At 7:08 this morning I ran a red light. Not the eek it out, yellowish-red kind either. It was red and had been so. I was leaving the gym after a solid but not spectacular workout and I had a lot on my mind including but not limited to: gun control, funding for mental illness treatment, Christmas, how much I hate my car, the cost of gym membership, how pretty my wife is (seriously, check out my facebook cover photo #outkickthecoverage), whether or not I should try Rogaine, and when I was going to find time to write again. Then it happened.
I looked up. The light was red. There was a silver Cadillac STS, late 2000’s model, about 100 feet away at my two o’clock. I muttered and hit the gas, yes, the gas. Thankfully that worked. No damage done. I looked up in my rear view mirror to see the silver car stop at their green light, pausing for a moment to make sure it was in fact the idiot in the maroon car that was apparently colorblind. Moron.
Not my best moment. Not my worst either, but certainly not how I want to drive. In that moment I was an idiot, a moron and whatever else they thought of me, all true. But that moment does not define me, it is not even an accurate reflection of my driving skill or attention to motor vehicle laws. I have never been in an accident and I haven’t received a ticket of any kind in six years. I am by almost every metric a good driver, except for approximately 5 seconds this morning.
If we are not careful we can let these momentary lapses become how we define our value. This pattern of thinking is a common “cognitive distortion” where we use isolated incidents to prove something negative about ourselves without seeing all the times our behavior disproves the rule. It has been a theme all week in my office. Perhaps the strain to perform during the holidays is to blame, but many people have come in struggling with allowing common mistakes to define them. If there is a pattern of poor choices and bad behavior in your life it certainly deserves attention. But, if you messed up and it resulted in something you are not proud of then you need to ask for forgiveness from God and possible some other people and move on. This type of thinking, this cognitive distortion, is a hallmark of Depression and not true. We are no more defined by our performance on our most difficult day than we are by our behavior when life is good.
The goal is not to live a perfect life. The expectation should not be perfection. The expectation should be a vigilance to correct the errors, an awareness of our weaknesses, and a striving to overcome them. But, overcoming the weaknesses is not defined by a once and for all defeat, but in the daily struggle to not do, say, think, and feel the things we know result in chaos and disappointment.
Throughout the day I have thought back to running that red light. One aspect that sticks out to me is how I responded in the moment. I hit the gas. I had no other option if I was to avoid hitting the other car. I had to continue forward, I couldn’t stop. I didn’t have time to wait and consider the gravity of my error. If I was going to avoid catastrophe I had to take action. I had to hit the gas. Of course I wish I had been paying better attention. I wish I had not been so careless, but it was not purposeful. That moment was not an indication I am essentially careless and selfish. I don’t think that defines me at all. In fact, I may have even given the cursory one-hand apologetic wave. Either way I don’t imagine they thought much of me in that moment. On my way home I’ll pay closer attention and won’t make the same mistake. To the guy in the silver Cadillac, I’m sorry. It was a mistake and totally my fault. I’m just glad, for both of us, I hit the gas.
I am a terrible vacationer. I do not vacate very well. This drives my wife nuts and I honestly do try but I just stink at it. I took two days off work last week but worked the entire time. I didn’t see patients during the day but I built a website, researched a new competitor for a business I am a part of, worked in the yard, etc. etc. I filled my time with tasks that had to be completed. Where was the relaxation? As an adult I have had a hard time putting work down. I feel useless if I am not doing something productive, I feel silly if I am wasting time, and I get little enjoyment from hobbies. I can’t stand to go out of town on vacation either. It is too stressful to pack up the kids, organize activities, negotiate food choices, split bills with family, referee kids who have been too close for too long, sleep in uncomfortable beds, and live with the frustration that the reason you are spending all this money is to relax! What’s the point? I want to turn it off. I want my mind to stop running so quickly. I want to enjoy the passing of time and not use time as a measuring stick for my competence. I know that I am not alone in this. We are a culture bent on running wide open until we keel over.
More, More, More, Faster, Faster, Faster.
I started this series on Five Factors in a Contented Life just before my life went bananas. Since then I have become involved in a soccer league, started two businesses, planted a garden (and I will grow tomatoes and they will be good tomatoes), and expanded my patient load. Wow, talk about do as I say, not as I do. The third factor in a contented life is to put boundaries on your time. Clearly, I have a little work to do.
