Call it a personal energy crisis. On the surface, your life seems full enough—maybe even too full—yet you're running on empty. You feel stretched thin, stressed-out, drained.
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."
1. Energy drain: Other people's expectations Are you living someone else's dream for you? You're putting out energy but starving emotionally. The other person gets all the satisfaction.
Energy move: Declare independence You bought in; you can set yourself free. No confrontation needed, just "I don't have to expect that of myself." Worst-case scenario: Someone who's not you will be disappointed. You will feel wonderful.
2. Energy drain: Loss of self As kids, we had to play by the rules; our unique energy got caged.
Energy move: Personalize your life Ask yourself, If it were up to me, what would I...hang on my wall? Wear to work? Do for fun? Find the pockets of freedom where you can be more yourself.
3. Energy drain: Deprivation Duties and responsibilities fill your days. You gain weight trying to get emotional energy from food.
Energy move: Add pleasure, beauty, fun
Satisfying experiences, large and small, are the real nourishment you crave. Plan a big treat to look forward to—and a little one every day.
4. Energy drain: Envy We often don't feel envy directly—but we might find someone else's good fortune depressing.
Energy move: Count your blessings Comparison is a loser's game. Look at what you have, and actively feel grateful. (P.S. That person you envy—you don't know how messy her life really is. Chances are you wouldn't want it if you had it.)
5. Energy drain: Worry When you worry, you think you're dealing with things, but you're just suffering. Worry never comes up with good ideas. It torments and exhausts us.
Energy move: Get going Action is the cure for worry. Do one thing that brings you a step closer to coping. If it's the middle of the night, get up and write a to-do list.
6. Energy drain: Unfinished business Unmade decisions and postponed projects drain you.
Energy move: Do it or dump it Forget the perfect decision—just trust yourself and make a choice. Put projects in an appointment book. If you can't find any good time, that's a signal you don't want to do it. So don't.
7. Energy drain: Overcommitment You're always saying "yes"—to your boss, mother, kids, friends; to requests, favors, meetings.
Energy move: Say "yes" to yourself Tell someone else "no" every once in a while, just to feel your own power. You'll gain a whole new sense of your ability to take care of yourself.
8. Energy drain: Holding on to loss Fresh loss is an emergency. But old losses you can't let go of are dead weight.
Energy move: Cry all your tears Indulge in big-time mourning. Take off from work, stay in bed, and do nothing but cry till you're dry—and bored. Then go out and embrace life.