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Leadership
September 29, 2021

The IF THEN Mindset & How It’s Holding You Back

Post By:
Julie McMahon
Executive Performance Coach
Julie McMahon Coaching
Guest Contributor:

I would guess that 9 out of 10 women reading this article have a daily routine and schedule that you live and breathe by. Sure, you may have a random appointment that is out of the ordinary but other than that, it’s predictable. Our routines and rituals are great. They keep structure and balance so that we can accomplish all of the many tasks we have on our to do lists. These lists lead us down a path to a goal. In essence, they create a level of certainty that makes us feel not only accomplished, but also safe, secure, and in control. We also do this on a much larger scale as we design a predictable plan for our lives.

We do this with what I like to call the IF THEN model. Meaning IF this happens THEN (and only then) this will happen. Here are some basic examples you might be familiar with: 

If I go to college then I will get a great job and make a good living.

If I save enough money then I can quit my job and start a business.

If I lose 15lbs then I can have the wedding of my dreams.

If I get married then I can have kids.

If I work hard then I will get a promotion. 

If I wait until the kids are grown then I can focus on myself.

We use the IF THEN model to create certainty and as a reward system that we learned of at a very young age. Remember when your mom or dad said something like, "IF you eat your broccoli, THEN you can have dessert?" I bet you quickly ate your broccoli. We very innocently learned that if we did X we would get Y. But with this we also learned that if we did what we were told, sacrificed ourselves or did something we didn’t want to do, then we were rewarded. We didn’t vary from the path and into the unknown too often because the outcomes were uncertain- would we get the reward? But if we did, we were most likely punished for trying to think outside the box and try a different way. The IF THEN model gave the parent a perceived sense of control, and the child what they desired. 

I can honestly say that this model instilled a tremendous work ethic in me as a child. I did what I was told and was rewarded time and time again. Between this restrictive training and the influence of society telling me what I should want and do, I really didn’t have to think much. And as I got older, I became great at chasing carrots and allowing authority figures and society to create IF THEN scenarios for my life. I thought, if I get married, then I can have kids. If I get a bigger house, then I can get a dog. If I work hard, then I will get promoted. I tried to control every aspect of my life and the lives around me to create the certainty of what would happen, if I just followed the predictable path. I carried on like this into my mid 30’s until I quickly realized that the certainty I was chasing was keeping me from experiencing happiness.

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I kept eating the broccoli, but the desert never came because there was always more broccoli to be eaten. There was always more work to do, more accomplishments to pursue and longer lists to get done. The certainty that I had been chasing was limited by the environment I was raised in. I didn’t know what I really wanted, where my happiness lied, what my truth was, because I was living a dream someone else created for me. And the routine that I was so desperately living in order to create the certainty of this unchosen dream, stopped me from exploring my heart's desires and experiencing the beauty of uncertainty. 

That’s right, I said there is beauty in uncertainty. In my opinion, uncertainty has gotten a bad rap. But I get it, who wants uncertainty in their life when by definition it has such a societally-assumed negative overtone. According to Webster, the root word, uncertain, means:

not known beyond doubt

not having certain knowledge

not clearly identified or defined

not constant  

not certain to occur

not reliable

Of course uncertainty feels scary and unsafe- the definition itself creates an immediate sense of lacking. We believe that certainty creates abundance (IF THEN), but the truth is that nothing in life is guaranteed so we can never truly be certain of anything. Therefore, it’s quite the opposite. It is uncertainty that creates true abundance. Think about the stories you hear of people having near death experiences, losing a loved one unexpectedly, or getting diagnosed with incurable sickness. These outcomes are not desired. These situations are not part of anyone’s plan.  They come out of nowhere and force us off the path of certainty. They remind us that life is not controllable, which doesn't feel good at first. 

But, what these situations do is make people realize that they have been chasing things they don’t really want. The certainty was keeping them stuck instead of truly living. With the threat of time running out, they throw caution to the wind and follow their passions instead of the “certain” path they were told they wanted. They start living in uncertainty and following their hearts, and by doing so, they find their truth, their most authentic selves. And that results in the outcome we all desire: fulfillment, purpose, abundance and sheer joy. 

So we must ask ourselves, why so often, does it take a shocking or extreme situation to get us on our right paths? I can relate to this as I personally did not get divorced until I literally felt as thought I would die if I stayed. I was too scared of the uncertainty of how my life would turn out. Even though it was a bad situation, the comfort of the known felt way less scary than the uncertainty of what was to come if I left. 

