In the rapid pace of life, full of obligations and responsibilities, too often it is possible to get to the end of the day and wonder if there was any real forward progress towards the things that matter in our lives.
In those brief moments when we get a chance to reflect on our life and on what truly matters to us, we might hurriedly make a few desperate whispered promises to ourselves to start doing those things that we know we want to do, but never quite seem to get started on. We sigh. Then we get into bed, go to sleep, and wake up, only to press the repeat button again the following morning. Busy, active, productive, making a difference…you bet. Then arrive home, have some dinner, watch some news and try to shrug off that nagging feeling that we’re doing it again…we didn’t take action on those things that have value, meaning and purpose outside of the obligations and responsibilities we have agreed to.
Each day in my office, I meet patients who are seemingly unaware of the incredible resilience they have demonstrated in the face of great challenges. They somehow keep finding a way to keep going during such rough times. They are full of anxiety, stress or depression. Together, we talk and listen to each other and get more clarity about where they want to be going with their life, get clearer on what they want to stand for and be about during this relatively brief life they have on the planet. We talk about possible first steps, small experiments, having some willingness to take action. I see some hope in their eyes and body language, perhaps some optimism. I quietly reflect that everything we talked about applies to me as well as them, and in that way, we have something in common called the human condition.
It can be a such a surprise when we begin to see that how we are feeling at any given moment and what actions we are able to take in the present moment are really two very different things. We’ve grown up in a world where everyone agrees that if I could feel more motivated, I could start doing those actions which are in alignment with my freely chosen values. If I just felt better about myself, I could start getting out and making some friends or take some risks to start doing something that really matters to me. However, waiting for the right thought or feeling could take a long, long time. It often does, primarily because we keep struggling against those unhelpful and at times painful thoughts and feelings and in doing so, we keep them in place.
When we begin to see for ourselves that we have far more control over what actions we take (our behavior) in any given moment than we have control over what thoughts and feelings arise from moment to moment. We start to realize the futility of waiting to feel more confident, stronger, calmer or whatever feeling we think we need to feel before we are able to get into action to bring to life the values we hold as important. We wake up to the nonstop delivery of old, worn out limited thoughts, beliefs, attitudes, perceptions that we have carried around our whole life, narrative and stories that are not facts, but sure seem like it when we are caught up in them.
We can innocently and unwittingly spend a great deal of time and effort each day trying to control our feelings, trying to not have the experience we are obviously having. We start taking all kinds of action to get rid of anxiety or depression or insecurity or self-doubt. For some people, this will come in the form of distraction, the endless scrolling through Facebook or Instagram. For others, the next episode of a Netflix series is already in the process of cueing up and, oh well, might as well see what happens. Still others may try to get rid of their difficult thoughts and feelings by drinking alcohol, smoking some weed or taking some pills, as well as engaging in the endless, countless other ways that humans do to try to not feel the way they do.
It would be wonderful if taking those kind of actions actually worked, and we permanently got rid of those difficult thoughts and feelings. However, for most people, the realization that they may have gotten some very brief respite from aversive feelings, (by viewing an infinite array of curated images of everybody else having a wonderful life on Facebook or Instagram, or getting buzzed, or staring mindlessly at the TV), is followed by another deep dive into the very thing they were trying to get rid of: difficult thoughts and feelings. Except now it’s worse, because the realization that they are not living the life they want for themselves is pulling them down deeper into the vortex.
Doing things that take us in the direction away from the life we want to live will never take us toward the life we really want. The good news is that none of that moving away behavior is all that wrong or bad, but it does come at the cost of not taking action on those things that do matter to us, independent of how we are feeling in the moment. Each moment offers the opportunity to choose again. The past is over, the future is not yet here. We only have this very moment, every moment of our life.
In this present moment, what can I do (regardless of how I am feeling) that would be in the direction of bringing to life those values I hold as important, independent of the good opinion of other people? What is the function of this behavior I am doing? Is it helping me move in the direction of the life I really want, or is taking me farther away?
What kind of person do you want to be? What really matters to you? Who matters to you? Are the actions you are doing right now in service of what matters most to you, or is your present moment behavior an attempt to get away from difficult thoughts and feelings? Every moment of every day, we are at the crossroads of moving towards or away from living the life we really want for ourselves. Which way are you going?