Right now, there are people working through their struggles the best they can. Valid struggles. Real life struggles. This requires courage, which is a character quality worthy of deep respect.
Even better, right now, there are people who are dealing with their struggles with grace. Isn’t that something? I admire those who can struggle in a dignified way. That’s humanity at its finest.
Now, there may be some folks who are in denial of this, but struggle is inherent to the human condition. And even the most chacterologically evolved of us still feel the struggle. It’s true. All of us, to varying degrees, feel the struggle.
Therefore, it is irrational to believe that mental health is somehow synonymous with feeling “positive” emotion. At least not all the time. Our nature does not allow it, nor would we want it to if we really think about it. Eventually, you will struggle, which means it is okay and, quite frankly, healthy to feel the accompanying discomfort.
In simple terms, mental health is functioning well given the circumstances, and it actually has much less to do with feelings than what our intuitions may indicate. Not to say that feeling happy or joy or sadness or anger are irrelevant, just that they have more to do with the “circumstances” part of mental health than the “functioning well” part.
I believe human beings ultimately want fulfillment. However, stubborn facts exist, and one of them happens to be that most anything in life that is truly fulfilling involves some sort of struggle.
So, if you are struggling, maybe there is an opportunity for fulfillment within your circumstances. Do you have a challenge to work through? Do you have something you need to get done that you’re putting off? Is there an uncomfortable conversation that you really need to have? If so, good.
I’m not saying it will be easy, but I am saying it will be Good. Even if it doesn’t feel good and, yes, even if it doesn’t turn out perfect. You know the basic steps: get reasonably calm, think it through, then take action. Difficult? Sure. But with a little courage and curiosity, we can do difficult things.
Ouch. That’s a bit of a rough title. I won’t depress you though. I just think we are asking the wrong question. My apologies if the title came across as somewhat clickbaity, but while you’re here, perhaps this post is worth a read.
In his book The Conquest of Happiness, British philosopher Bertrand Russell got me thinking differently about the question “what is the purpose of life?” Instead of finding A purpose, he proposed that we should look for purposes (plural) that incorporate a broad range of interests and identities. Maybe this doesn’t sound profound to you, but it surely does to me. Let me explain why.
For so long, I’ve heard people ask questions about the meaning/purpose/point (often used interchangeably) of life as if there is just one answer. This imbedded assumption is terribly limiting, which is probably a consequence of the human mind demanding simple clarity and false certainty when reality actually indicates otherwise. You know how these traps work: one lover, one best friend, one career, one forever home, one favorite [fill in the blank], one true opinion, and on it goes to where eventually we arrive at the need for one purpose of life (interestingly, with no specificity as to whose life, implying a one size fits all model).
A quick side tangent. I used to be a house painter, which sounds like a pretty straight forward job– put the paint on the house, got it. However, through the years of working on different crews, I developed what I call “painter’s mind.” This has nothing to do with the fumes. Instead, it is recognizing that the seemingly obvious, natural method is often not the best method. And although the best methods take a while to develop, they’ll save you time and prevent countless messes in the long run.
That’s kind of how I see the question “what is the purpose of life?” It seems like an obviously important and natural question to ask. But it sets us up for wasted time and existential messes. So, let’s use our painters mind here and come up with a better approach. Rather than trying to find our why, the point of life, and our one, sole purpose, we should be trying to find our whys, points of life, and our purposes (again, plural).
Where do we start? It often helps if there are philosophical, social, and behavioral components. No, it’s not too complicated. Avoid the simplicity trap. For example, people often think about philosophical concepts like love, freedom, and wisdom; social dimensions like friendship, marriage, and family; and behavioral aspects like doing hobbies, communication, and fitness. These are all whys, points, and purposes. Identify yours and work to incorporate them all.
If adopted, this paradigm shift will help you be less dependent on one thing or person. You will feel less pressure in your life. It will help you develop a diversified set of identities, which will make you more resilient if you have to shed a purpose that is no longer working for you. You will bounce back quicker from loss and setback. You will be more flexible in the various roles you occupy. Your sense of self-worth will grow.
That’s why I think this insight is profound.