In the last article, I wrote about limiting choice as a way of reducing anxiety. The next step is to put boundaries on our time. If we are able to focus on what we value and limit the role that choice plays as we express those values then we will likely end up with more “free” time. Many of us live from task to task. We have everything scheduled from the time the alarm goes off until we collapse at the end of the day. Then we wonder why we are so tired, why we gain weight, why we never see our friends, why time goes by so fast, and why nothing ever seems to be finished. It is intuitive that we need to “slow down” but how we do that can be difficult to determine.
Putting boundaries on our time is usually accomplished by saying no. It is hard to say no. It is especially hard to say no to good things. Most of the people I know are not running around filling their time with purposefully destructive demands. Work, school, sports, dance, music, church groups, organizations, social causes, and countless other things fill our time. These aren’t bad things, but the extent to which we get involved with them can have bad outcomes. We want our kids to get the benefit of sports but we shouldn’t let them dominate our schedule. Volunteering for the animal shelter is a worthy cause but it shouldn’t replace family time or other more important things. Clearly there are mindless time wasters, and certainly those need to be limited as well. Just because you are not doing anything but sitting there does not mean you are relaxing. Watching Dance Moms or UFC can be “fun” but is it relaxing?
More free time by saying no is best used to find rest in activity. These are the things that fill us with a calmness and sense of presence in the here and now. When trying to find what these things might be I like to think of a distant, more romanticized time. This was a time when families and friends spent evenings together doing the small things. Before all the chaos of technology there were hobbies. People would learn to play an instrument, they would paint, and they read actual books with actual stories that meant something more than a future blockbuster. People told talked to each other on the porch, and they grew flowers because they wanted too not because the neighbors expected it. We can’t go back to that time, and I personally don’t want to. However there is a lesson there for us. Our forefathers were able to experience a slowness to life that enriched their experiences. I feel that we now attempt to find wholeness by accumulating the most “good things” but fail to truly develop a love for something that comes only with time and attention. In short, you can’t buy relaxation. Relaxation comes from within and is a reflection of what we value.
How do we do this? It is much easier to explain this as a philosophy than it is to define the operation. A portion of that difficulty is the differences between people. For one person, having a child in travel soccer is an overwhelming expectation, for another it is the expression of a value they place a high priority on. It would be easier to have a list of do’s and don’ts, but that will never work. Clearly there are harmful things that everyone should avoid, but those are not the focus of this article. The practice of putting boundaries on our time is highly individualized but here are some suggestions to free up time and to focus on relaxation that most of us can employ.
- Two free days a week. Minimum. If you cannot find relaxation in what you spend your days off doing then you need to adjust your schedule. Weekends are important times to rest and will result in a more contented life if you can use them to truly recharge. It will also make your work week much more productive as you enter each week rested and focused.
- Watch less TV. So much of what we consume on television is anxiety producing. Whether it is reality shows that depict insane moms or the “news” telling us to be afraid of everything, television is often more stressful than relaxing. I don’t think TV’s are evil but I know that I have found more relaxation by limiting the amount of time that I spend in front of the television.
- Turn off the Computer and Phone. It is easy to chew up an hour on facebook. It is not a bad thing to connect with people but if we are mindlessly trolling the internet we are missing an opportunity to relax in a more effective way.
- Assess social pressure and say No when that is the main reason to say Yes. We are often talked into things by our friends and families that may be perfectly fine, great even, but don’t fit in our lives. Too much of a good thing is a real issue. We recently decided to pull our children out of a program at church. We made this decision because our kids go to a Christian school, have Christian friends, and attend Sunday school every week. They simply don’t need the extra instruction or time within the church community if it means taking away a large portion of our family time on Sundays. As you can imagine this is not a popular decision, but one that I have zero qualms about.
- Respect Bedtime. This is especially true for those with kids but important to all of us. You need your sleep. You need around eight hours of sleep. Stop it with the “I don’t need that much sleep” garbage. Yes you do. If you need to get in the bed by 10PM then it means saying no to a whole bunch of weeknight activities, most likely tv shows. Stop it, go to bed.
- Establish traditions. Put a premium on scheduling time that is only for relaxation. Weekly bike rides with the kids, breakfast out on a Saturday, or trips to the library can all be prioritized and even made more special when we understand them as traditions. If we traditionally go to IHOP for pancakes every third Saturday morning with our friends then we will respect that time and not schedule over it.
