Do you constantly stress about where your life is headed?
Recently, I coached a client who is dealing with anxiety and a chronic, nagging sense that he doesn't "have his s*** together" and that he's "wasting" years of his life. He has taken many steps to relieve this uncomfortable sense over nearly 10 years with only temporary relief.
So I asked him to try something he had never tried before. I asked him to do nothing. He looked at me with puzzlement as if I were speaking in tongues.
I wasn't asking him to really do nothing. I was asking him to stop reacting. I was asking him to stop jumping to action as a way to avoid the discomfort. In essence, I was asking to take a different action. I was asking him to grow awareness.
I explained that he is so accustomed to getting hijacked by this one thought that it was driving his actions and, quite possibly, numbing him to the point that he wasn't enjoying life.
Doing nothing would do a few things. It would help him become aware of the frequency he had those thoughts. It might slow him down to think through the end results of his actions. It might get him to peel back the layers to see the origins of the nagging. Even better, it could get him to talk back to the sources of the nagging if he realized the persistent drag came from expectations that weren't serving him.
I didn't go so far as to suggest he try to imagine a life without that nagging sense, but I hope to use that in the next session. What would his life look like if the pressure simply disappeared?
After the session, I decided to try the practice on myself. I was going to notice all the times I was preoccupied with questions about my future work. I am in the process of building a coaching practice, and I am only about 30 percent there. Doubts abound, and they crop up hourly. So my experiment was revealing.
On one 30 minute drive, I realized I spent 20 minutes thinking about my uncertain future. It went like this: "Maybe I should just bag it and get a job somewhere. Maybe I could own a franchise like a Starbucks. How much time am I willing to commute?" And so it went.
When I arrived at my destination, I wondered when I would be able to get back to worrying about my future. On the 30 minute drive back home, I drifted off again, thinking about what it would be like to work for someone as opposed to being self-employed. I was off in many worlds rather than fully inhabiting the physical world I was really in.
I felt the pressure of wondering if I am wasting years of my life and that I won't make ends meet or that I will work so much I will be miserable over not having time and energy for my children, friends and community. It was starting to wear me out mentally.
As Matthew Lieberman points out in his book Social: Why Our Brains are Wired to Connect, people in other eras simply didn't have the time for this ruminating on life purpose. Their lives, from beginning to end, were being cared for and caring for others.
Today we feel pressure to be more, and we feel judged (perhaps most harshly by ourselves) when we don't make the most out of life, go for the gusto, strive to climb the next mountain, or feel the pull of some other tired cliche. We might even feel let down when very mundane things satisfy us, so we dismiss the satisfaction. I realized that even after years of practice, I had slid back into using pressure and fear to motivate myself. It speaks to the weight that life's work and financial stability bear on our modern sense of well-being.
But it doesn't have to weigh on us, and we can get out of the burden by looking at it from a different angle. I was looking at my life from what I lacked. What if I looked at it from the angle that my life inherently has purpose and my actions already fit into my goals and and priorities. What goals and priorities am I already supporting?
This reframing of the situation brought a realization that the pressure was exhausting. I let go of it and promptly dozed off. When I awoke, I began looking at my days and weeks asking what purpose they support. I saw that I do a great deal to support my health and the health and well-being of my children. I saw that I contribute to my clients' lives. I contribute to my community, which is something I value greatly. I even let my memory wander back to one of the happiest times of my adulthood. It was when I put all professional worries aside and just focused on curing my son of a deadly illness.
I grew. I focused. I savored mundane pleasures during that time. It wasn't always easy. At times the worries came back. But in the absence of pressure, I was able to focus, see my situation clearly and enjoy the clarity and growth.
In what ways does pressure push you? Can your response simply be to notice the pressure?
Keep a tally of the frequency and possibly even the duration of rumination. Next, try a different perspective of fulfillment. Assume your actions already fit a clear purpose. Look at what you do (as opposed to what you think you ought to be doing) and see what purpose those actions serve. From there, it is almost inherent that you will make the choice to worry less.