How we ask questions impacts our answers, which can then evolve into deeply held beliefs. Therefore, it follows that if we ask better questions, we will arrive at better answers, which will lead to better deeply held beliefs. Okay then, I’ll end with this question, and I must say it sounds a little funny because new things take a while to get used to, but here it goes: what are the purposes of YOUR life?
Patience is a virtue. However, our world is less conducive to learning patience than ever before.
We all know why. It’s obvious. Smart phones and other modern technologies make it so that we are never bored, always distracted, always stimulated (typically cheap stimulation), and allow us to get what we THINK we want, when we want.
The problem is that in order to get what we really want– deep relationships, skills and knowledge, career achievements, or anything else in life that is truly fulfilling– we have to recognize that it doesn’t work the same way. There’s waiting, setback, struggle, and anxiety.
Simply, when it comes to fulfillment, it doesn’t matter how much you want it now, you aren’t getting it now. This is what’s real. Meaningful endeavors take time, which means patience must be a central part of the formula if we want more out of life.
So what is patience? The Google definition is spot on: it’s the capacity to accept or tolerate delay, trouble, or suffering without getting angry or upset.
Got it, so how do we do that? Here are three simple ideas to consider.
One, become aware of opportunities to work on your patience. Thankfully, there are opportunities everywhere. How about sitting in traffic, standing in line, dealing with your children, making fitness gains, reading a book, waiting to charge your phone after it dies (now that’s a good one), the list could go on and on.
The point is to reframe these moments in a growth-oriented way. There will be some anxiety, and that’s okay. But can you tolerate it? Can you get calmer? Can you keep your wits? Challenge yourself to do so when the opportunity arises, and with time, your patience will improve.
Two, expect to struggle, especially when taking on something new. Expectations are interesting things. They have the tendency to imbed themselves in our psychology without us being aware. Sometimes it’s not until we snap that we realize that we had any expectations to begin with.
To address this tendency, we have to get in the habit of what I call “priming” ourselves. Make it a routine to do mental check-ins before a potential patience-building opportunity. If necessary, recalibrate your expectations so that struggle is accounted for. What might you struggle with? The waiting part, uncertainty, the initial phases of learning something new? Build these struggles and your intended responses into your plan.
Three, down-regulate your nervous system. It’s impossible to be patient if your physiological system has been hijacked. Yes, a part of having patience is tolerating some suffering, but if that suffering is overbearing, it becomes so salient to the brain that we can’t focus on anything else. That’s a problem.
Research shows that breathing, specifically physiological sighs, are incredibly effective at reducing acute stress and anxiety in real time. Here is a link that will help you understand how and why to do this: Breathing Techniques to Reduce Stress and Anxiety | Dr. Andrew Huberman on the Physiological Sigh – YouTube. In addition to breathing techniques, it’s also important to understand how our nervous system is impacted by our perspective of time. The biological effects of impatience tend to become more severe because of a hidden belief that things must happen when we want them to. So, rethink your relationship with time. Perhaps it’s actually more prudent and easier on our nervous system to accept that we have to deal with life on life’s terms.
To capture the profound implications of learning patience, I will end with a quote from Leonardo Di Vinci: “Patience serves as a protection against wrongs as clothes do against cold. For if you put on more clothes as the cold increases, it will have no power to hurt you. So in like manner you must grow in patience when you meet with great wrongs, and they will then be powerless to vex your mind.”
Yin and yang. Transcendence of opposites. Integration. Balance. These are terms and phrases that, more or less, mean the same thing. They capture a central idea in addressing an inherently human challenge—inner conflict.
Sometimes it feels like we are being pulled in opposite directions. One week, we exercise, eat right, nurture important relationships, and seem fully committed to life projects. The next week, we’re lazy, eat and drink too much, brush aside important relationships, and resist taking on meaningful challenges. This cycle can become quite vicious, leaving us to wonder, “who am I?”
The ego wants clean categories to organize the self. I am this or that. Black or white. Good or bad. Always one way, not the other. The ego would like things to be simple and easily understood, reducing the need for cognitive effort. Simplicity has its place, but it is the wrong tool for this particular job.
We are a complicated species, which means inner conflicts are bound to unfold. We have a pleasure system and a nervous system that often struggle to connect with our conscious mind. You know, the part that feels like “me” or “I.”
