Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Lesson #35: Getting off the Roller Coaster

Is there an area of your life where you tend to go up and down, rise then fall, or repeatedly experience success followed by failure? For many of us Americans, this involves food and exercise, or smoking and alcohol, but it could be your moods that swing, or your bank account or love life that fluctuates wildly. Things are great for a while, and during that sublime period you are convinced that it will stay this way forever.

Perhaps you've experienced an epiphany, a moment or even an extended period of grace during which you see things very clearly. You're eating only healthy foods and glowing with radiant good health. In the midst of this natural high, it's inconceivable that you once binged on potato chips and ice cream sandwiches while watching Desperate Housewives. (Who was that person?, you wonder). Now that you've seen the light, you will never behave that way again.

But then one day you're particularly stressed out, or you let your guard down, or you feel so invincible that you forget what it used to be like. You think to yourself, "I'm a different person now. Much stronger than before. What used to pull me down no longer has power over me." So you dip your toes back in that familiar water, and before you know it, you're back to your old tricks.

How could this have happened? You were doing so well. The disappointment or even the shame you feel is magnified by the fact that this cycle has repeated several times before. When will it end? When will you get it right once and for all? 

The truth is that in this lifetime you might not succeed in maintaining that level of enlighted thinking indefinately. Just because your friend never misses a workout or never spends outside of her means, doesn't mean that you will be able to sustain that level of perfection. Yes, she's discplined in these areas, but if you look closely you'll see that she struggles in other areas. The same is true for you. There are areas of your life where you naturally excel. You may take these things for granted, but trust me, your friends drool over your clean house and your ability to stop drinking after one glass of wine.

So, back to the roller coaster ride. How are we to get off of this crazy thing? Some would say the key is moderation. Others would say it is perseverence (never give up the fight). Still others would say that you need to forgive yourself and move on, or just accept yourself the way you are and stop trying to whip yourself into shape.

While these are all reasonable suggestions, getting off the roller coaster can sometimes involve a few steps. I invite you to explore the following ideas.

1.     What are you strengths? If you're not sure, ask your friends. Honor yourself for the good work, progress, discipline, and contributions to the world that you already make.

2.     What are your weaknesses? (Try not to dwell on this question). See if you can muster up some compassion and forgiveness for the areas of your life in which you struggle.

3.     Pick your favorite shortcoming. What are reasonable hopes or goals, based on your personal history, genes, personality, etc.? (Maybe eating candy in moderation or weighing 105 lbs. are not realistic objectives for you, and you need to adjust your expectations). Note that sometimes black and white thinking is a tyranny in and of itself, while other times it can actually free us from the subtler tyranny of false hope.

4.     Finally, try to relax. As humans we are never going to be perfect. When we gain compassion for ourselves, it makes it easier to have compassion for the struggles of others, and this is a beautiful lesson.
When you're at the top of your roller coaster (or genuinely in a good place), and you see someone engaged in a struggle that you have had, instead of feeling superior, say to yourself, "Oh, yes, I've been there before. I know how hard that can be." This reminder will help you stay in balance (and it will feel great to the other person!)