How Your Preferences Could Be Holding You Back

When we release our tight hold on our preferences, the world can open up for us in surprising—and even delightful—ways.

Adobe Stock/Ration B Rudzhan

Have you ever been utterly convinced you couldn’t stand someone? Or certain you detested a particular food, or felt strongly determined to steer clear of all people and parties, and music that doesn’t involve Willie Nelson? Then suddenly, like a bolt from heaven, someone cooks the broccoli in a new way and your preferences are challenged because, “Hey! It’s actually quite tasty.” Or you meet someone at a party and they inspire you and turn out to be a joy to talk to. Maybe someone dragged you to a hip-hop musical and, without warning, you ended up having fun. It’s OK to have preferences. But if you’re a prisoner of your preferences, the world becomes increasingly intolerable when, inevitably, you don’t always get your way.

Easing up on preferences can allow for you to adapt to whatever might be on offer, which will allow you to thrive under a variety of circumstances.

You can start to un-gloop the doors of sticky-stuckness by remembering that the payoff for taking a sidelong glance at your preferences might be suddenly being available for a life of freshness and surprise. Letting go of what you think you prefer might allow you to apply for jobs you didn’t imagine you’d ever choose, or bring you the courage to move to a bigger or smaller town even if you’re not entirely sure yet what you prefer. Easing up on preferences can allow for you to adapt to whatever might be on offer, which will allow you to thrive under a variety of circumstances.

How to Get Out of Your Own Way

We can get pretty hot about who we are, who we like, and what we stand for. It’s good to have fire in our bellies. But when we cling to our likes and dislikes, they can become barriers that prevent us from more fully experiencing ourselves, each other, and the ever-changing riot of life. With practice, you can question whether a passionately held desire is actually just a preference. Perhaps one that you can or might want to let go of.

When you have the intention to notice preferences without being chained to them, you make yourself available for the dazzling discovery that there might be people, ideas, smells, tastes, and opportunities that could fit you even better. But if you don’t recognize that many things are just preferences, and not critical to your well-being or happiness, you are going to find yourself in hell’s half acre when you discover other people want to be happy in different ways than you do. Or when some of the things you think you need to make you happy are not available.
Loosening your hold on preferences can offer a pathway to peace with others who have their own choices, some of which might have the horror factor of not being what you want. Will all this preference-checking be comfortable? Of course not. It will challenge you and your perceptions about yourself, and the world. Hurrah!

The S.T.O.P Practice

S.T.O.P Practice with Elaine Smookler

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You can utilize the S.T.O.P. practice as soon as you feel yourself digging your heels in because you just have
to have things your way, or when you reach out to eat, buy, or do anything without thinking. Take a moment to consider the ramifications of any preferences you exert.

Stop. Press pause, just for a moment, to give yourself permission to take a closer look at your dearly held preferences.

Take a Breath, and bring your attention to feeling (not just thinking about) the breath as it moves through the body. You can only feel yourself breathing in the here and now. Staying focused on the moving breath can keep your attention from sliding into the gloopy cow paths of habit.

Observe. Mindfulness is a way to take the observer stance and notice, among other things, adherence to preferences that starve us of all the wondrous possibilities on offer. As keen observers we can ask: Which thoughts are pushing us around, which emotions are riding piggyback, and how is the body responding to this push-pull menu of unchallenged sameness?

Proceed. Notice how taking an intentional gander at your familiar choices offers you a little more space to proceed with greater freedom into the adventure that lies ahead.


Do You Know How You Can Change the World?—We look down on someone's hands that are cupped together holding a small globe. The top half of the background is pink and the bottom half is light blue.

Do You Know How You Can Change the World? 

Mindful columnist Elaine Smookler reminds us that there are countless ways to bring joy, health, and healing to our planet. You might be the agent of change we’ve been waiting for. Read More 

  • Elaine Smookler
  • August 18, 2021