But what if it didn’t have to be that way? What if uncertainty could be the catalyst to get what you TRULY want? What if stepping into the unknown felt good, exciting, and even safe? 

I’m here to tell you that it can, and here’s how…

The first thing we need to do is stop living in the IF THEN model. This is a big one because it affects every area of our lives. The IF THEN model is extremely limiting and perpetuates societal and family cycles that perhaps could stand to be broken. Start paying attention to what is motivating your choices, big or small.  Start paying attention to how often you stop yourself from doing something that you desire. Ask yourself "Why?" The IF THEN model keeps us on a perpetual hamster wheel of blindly doing for a variety of reasons. It’s important that you are aware of yours.

We can stop living this model by replacing it with BOTH AND. For instance, I can BOTH go to college AND start a business, and be equally financially successful. By using this model we are giving ourselves options to choose what is right for our personal truth. This opens us up to the uncertainty of the unknown which creates endless opportunities. Follow this path and your true desires will naturally unfold along with the opportunities to achieve them.

The second, and sometimes the hardest, thing we need to do is shift our perspective and understand that the only thing certain in our lives IS uncertainty. There are infinite possibilities to every life experience and any one of them can completely change the trajectory of our lives. This is what scares us about uncertainty- the loss of control. And in this regard, I ask you, have you ever heard the Garth Brooks song, Unanswered Prayers? The lyrics go like this… 

Just the other night at a hometown football game
My wife and I ran into my old high school flame
And as I introduced them the past came back to me
And I couldn't help but think of the way things used to be

She was the one that I'd wanted for all times
And each night I'd spend prayin' that God would make her mine
And if he'd only grant me this wish I wished back then

I'd never ask for anything again

Sometimes I thank God for unanswered prayers
Remember when you're talkin' to the man upstairs
That just because he may not answer doesn't mean he don't care
Some of God's greatest gifts are unanswered prayers

Whether you believe in a higher power or not, this song is about the magic of uncertainty. This man prayed to stay with his high school sweetheart only to be grateful it ended in the long run. We have all experienced situations like this before. Hindsight is not only 20/20, but a great reminder of the potential, and the power, in the unknown.  

In the unknown, anything is possible without limitation. There are no societal shoulds and musts. The unknown has no walls, no rules and no restrictions. In the unknown, the paths and the routines of our prescribed life are replaced with a path of passion, joy, and personal truth. It’s in this quantum space that we can dream and create with our hearts' desire. And oftentimes, that yields the greatest outcomes of all.

Which brings me to the final thing we need to do, and my personal favorite- lean in with faith. Faith requires trust. We first must trust ourselves. We must listen to and trust the greater intelligence in each of us, which holds our heart’s desires. We might not know what we want exactly, but maybe we know that the life we're currently living is not it. The greatest leap of faith I ever took was leaving my former husband with two small children in tow. When I made the decision, I left most of my belongings behind, had no clear plan, no clue what my future looked like, and feared my own shadow. Talk about taking a leap of faith! But I did it because I knew inherently that I was not aligned with the marriage or the path I was on. I trusted my intuition to guide me through the unknown. And ironically, as soon as I made the decision, it was as if a red carpet rolled out to usher me into my new life! I quickly found an apartment, I was offered a job and my children moved into a great school. 

I had complete faith in the unknown and trusted myself, and I was rewarded for it. Over time my trust and faith deepened as more opportunities appeared, and I continued to step into them. It wasn’t long before I started to get the things that I truly wanted out of life. I began to learn that when you start living this way, uncertainty feels exciting AND safe. I also realized that amazing things can happen when you’re not busy trying to control every aspect of life- surprising things that I didn’t even know I wanted! 

If you choose to embrace uncertainty as a path of limitless opportunity and abundance, everything in your life will change. And faith coupled with a perspective of abundance is a lethal cocktail for building the life that you want. So, I encourage you to start making some room for uncertainty in your life. Start looking at the unknown as a place of play and let faith take over as you trust your inner guidance. Remember that our time here is limited. Follow the passion in your heart and your life will start to develop in ways that allow for magic, with outcomes greater than you could ever imagine! 

Did this resonate with you? I would love to hear why! Please connect with me and share your story.