Why am I so unproductive? Am I going to accomplish anything worthwhile in this life? Why am I such an introvert? When will I stop punishing myself? Sometimes the pit of self-absorption deepens until you can’t escape by normal means. And although you really would like to climb out, digging yourself deeper is so temptingly easy. But there are ways of stopping the war in your mind and finding peace…
Maybe you find yourself staying up into tomorrow to avoid admitting you spent the whole of today in your bedroom. Or dealing with feeling inadequate by comparing yourself to every successful person you’ve ever heard of added together. It’s as if you’ve taken your lonely version of the limbo challenge: how low can you bear to go?
It might not feel like it at the time, but there are legal, practical ways out of your head. The hard part is being honest about which one appeals to you.
Everyone says it’s good to talk, and I know I’ve found opening up to friends, or anyone willing to sympathize, invaluable – all the more so if they open up to me. But what do you do once you’ve bared your soul? How do you build your way up and out?
I’m not proud of it, but I’d have to be feeling consistently suicidal to get formal mental healthcare. Perhaps I’d prefer not to admit to a doctor that I have a problem. Maybe I’m too stubborn to use drugs willingly. Perhaps if I’ve been stuck inside my head, going back, there is the last thing I want to do. Addressing your mental health takes courage after all.
It’s not an unusual attitude – many more people experience mental health problems than getting treatment – but ignoring unhappiness is not an option either. Life’s too short for that.
So, for now, I’m considering a simple alternative, a piece of advice more suited to everyday anxiety no doubt than psychosis, but helpful nonetheless. Rock star Rod Stewart in Rod, his blast of an autobiography, helpfully passed it on from his dad:
‘To be properly contented, son, a [hu]man needs three things: a job, a sport, and a hobby.’
For Rod, these are singer, football and model railroading. Kudos to Rod for admitting that last one.
I loved this. In one sentence it turned me from a passive, anxious victim to someone on a perfectly valid mission. The activities on the list felt natural and were likely to involve interaction with other people on an equal footing to me. Most importantly, I wasn’t meant to concentrate on one activity to the exclusion of the others; they were all fundamental.
Job, sport, hobby – yes these things are apparent. But the fundamental part is to see them not as the stuff you happen to do in life, but as incredibly powerful ways of becoming sane.
Let’s adopt some broader definitions.
A job is any source of self-respect, purpose, and recognition.
A sport is an act that acknowledges you have a body that needs stimulation.
And a hobby is something you do just for the fun of it.
Now let’s consider them one by one, but without losing sight of the others.
Work that you generally enjoy, towards a goal that’s greater than you are, will get you out of your head on a regular basis. There’s nothing like a deadline to deactivate the ‘me’ centers. And once you’re past the prevarication of emails and meetings and dreading it, it does feel good. The beautiful distraction of work might just be the most respectable hard drug there is. And this is where it gets dangerous.
You’re happily working away and suddenly, sh*t it’s 6 o’clock, why didn’t I start this earlier, why did I take that twitter break, oh well maybe I can work all night and knock this project on the head? Just this once?
No, my friend. You’ve put in the time. You need to STOP work. Remember what Rod’s dad said? You’ve got other things to do.
You’ve heard it before – moving outside for just half an hour a day does as much for your mood as taking antidepressants, without the side effects – but today you just don’t feel like it. And you don’t want to feel guilty about that either.
You know when you see a dog shut in a car and you think, God that’s cruel, dogs need regular exercise. Or a dolphin in an aquarium, and you think, hang on, wild dolphins swim 80 miles a day! Not only on the surface but way down in the deep sea. And yet if you’re a desk worker like me, you may have just spent 7 hours in the same cubic meter of space, voluntarily imprisoned.
Let your body stage a takeover. Let it roam the savannah of your local park. Make it some food and give it time to eat. Take it into the shower and let it play in the water. Let it meet other bodies and check them out. Let it bounce on the bed. Let it dance.
And let it lie down by the fire when the evening comes and feast on that most powerful medicine known to humanity, sleep.
You wake up early. You sneak off during lunch. You’ve set aside an hour on a Sunday afternoon. Not because you’re not busy (oh no no no), but because everyone needs playtime.
I’m a fiction writer. Playing is what I do. But the downside of my job is that when I’m having a bad day, there’s no rock of knowledge or usefulness I can hide behind. Anyone with a subjective element in their work needs a break from their own emotions, and yes sometimes from other people’s (misguided obviously) opinions.
So for pleasure I’ve been seeking the purest form of objectivity I can find. And if Rod can come clean about his trains, I ought to have the guts to declare that my weird hobby, at least at the moment, is maths. Not virtuoso maths, normal maths. I am doing it and teaching it a little. It’s not about words or people, it can’t ever be a substitute for writing, but it’s so lovely. And it makes returning to writing so much more beautiful.
There. Out of the closet. Out of my head.
Of course, your hobby might well not be maths; it might be the opposite of maths, only that relaxation doesn’t happen quickly by flat out doing anything. Doing nothing sends you back into your head. It happens through doing something different.
Making something with your hands can be a great antidote to a screen based job. Galloping along the beach might satisfy an otherwise cautious professional. The painting came to Winston Churchill’s rescue. Teaching and volunteering can provide purpose and human connection. Being alone can help you work out who you are.
Time pressure makes this seem difficult. But happiness is important. And happiness will, in the end, save you time.
Job, sport, hobby
So take the chance when you’re feeling upbeat to plan your escape. Define your job/sport/hobby. Is there anything you’re longing to do but somehow haven’t got round to?
Take that longing seriously, find the will to accommodate it. Because these everyday activities may well be all the therapy, you need.
And please, when you’re next in that self-obsessed spiral, don’t hesitate, pick one of your three and do it. Immediately. You might just find a way out.
photo source: pexels + giphy
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