Our conscious mind allows us to construct a higher self that’s built from our deepest values and intentions (who we want to be). Specifically, when we are discordant with our so-called higher self, we might say things like “I wasn’t being me.” Or, if the higher self has become significantly damaged, we might say “maybe I’m just a bad person after all.”
Again, this is a fragmented ego attempting to resolve the conflict by trapping one’s identity into simplistic categories. Not very helpful.
The best I can tell, most humans have a little bit of everything in them. Higher self and lower self, good and bad, masculine and feminine, intellect and emotion, strength and weakness. You name it, we got it. Like I said, we’re complicated, which is kind of cool because it makes us interesting.
But it can also be psychologically painful when we are at war with ourselves. As Edwin Starr might say: War, Huh! What is it good for?
Not much when it comes to mental health.
It also isn’t a good idea to resolve inner conflict by attempting to exercise tyrannical control over aspects of yourself that you might perceive as bad or ugly or less socially acceptable. The side you are trying to inhibit will inevitably rebel, and it will likely do so with immaturity and belligerence.
So, let’s return to the idea mentioned in the opening paragraph. Each of those concepts ultimately encourage us to call forward all dimensions of our personality structure and challenge us to make peace with them. This means we have to let certain parts of our psychology out of mental prison and begin an internal conversation that involves negotiation and compromise.
Easier said than done, right? Here’s an example of how the internal conversation might go. Feel free to alter the language to make it fit whatever inner conflict you might be struggling with.
So-called higher self: Look, I know I’ve been really hard on you before, and I want to say I’m sorry. If berating you was effective, it would have worked by now. I think we need some new strategies.
So-called lower self: Thanks for that. I know sometimes I take things too far, and the responsibility falls on you to clean everything up. I’m sorry too. How can we get along moving forward?
So-called higher self: I think the wisest way forward is some form of balance. What do you think?
So-called lower self: Agreed. How about we are more aware of each other and less disconnected? Let’s stay in touch more often. Maybe you can even help me honor certain needs/wants/desires without the self-destruction part?
So-called higher self: I definitely can do that. Honestly, it’d be nice for you to help me too. Sometimes, I try to control everything way too much. It’d be great to have you around for when I begin to slide too far in that direction…
I think you get the point. It might sound strange, but I have found that the tools of internal conversation, negotiation, and compromise help sooth inner conflicts so that we can work with, not against, contradictory aspects of ourselves. The goals are to honor the various dimensions of our personality structure, give them a voice, and to validate their presence within us. As a result, we can finally begin to set aside psychological resistance and cultivate a path towards (imperfect) inner peace.
Christmas, for complicated reasons, can be a complicated time of the year. You have your reasons, and I have mine. We all have our ways of seeing things, right?
But what if we can simplify a bit? This is an option. Even during the holidays.
Remember, saying “no” doesn’t make you the Grinch. It means you have boundaries. And boundaries are healthy.
Maybe you don’t have to do every single tradition. Maybe you take some moments to sit back and just observe. Maybe you don’t demand of yourself that you be happy every second. Maybe you cut yourself some slack. Maybe you become an imperfectionist.
What is this holiday about for you? This is a good question to ask. Be real. Be honest—at least with yourself.
The pressure of Christmas can be a lot.
Sure, pressure makes diamonds, but it also crushes things. If you thrive under the pressure, be the diamond. If you are being crushed by the pressure, hit the release valve. Paper plates and pizza are wonderful too.
How do you feel during the holiday season?
Whatever it is, don’t try to force yourself into feeling the “Christmas spirit.” We both know this doesn’t really work. Feel what you need to feel. But please consider this friendly reminder… Think before you act. It’s usually not a bad idea.
Sometimes Christmas leads us to reflect on relationships. Some that are still here. Others that have gone.
For those who have passed or moved on, remember them and miss them, if appropriate. Sadness can be a healthy and natural biproduct of having the courage to love another.
For those who are still here, it’s nice to see them—even if it’s once or twice a year. Nothing wrong with that. But maybe, with the pandemic and all, some connections have fallen to the wayside. This could be a good time to pick those back up.
Lastly, your needs matter and “self-care” is not cliché. I get it. Christmas is “the season of giving.” Just please don’t forget to give yourself what you need to make the best out of this often complicated and joyful and difficult and merry time of the year.