I remember the first time I bought something of significance without my typical hunter/gatherer routine. A few years ago I decided to buy a new TV. We had saved up some money and the purchase would not stress our finances. So, I struck out to buy a TV. In the past I have taken great pride in research, comparison, and high value purchases. In short, I loved to feel like I had made the best decision given the options available. Every time we needed to spend money I would consume myself in the hunt. I would spend hours reading reviews of products. I would look into the history of the manufacturer and possible future changes in the company. I would track fluctuations in price based on time of year and age of the model. I wanted to walk out of the store knowing that I had done everything I could to use our money wisely, and to be able to feel the satisfaction of having won. What did I think I was winning? I assumed I was winning “contentment” because I thought more information led to a better choice. I thought more research would result in the information I needed to have more options. I thought the more options at my disposal the better my chances were for making a decision that would result in lasting satisfaction. I was wrong.
Walk down the cereal aisle in your grocery store. What do you see? Unless you live in a densely populated urban setting, you likely see hundreds of boxes. Bright colors, flashy logos, earthy toned whole food organic options, bags of “value” cereals, small boxes, big boxes, hot cereal, cold cereal, high sugar, high fiber, cereals marketed to women, cereals marketed to kids, and at least four choices of the most popular types of cereal. My father once told me the story of a Romanian family who came to visit us in the years shortly after communism fell in their country. He told me of man who wept in the cereal aisle. His tears were a combination of things. In part he was grieving for his country. They had no choice; their government had decided what was best for them then failed to deliver on the promise. He had lived the majority of his life never being given the option of choosing what type of food he wanted to eat. He simply ate what he could get. His tears were also due to a sadness he felt for the American people. Like children raised in a candy store, we have little appreciation for the choices we are given. We walk down the cereal aisle without once considering the impact of all these choices. We see choice as freedom, and in the extreme absence of choice we are right. However, for the majority of western societies we have long past the point being hurt by a lack of choice.
Barry Schwartz wrote a book titled; The Paradox of Choice. I am not endorsing every point he makes, but the main theme is absolutely true. We are crippled by choice. Our ability to feel contentment is robbed by the expectations of choice, and most of us are unaware of (or in denial of) this fact. In a speech I saw him give he uses the example of buying blue jeans to make this point. When he was child, there were very few options and every pair of jeans would require time to break them in before they were comfortable. The process of buying jeans was straightforward and not heavily influenced by choice. Now when you buy jeans you have hundreds of options from multiple stores and thousands of options online. He tells of his recent experience choosing between different looks and cuts of jeans. It took hours and the result was the best fitting pair of jeans he had ever purchased. The problem is he was miserable. He could not shake the feeling that among the thousands of options, surely he had missed some that were better than the choice he made. He was sure that he was either duped, or incompetent, or both. More choices can result in better options, but it can also lead to more anxiety and fear. We feel pressured to appear competent. We desire to be masters of our lives but we end up enslaved by the overwhelming fear of failure. If I cannot even choose the best pair of jeans out of thousands of options, what hope is there for me when it comes to the important decisions?
If we are consumed with making decisions that prove we are competent, respectable, lovable, and valuable we set ourselves up for failure. We are often unable to control the outcomes of these decisions. In therapy I talk about this issue frequently. People are paralyzed by a fear of making the wrong decision. They see outcomes of decisions as the only litmus test for their competence and value. I will usually give them the following scenario
If I had a bathtub full of white ping-pong balls but placed five orange balls among them, then blindfolded you and asked you to predict which color you would pick out, what would you say? Of course we would all predict that we would pick up a white one.
What if you happen to grab an orange one? Does that mean the decision to predict the opposite was a bad decision? You were wrong, but given the options and likely results you were wise to choose the way you did. If you decided to buy a car because it is most likely to be reliable only later to discover there is a significant flaw in the design resulting in a recall, are you an idiot? Is this a sign that you are incompetent? Does it mean you are incapable of making decisions that are in the best interest of you and your family? No, it means the car stinks.
In my last article in this series I wrote about the need for being aware of what you truly value. I explained the need to limit your focus to core values and not to get caught chasing every new good idea. This leads directly into the issue of choice. If we consciously limit choice in many areas, we become free to express the values that result in contentment. If we are able to say NO to the constant call to exercise choice then we are free to experience contentment in what we have and in what we value.
Marketing professionals and news organizations know that fear is what drives us to consume. We fear being left behind, being unsafe, being out of the loop, or taken advantage of. We will sit and listen to conjecture for hours so that we are not the ones left hapless when the great evil strikes or when the “bad things” reveal their true nature. These entities bombard us with messages that we must make a choice.
