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Ulysses Contract

If you search for Ulysses Contract online, you may be directed towards a psychological reference first and foremost. The terminology is most often associated with a legal contract in which a client with reoccurring psychosis agrees ahead of time to treatment in case said client is incapable of making sound decisions in the future. However, if you keep digging a bit you can find references to the story of Ulysses and the pact he made with himself (and his crew).

Ulysses was sailing with his crew and knew they had to pass the Island of Sirens. The sirens sang a beautiful melody that no man could resist, and once the voyagers were near enough, the sirens would destroy them and their ship. Ulysses had been warned about this from Circe and had been given the gift of beeswax to shove into his, and his crew's, ears. But in typical human fashion, Ulysses didn't want to miss out on the song. So he instructed his crew to block their ears and then tie him to the mast of the ship. In doing so, they would be unaffected by the sirens' song and would ignore his pleas to be set free. He would also get the experience of hearing the song without succumbing to the dangers of it.

In behavioral change, we consciously and unconsciously make Ulysses pacts with ourselves quite frequently. An example might be with food. We know we will falter and likely cave in to the temptation of a sweet treat, so we may ask someone in our lives to hide them from us so we don't see them and become triggered. In fitness, having a partner that will keep us accountable is another variation of a Ulysses pact. We don't want to feel the shame of letting someone down if we don't show up, so asking a friend to routinely work out keeps us on track.

In my line of work, clients often use the coaching relationship as a Ulysses contract. Whether it is the financial or relational piece, it can be highly motivating for a client to follow through with established goals. One of the main tenants of the Ulysses pact I try to unpack for clients is the root of Ulysses' success - the practice of mindfulness in anticipation of a difficult journey. Rather than allowing his ego to convince him that things would be different for him, or his crew, then it had been for all the other passersby, he sought advice and created a plan to avoid the same fate. Mindfulness can take on many forms, but the simple act of recognizing the challenge ahead, acknowledging past failures, and creating even a basic plan can help a client overcome many obstacles.

As we inch closer to a new year (good bye and good riddance, 2020), the hope of a new year will bring with it a desire to make changes and improvements in our lifestyles. Some will make resolutions to eat and drink less, while others will set goals to read and exercise more. My hope for all of us is that we won't simply focus on what needs to change. Instead, my hope is that each of us will examine how we got to the place that needed change, make an honest assessment of our strengths and weaknesses when it comes to the area of change we are facing, and that we will take measures to include others in our plan for change. And while we're at it, let's plan to help others as they journey past their own Island of Sirens.

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