Scattered? Paralyzed? Approaching meltdown? Maybe you don't need two months in the Caribbean—maybe you just need to diagnose what's going on with you. Sean Elder helps you play doctor.
What does it mean to restore yourself? We're not talking about quick-fix de-stressers—the chocolate, the remote, the tub. We're not even talking about stress per se but rather the need to come home to your self, to refresh and revive. That might mean reclaiming your focus, gaining calm confidence, or pulling yourself out of a well-worn rut.
To help you identify what's making you feel less than a hundred percent—either occasionally or chronically—we called on four fresh thinkers: "cowboy therapist" Wyatt Webb (It's Not About the Horse), psychotherapist Mira Kirshenbaum (The Emotional Energy Factor), psychologist Jay Carter (Nasty People), and performance psychologist Jim Loehr (The Power of Full Engagement, with Tony Schwartz), who spent over 20 years training professional athletes and now teaches winning strategies to corporate clients at LGE Performance Systems in Orlando.
For each of the five conditions that follow, our experts suggest practical, realistic changes—in both your habits and thinking—that can put you in peak form.
Symptoms: You can't seem to focus. You're irritable, and you have trouble finishing what you start.
Cause: Information/obligation overload.
Remedy: Do one thing at a time; develop energizing habits.
With only so many hours in a day, a lot of us try to take on everything at once. A while back, I was interviewing a television network executive when he asked if I would mind if he answered his e-mail while we talked. I did mind—and it was further evidence of just how hard it can be to give anything your undivided attention. Yet there's a high price to pay for perpetual distraction: You not only feel frazzled but you accomplish less.
That's because multitasking is the enemy of engagement, Jim Loehr says—and engagement is what makes for peak performance. "Great leaders, the richest friends you have—these are very engaged people," he says. "They're not spaced-out. They're completely with you, here and now. It's what I call the Mr. Rogers syndrome." Your kids may not have been able to tell you why they liked Mr. Rogers so much, but one thing is certain: Mr. Rogers never multitasked. The real-world rule may be: It's okay to do two things at once, as long as you don't need to do either of them particularly well.
Not surprisingly, Loehr, who has worked with speed skater Dan Jansen and tennis champ Monica Seles, believes everyone benefits from exercise. More unexpected is his belief that the mental commitment to an energy-enhancing routine can be as helpful as the physical activity itself. "You tell me you're impatient, you're tired, and you have very little tolerance for frustration?" Loehr says. "It's amazing how creating a ritual as basic as getting regular exercise, or even setting a date night and making a big deal out of it, can change your life."
Symptoms: You're plagued by uncertainty over just about everything.
Cause: Fear and its ugly sisters, anger and guilt.
Remedy: Uncover the source of your fear.
There's an old myth that Eskimos have a hundred words for snow. By that logic, we could use as many synonyms for fear. If we dig deep enough, we can often find some variant of that emotion.
In his three-day Equine Experience class at Arizona's Miraval resort, Wyatt Webb's students get to know and trust a horse—and perhaps more challenging, get the animal to trust them. "The horse is an emotional mirror," he says. If you're unclear in your intentions, "the horse will feel the tightness in your body and won't cooperate." Clients gain insight into how their mental uncertainty arises from fear and how that affects them physically. "Most of us are cut off from our bodies," Webb says. "We don't usually listen to them until we're in massive pain." Those not in proximity to a stable need to listen on their own. "One of the things I do, because I've been conditioned to respond to my fear by getting angry," he writes in his book, "is to start with my anger and trace it backward."
Fear seems to be about the future—what might happen—but it's frequently based on something in your past. Mira Kirshenbaum believes people freeze up because of long-ago traumas or immature mistakes. Sometimes the most loving thing we can do for ourselves is to tune out our own soap opera. "You can stop making such a big deal of the fact that your mother was mean to you or the fact that the one person you really loved walked out on you ten years ago," she writes.
Kirshenbaum sounds like a Nike ad when it comes to dealing with paralysis. "Nothing destroys emotional energy like a backlog of unmade decisions," she says. "Make any choice. It doesn't have to be the biggest decision weighing on you. Decide what you're going to eat tonight. Then decide whether you're going to buy that shirt or not. Then decide about your future." In other words, just do it.
