless and triggering spiral of “experts” with nothing new to say being interviewed by “journalists” with nothing new to ask.
  • I create busy work. In moments or spans of time that I feel out of control, I seek to gain control by creating busy, easily accomplishable – yet often unproductive or unnecessary – “work”.
  • I feel entitled to an empty treat and give it myself, like an impulse bag of peanut M&M’s at the checkout (peanuts are healthy, right?) or a small-sized fries from the drive-thru on the way to my next appointment (pencil-thin potato conduits to get salt into my body). After consuming either, my blood sugar surges, I feel like crap, and I still feel empty.
  • I’m short-tempered with those I love because their questions interrupt the pointless swirling of my non-productive thoughts.
  • I buy myself a new organizational tool or system that I know I won’t use over the long term, but in the moment it feels like a strategy to reclaim control.
  • Unfortunately, I know the end result of all of this all too well. I feel worse instead of better, I am up to my neck in sludge, and I’m looking at a difficult climb back up. Darn it!
  • I remember one time when things were going bonkers in the world, I became obsessed with some game on my phone. My brain could not let it go. I would start to look at my to-do list and, instead, be drawn to play the phone game like it was a magnet.

When I mentioned my moth-to-a-flame obsession to a friend who works in brain research, she explained that when we are overwhelmed and stressed, our brain still seeks to feel productive. Completion of each round of the game, whether we win or not, translates to our brain as an accomplishment; an accomplishment that was easy to achieve but equally rewarding to our brain chemistry. This reward becomes addictive because it provides a quick (though hollow) boost of feel-good – not unlike my M&M’s and french fries.

In times when life seems out of control or overwhelming, my brain is like a cheap date: It wants the quick fix with little effort or sacrifice. Unfortunately, the rest of me eventually has to deal with the long-term impact – the climb back up that flipping slippery slope.

You see, my friends, I’m documenting this particular cautionary tale for me, not for you. It is to remind myself why self-awareness is the first stopgap measure.

Because I know how to navigate the pathway along the top of the ridge, and I know the triggers that trick my brain into thinking, I’ll just miss my meditation for one day – a single day that turns into a week, a month, a year.

Any of this sound familiar?

Here are some steps for increasing your self-awareness and preventing the Slippery Slope Cycle:

#1 Identify 3 or 4 familiar situations in which you tend to move away from self-care. As an example, here are mine:

  • Unexpected events that stun me and challenge my belief that we, as humans, are making progress toward social justice and equality.
  • A looming task or project where I’m uncertain about whether I have the skill or know-how to accomplish it.
  • An inconsistent pace for my business, whether slower or faster than I like.
  • An extended period of isolation from people who feed my soul and are willing to give me honest feedback while pushing me to be better.

#2 Take your answers to Step 1 and transfer them to the chart you can download here. Here’s how I charted my telltale signs:

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#3 Next, list what you tend to do in these situations that is the opposite of self-care in the second column. You can see my tendencies below:

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Increasing self-awareness is not only about understanding what impacts you negatively, but also about knowing what positive behaviors to put in place of negative ones. With that in mind...

#4 Finally, brainstorm healthy and positive behaviors you can engage in instead of your typical unhealthy and negative tendencies, and then list those alternatives in the last column, as I did here:

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Research shows us that the people who are most successful in both the work world and their personal relationships are people who have high levels of self-awareness. In fact, the most successful leaders actually rank higher on social emotional intelligence (awareness of how our behaviors impact ourselves and our interpersonal relationships) than on hard skills and industry knowledge.

So, how aware are you of the negative or unhealthy behaviors or actions that you tend to choose over and over again? What causes you to repeatedly sit at the sludgy bottom of a slippery slope saying, “Really? Again? I have to climb back up from this … again?”

Increasing self-awareness and then holding yourself accountable for those behaviors is not easy work, but until you have awareness of what those are, you can’t even begin. Completing your own Stopping the Slippery Slope Cycle chart, which you can download here, is a great beginning.

Here’s to avoiding the Slippery Slope Cycle!

P.S.  Join me every Thursday for Dynamics of Self, a brand new podcast where we will explore insights, stories, and a bit of humor to help increase your self-awareness and success in relationships and work! Subscribe today on your podcast app, in iTunes, or at dynamicsofself.com!