Choose THIS because it is good for you.
Choose THAT because it will make you safer.
Don’t choose THESE because there are people trying to deceive you.
Trust US, trust THIS, and never trust THEM.
We are being preyed upon by people, organizations, and companies that want us to feel like we must choose between what is clearly good and what is utterly bad. Not only are we asked to navigate a sea of options, we are told that there is only one option that will result in happiness. This is almost always a lie.
There is a reality of good and evil. I believe fully in a loving God and that there is an opposite, there is an evil that lurks. However, this evil is not found in the wrong television set. A loving God is not only present when we choose the right cereal. If we begin to turn off the noise of choice and limit ourselves to focusing on what we really value, then we will experience contentment regardless of whether our jeans fade or our cars break down. Choice is a thief when uncontrolled. Jesus told the rich young ruler to sell off his things and follow him. Jesus knew that the pressure to remain successful will ultimately lead to the distraction of choice. Jesus wanted the young man to be free to follow without the baggage of extraneous values.
So what does this mean for us? How do you limit choice? This all sounds great, but how does it play out in our daily lives? Like many psychological principles, being aware of the construct is a major step in avoiding the problem. By knowing that we are trapped by choice we can avoid the quicksand. But I’m not going to leave you there. Here are some practical suggestions for limiting the negative impact of choice.
- Turn off the television (and radio) more often. Advertising has one job and that is to make us want something. They do this by giving us options. They entice us to add their option to our list of choices. I don’t know about you, but I don’t need any help finding more options.
- Don’t dwell on your choice. Once you make a decision, stop looking at the options. If you have come to a conclusion there is no need for further information then it is done, move on. If you buy a house there is no need to keep checking what is available. You may find that a new option has more qualities that you were looking for. That just leads to regret. Every decision comes at a moment in time. Once that time passes the variables change, and comparing outcomes gets fuzzy.
- Set parameters for your options. If you are going to spend $500 on a TV then don’t look at sets costing $550. If you need a new car this month, don’t look at the new models coming out next year. If you are going to wait until August, don’t start looking in April. Obviously there are decisions that require longer to make, but the vast majority of them require relatively little time.
- Eliminate most options in routine choices. The gas station across the street, the one across town, and the one near your friends house all have different prices and features. Pick one. I know the cost goes up and down, but making three cents a gallon a big deal is unproductive. I’m not saying don’t try new things, but don’t make every decision so important. Stop looking at every variable for every small choice. I doubt that the quality of your lunch decision will have much impact beyond the next hour. Brand loyalty can release us from the anxiety of making the “right” choice each time we get a jar or mayonnaise.
- Spend more time focusing on your values. My core values require attention and time. If I am consuming weeks in making decisions that have very little true impact on my values then I am stealing my own joy. We feel content when we express what is important to us. Don’t let choice distract you from who you are.
I bought a TV. It hangs on the wall above my wife’s dresser. We turn it on some days, some days it just hangs there. I can see it from most spots in the room and it is loud enough to hear. Other than occasionally having to adjust a setting or two, I never think about it. I feel good about it. I feel like the relative value that I place on a TV was demonstrated in the amount of time I took in making a choice. That is the heart of this article. We need to spend more time on the choices that truly matter to us and much less time trying to demonstrate our competence with each choice. By doing this I am convinced we will feel more content with our lives and less enslaved by doubt and fear. We cannot control the outcome of most choices but we can choose to make decisions in a manner that reflect our core values. We can make choice a slave to us and reverse the cycle. We don’t have to be a child raised in a candy shop. We can say no.
Choosing a psychologist can be daunting. Often people are aware of the need for help but are presented with a list of providers through their insurance or the phone book. Dr. Covin offers 5 practical considerations for finding a psychologist.
Google them! Find out if they are active in an online forum be it twitter, facebook, or a blog. Do they have a practice website? What can you glean by how they present themselves online?
Understand your costs. Therapy is expensive. The expense is a financial one but also has hidden costs in other areas. Available hours, flexibility in scheduling, distance from your home, no-show fees, testing requirements all of these can impact your ability to receive the consistent treatment that is required for effective psychotherapy.
This is a great article on the teenagers brain. We should not excuse bad decisions, but it does help to have some insight into the people making the decision. BTW, I love teenagers.