Symptoms: You're stressed to the brink of hysteria.
Cause: Suppressed emotional trauma.
Remedy: Dig down under the surface.
As anyone who has experienced road rage—on either the venting or receiving end—can tell you, a lot of us are thiscloseto losing it. And seldom is the cause actually the ice cream truck in front of you.
"So many people are overwhelmed," Webb says. "But rarely is what's going on at that moment overwhelming. Something has triggered the panic, brought up emotional history. They've postponed dealing with an issue that's been hanging over their heads for 20 or 30 years."
Oh, that! People who take Webb's course often uncover some fairly traumatic memory, and the same is true for Loehr's clients. They come to him for stress management but wind up bumping into the Big Secret they're hiding from. "You really have to pull the whole thing up almost by force," Loehr says, "but when you start uncovering it, it's not going to be a huge surprise."
Webb likes to remind people when they're freaking that if they admit they're not facing a man-eating predator, "they'd realize their fear is out of proportion to the current event." Simply recognizing that you're on emotional overload—not under attack from a man-eating predator—calms you.
Symptoms: You feel unworthy and inept, unequal to the tasks before you.
Cause: Someone who constantly chips away at your self-esteem.
Remedy: Defuse the "invalidator."
"Hell is other people," Jean-Paul Sartre observed. Whether he was feeling particularly dyspeptic that day or had just been to a dreadful dinner party, history does not record. But perhaps he'd have enjoyed talking to Jay Carter.
Carter has spent much of his career helping people deal with what he calls invalidators—the relatives, lovers, bosses, and so-called friends who put us down or intimidate us. Like any good philosopher, Carter knows that the real problems—and solutions—lie within. "You can't change the other person," he says. "You can only change yourself, and you can also change the relationship. Sometimes when you change the relationship, the other person changes."
If you can't simply walk away from the invalidator, Carter has a few techniques worth a shot. Confronting your antagonist is one option—and you don't have to be all that aggressive. "A long pause or a knowing smile, resting your chin in your hand or leaning forward slightly, can let her know she'd better not mess with you," he writes in Nasty People. Or you can refuse to play along with hardball tactics. If your husband says, "Choose between your career and me," try saying, "I'm not choosing." The choice then becomes his, and the game is over.
The most surprising technique that Carter touts is nurturing the other person. This is best used in a nonintimate relationship that neither of you can avoid—say, with a hostile coworker or a querulous in-law. Show affinity, he advises, acknowledge the other person's feelings, and find something to admire. "It's the very thing you don't feel like doing," Carter says, but studies show abusive people were usually abused or neglected themselves. Sometimes they soak up any sign of caring. "It goes against the grain, but it does work." You need to use this approach judiciously, though. While it's okay to nurture, you don't want to reward bad behavior.
Remedy: Add connection and purpose. Repeat when necessary.
There's a joke about a man who gives up everything—wife, kids, work—to seek the meaning of life. He travels the world, tries every religion and experience, and is finally directed to a lonely peak in Nepal where a wise yogi holds the secret. He climbs the peak and, near death, asks the master, "What is the meaning of life?"
"Life," replies the yogi, "is a rope."
The guy blinks, thinks—and finally explodes. "You mean I gave up everything in the world to hear that life is a rope?"
After a pause, the yogi says, "You mean life is not a rope?"
What makes that joke funny to me is not only the seeker's frustration but the tenuousness of the yogi's answer. Whatever metaphor you choose (rope, fountain, roller coaster), life needs meaning. And no one can give it that but you.
Kirshenbaum finds it crucial to make time for something transcendent. She and her husband both love classical music, and they decided to listen to every composition by every major composer in chronological order just for the joy of it. "I don't know how to say this more clearly," she writes in Emotional Energy: "Figure out what for you is the beautiful and the sublime, and make it your mission to turn that into a major part of your life."
For Loehr, life is about purpose. What he saw in great athletes was that their almost superhuman efforts were guided by a clear goal—winning the ring, the gold, the title. "What are the things you want to be extraordinary at?" Loehr asks. "What's going to define real success for you?" When you know that, you can begin to craft a mission.
Sean Elder's essay "The Lock Box" appears in The Bastard on the Couch (Morrow).