New Year, New You
Small steps can lead to big changes. Get the most out of your world by starting now
There comes a time in everyone's life when it's just not working. Maybe this state manifests itself as a lack of energy or enthusiasm, feeling stuck or incomplete. Maybe it's not solely a physical, psychological or spiritual issue but an amalgam of all three, something amorphous. You're keeping up with responsibilities, you're maintaining, and everything is fine, but you're not quite reaping the rewards of a life fully lived. There's nonstop busyness, electronic bombardment, a plethora of options in every arena. If the decaf/caf, skinny/whipped, green/red/black yerba maté is just the first of many mind-boggling menus of the day, then it may be time to simplify.
What gets lost in the shuffle is clarity. Our bodies, thoughts and desires become like a tree falling in a forest—they are there, but do we hear them? The ennui that ensues is how our inner beings assert themselves, demanding attention.
But what to fix? If there is not one issue screaming out, it may take some soul-searching to determine where to start. The best first step is to slow the pace. Examine the basics of your life.
"Pay attention to yourself," says Suzanne Zoglio, PhD, a psychologist, life coach and author of Create a Life That Tickles Your Soul: Finding Peace, Passion & Purpose (Tower Hill Press, 2000). Define what you're after—better health, improved fitness, a connection to the spiritual; or something less tangible—joy, mastery, progress, control. That means a review of a battery of topics, of matters both esoteric and mundane.
The bottom line is energy—either you have it or you don't. And if you don't have it, how do you get it? "Joy is a sense of aliveness, of energy in the system," according to Regina Sara Ryan, coauthor with John W. Travis, MD, of Simply Well (Ten Speed Press, 2001), a book that offers 32 paths to well-rounded health.
The fundamental issue could be an energy imbalance, resulting in a state of depletion. Many of us expend more energy than we have, overtaxing our reserves, and that, like an overdraft at the bank, can ultimately cost more in the end. "It's very difficult to feel joy if all your energy is flowing out and not being replenished," says Ryan. Lack of energy is a common occurrence for those whose lives are booked to the hilt with responsibility for children, spouse, aging parents, demands of work and community involvement. And sometimes even potentially recharging activities, such as family time, exercise, or socializing, can feel more like obligation than pleasure.
Experts agree, the first bit of advice is to prune the schedule, bring some breathing room into the day-to-day, and reflect on what's sapping your energy. When searching for the missing recharger ingredient, says Ryan, don't worry so much about finding and fixing that one big problem. It's not as essential as just doing something—anything—and tackling the big problem could be paralyzing besides. Instead, just find a place to start, that first step on the path of self-examination and growth. The idea is simply to obtain the awareness that will get you one foot out of the comfortable domain, to begin to extricate yourself from the magnetic pull of the familiar.
Take a cold hard look at what you do and what you don't do, suggests Ryan, and at how you think. First, assess whether the basics are covered: Do you drink enough water? Do you get adequate sleep? Do you overindulge in food, caffeine, wine spritzers or sugar? Do you breathe deeply, fully oxygenating your blood?
Then reflect a little deeper: Do you have satisfying relationships with family and friends? Are you in a job that uses your talents and provides a sense of self-worth? Do you engage in some kind of spiritual practice? Do you exercise, have fun and—essential to your well-being—practice some form of deep relaxation?
Are you stuck in habits that no longer serve you? Do you engage in negative thinking, blaming others, feeling helpless? There's a tendency to seek stasis and to be fearful of trying new things, and that can be a stultifying way to live and a sure path to feeling stale, stuck, older than your years. "The spirit longs to keep growing, learning, experiencing. We need to remember that we are all works in progress," Zoglio says.
The first step can be something as minimal as tweaking the after-work routine. Instead of walking in the door, plopping your kids in front of reruns of The Simpsons and starting immediate meal prep, invite the whole family to decompress over mocktails (see "Small Step: Revive") served with paper parasols in festive unbreakable glasses. Discuss the high spots of the day, plan the meal and divide duties. Turn off NPR and flip on classical tunes, relax, cook and dine together. And then, recharged, resume the responsibilities of the day—homework, bill-paying—but with renewed energy.
