Many magical traditions hold that you control a monster by speaking its name. My whole world changed the day a doctor flipped through his medical school textbook and found the label for my illness, which had been misdiagnosed for years. Knowing my condition's name allowed me to track, understand, and manage it. The power of naming is why so many lives have changed with the first utterance of words like "I'm an alcoholic" or "I'm over my head in debt" or, simply, "I'm unhappy."
One of my clients, a diabetic, told me, "If I talk about diabetes, I'll attract it. If I never say it, it isn't real and it can't hurt me." Actually, avoiding a scary topic means your subconscious mind is riveted on it. To let go of something, you first have to admit you're holding it. True freedom starts with absolute honesty. So be brave: Say the words. "I'm lonely." "I have an eating disorder." "My marriage isn't working." The moment you call the problem by its real name, you're already learning how to make it less harmful.
Step 2: Start Filling in Your Lifeline by Rating Your bêTe Noire at This Moment
On the Lifeline graph you downloaded, the numbers across the bottom reflect your age. The numbers on the left axis indicate the intensity of your problem. Begin filling in the Lifeline by answering this question: On a scale of 0 to 10, with 0 indicating "no problem at all" and 10 "the worst I've ever experienced," how bad is your problem today? Put an X in the column above your current age, at whatever level feels appropriate (if your suffering is at 10, mark the topmost box; if it rates a 9, the second-to-the-top, and so on).
Step 3: Remember (And Record) The Worst of Times
Now recall when your bête noire was its very worst—the time you were fattest, most nicotine-addicted, most socially incompetent, or whatever. If you don't remember your age back then, think of other things that happened around the same time: "Oh, yes, that was the year I [got pregnant/bought a Yugo/tried to learn pole-vaulting]." These events will help you place your worst bête noire periods in the correct year on your Lifeline. Mark the "level 10" box above each of the years when your problem hit its maximum. For example, my pain rated a 10 when I first developed symptoms, at age 18. It came on strong again during each of my pregnancies, and stayed at maximum force when all three of my kids were tiny. That means that on my Lifeline, fibromyalgia pain scored a 10 at ages 18, 23, 25, and 27 through 30. Mark your Lifeline to represent your personal Dark Ages.
Step 4: Remember (And Record) The Best of Times
Now it's time to look on the bright side. Recall occasions when your problem eased up or temporarily disappeared. Remember what was going on in your life, and above each year of low beast activity, mark the box that shows the level of intensity back then. For example, my pain levels dropped from a 10 to a 4 when I was 31, after I quit my academic job and started writing books. They rose a little the next year, but at 33, when I began life-coaching former students, my pain dropped to near 0. When was your beast at its least? Give it a score for each year that applies.
Step 5: Fill in The Gaps
Once you've marked the best and worst of times, fill in the gaps, scoring your bête noire levels at every age. You won't have total recall. The numbers will be too fuzzy for physics. But social scientists know that charts like the Lifeline can be extremely useful—and as you fill in the boxes, you'll automatically start thinking like a social scientist. Which brings us to the most powerful Lifeline step.
Step 6: Take Note of Correlations and Casual Links
You describe correlations and causalities every time you observe, "I eat more when I'm tired" or "I feel wonderful near the ocean." Many of the causal links in your life are obvious to you, but others are invisible. The Lifeline exercise helps you see these. To begin noticing connections between your bête noire and other life experiences, answer the questions below on another sheet of paper.
A. When your bête noire was at its worst...
1. Where were you living?
2. Where were you working? (Note: Raising kids at home is work.)
3. What did you do on a typical day?
4. With whom did you spend time?
5. What did you believe?
B. Now answer the five questions above in regard to the times your bête noire was least bothersome.
C. What did your worst times have in common?
D. What did your best times have in common?
E. Other than the bête noire itself, were there any factors that were present at the worst times but not at the best times?
This exercise has sparked thousands of lightbulb moments for me and my clients. I spent years trying to figure out what triggered my fibromyalgia pain, always focusing on things like diet or medication. But creating a Lifeline revealed something surprising: Each and every time my pain flared, I was doing something that I later realized was steering me away from my life's purpose. The pain attacked when I tried to write academic journal articles, receded when I wrote books for a popular audience; worsened when I tried to be my idea of a "perfect mother," lessened when I was simply myself around my children; spiked when I taught college, vanished when I started life-coaching.
If you mull over your Lifeline, you, too, will find unexpected correlations and causalities. My client Janice realized that her beast—alcoholism—was less severe when she spent lots of time knitting. (Yes! Knitting!) Benjamin realized that he made disastrous business decisions around intellectual snobs. Colleen's self-esteem dropped like an anvil whenever she stopped doing yoga. These clients couldn't believe such factors were really aggravating their bêtes noires —until we tested them. Which brings us to...