Sound familiar? It's an epidemic, as described in Boston-based psychotherapist Mira Kirshenbaum's revelatory new book, The Emotional Energy Factor. The most common complaints Americans bring to our doctors, she says, are: "I feel tired all the time," and "Why do I feel so blah?" Once possible physical causes of fatigue have been ruled out (a crucial first step), many doctors diagnose mild depression and reach for the prescription pad. But is this really depression—or just depletion? And why do some people always have energy?
As a refugee child growing up poor in New York, Kirshenbaum marveled at her uncle who had fled Europe before the Holocaust yet was always singing, hoping, and dreaming. You probably know someone who has more to cope with than you do but warms and cheers everyone around her. You might also know someone who regularly turns ideas into realities not purely through talent or self-confidence but simply because her energy is stronger than any discouragement she encounters.
So where's the pump for this kind of fuel? Not in the gym or the health food store, Kirshenbaum says. It's a misconception that the energy we require is primarily physical. Yes, you need to get enough sleep, water, nutrients, and exercise. However, her survey of endocrinologists, nutritionists, and sports medicine specialists turned up an astonishing consensus: Fully 70 percent of our total energy is emotional—the kind that manifests as hope, resilience, passion, fun, and enthusiasm.
We in the developed world mostly take very good care of our bodies, but we often take lousy care of our souls. And that, says Kirshenbaum, points to the secret of high-voltage people. They don't all have lucky genes or a happy childhood—but they invariably make it a priority to protect and replenish their emotional energy. The good news is that anyone can develop this skill. Kirshenbaum's approach is refreshingly down-to-earth. First, you plug the leaks: Learn to recognize what drains your energy—life situations, toxic people, or habits of mind like worry, guilt, indecision, and envy—and take steps to avoid or minimize it. Second, you identify what fills your tank—pleasure, prayer, novelty, anticipation, fun—and give yourself more.
Since we're all different, Kirshenbaum provides a menu of strategies to choose from (see "Eight Energy Drains and How to Fix Them," at left). A few of her suggestions are novel, like resolving chronic, exhausting guilt by putting yourself on trial. If you're feeling bad about something you've done, Kirshenbaum says, ask yourself whether you were under duress or doing the best you could for your age and background. If so, give yourself a break. Not guilty. Case closed. However, if you decide you knowingly did wrong, move to what she calls the penalty phase: Do something real and specific to compensate the person you hurt or repay your debt to society. Other strategies might seem familiar—dump the bad boyfriend, set limits with your mother—but the fresh context of treasuring your emotional energy above all else may finally give you the impetus to act.
If claiming what you need sets off that "Selfish!" siren in your head ("It's one of the two ultimate ways of controlling a woman," a female patient once told Kirshenbaum: "Just tell her she's fat or she's selfish"), remember that all good things, including true, unforced giving, flow from a full heart. "Emotional energy is the precondition for everything we care about," Kirshenbaum says. "Everything worth doing that's difficult gets lost without it. Marriages fail when we run out of the emotional energy to reach one more time across the divide of anger and silence. Dreams die when we lack the emotional energy to hang in there in the face of all the obstacles. How can you be the best possible mother without emotional energy? It's never selfish for a good person to put fuel in her tank."
Once you learn how to tap this fuel, you'll discover that it's a renewable resource. "Unlike physical energy, which runs down as we get older, emotional energy can increase the more you learn what works best for you," says Kirshenbaum. "Imagine getting more and more energy every year of your life. There's always something you can do to get more."
Energy drain #1: other people's expectations