Opt for adventure over repetition. Zoglio advises to start something new, look at life like a child walking onto the playground—which fun thing should I do first? That can mean something as minor as sampling a new food—which, in her research, Zoglio found that 90 percent of the adults she talks to never do. Or taking a new route to the office—try a back road, take the bus, ride a bike. It could also mean enhancing your skills: Take a woodworking class, learn Spanish, go back to school. The idea is to shake up the routine so that the novelty stimulates you to pay attention to your life and have a fresh outlook. The newness challenges the brain and keeps it sharp.
Then there's the benefit of looking at our habits that may or may not promote health. With each tweak of a habit, there are two things at play: the elimination of the negative and the incorporation of the positive. And sometimes it's more positive to add the five servings of fruits and vegetables rather than denying yourself the afternoon mocha latté. Better to gently ease in the new habits—upping the chances of success—and kick the bad ones gradually without self-flagellation. Set reasonable goals: to move the body in some way a couple of times a week rather than run a 10K in a month; to be still and calm for 10 minutes every other day instead of vowing to meditate an hour each morning; to become involved in a cause in which you believe (but resist the impulse to overcommit). An adjustment in expectation makes change more palatable.
Reframe your internal monologue, Zoglio suggests. Instead of worrying about a poor diet, a sedentary lifestyle, a meditation plan that you fail to carry through, focus instead on the overall goal: enhanced health and well-being, abundant energy. Think not what you "should" do (but are not doing), but focus instead on what you "need" to do to get there. By nixing the parental internal voice—put down that cheesecake!—and opting for the "how do I want to feel?" approach, you make yourself your friend rather than your adversary. "Would that cheesecake get me to where I want to be—healthy, strong, fit?" That attitudinal shift can quiet the internal conflict between the idealized you and the one that falls off the wagon, working to remove the roadblocks to change.
Keep your focus simple, as well. It's best to first take small steps aimed at ultimately tackling the biggest blot on your consciousness, that thing that's dragging you down the most. It could be something major—the aforementioned diet, exercise, spiritual plans left unfulfilled—or it could be something small that once completed can open the floodgates to progress in other areas, like the paperwork that never gets done, the detritus that you can't seem to throw out or recycle, the cracked windshield that you never find time to replace. By never dealing with your lists of to-dos, you create a double whammy: There's no benefit to be gained from not doing it, and there's guilt and self-recrimination besides. And that feeds into a sense of being out of control, which can seep into other aspects of your life and drain you of confidence.
"You're after self-mastery," says Zoglio. "You need to feel in charge of your choices. If you are blocking yourself from accomplishing a goal, you need to take responsibility for the blocks you create and learn to get rid of them."
While it's important to take action (and busyness, by the way, isn't necessarily action), don't forget to balance this with stillness—action through nonaction, a practice many are uncomfortable with. And for that reason, relaxation—the deep kind that is crucial to health—doesn't always get the time it deserves. In fact, many of us are addicted to the stress hormones that our fight-or-flight approach to life provokes, according to Jonathan C. Smith, PhD, director and founder of the Roosevelt University Stress Institute in Chicago. Ironically, for many, trying to relax creates anxiety. And that prevents people from practicing such techniques as meditation or yoga, which ameliorate the toll that stress takes on the body and the mind. Different types of stress respond to different methods of relaxation, according to Smith's research. Anxiety may be alleviated with exercise or biofeedback, while an unquiet mind may best find calm with sitting meditation.
"Relaxation goes beyond just defusing the physiological arousal," says Smith. "It also teaches you how to 'center,' which is the internal quiet that makes possible focused, clear thinking." This is the foundation for effective coping, problem solving and sound decision making, he says.
Finding your center means searching for that spot within yourself—or that state of focus—in which you feel body and mind in balance and where you access clarity of thought. A suggestion on how to find your center, says Ryan, is to take deep breaths and visualize where those breaths originate, your deepest, truest place. That spot is where you focus when meditating, a place to return to in the midst of chaos.
Grounding is the aim of any wellness life plan, according to Ryan, the distillation of what is essential, the simplifying of the complications of life. It refers to being at home in your body, comfortable with who you are, and able to know intuitively what you need. When you are centered, grounded in yourself, you trust what mind and body convey. The essential connection has been made.
So when something needs fixing, you'll know it.
Barbara Hey is a senior editor for Delicious Living.