Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Fix the problem, not the symptom

Today's self-help topic, presented with pictures of two different batches of handspun yarn, is about sweeping away the mental clutter of bad feelings so you can start seeding your life with good ones because wow, is that ever Not a human's default mode!

People who've suffered through deep trauma are not alone in facing sadness or guilt or shame or downright self-loathing at some point in their lives.  With the slightest excuse, some of us go through phases where we cycle through them on a loop every day - and those feelings so easily lead us to do things that make life even harder than it was already (getting mad, shopping too much, consuming too much, alienating people, pouring hours into activities that offer little if any value.)

That is crazypants, isn't it, trying to fix one source of pain with three or four more.

So forget that, my friends.  Why agonize over fixing symptoms?  Just fix the problem.

Yeah, that sounds oversimplified, doesn't it.  People go into therapy for this, just like I did when I wanted to tackle my fear of flying, and if you're looking at deep trauma you really have to have that kind of help.  But just like DIY home repairs are a thing that exists, there are lots of problems you can track down and handle on your own.

Next time you find yourself mentally compiling a list of all the less than ideal decisions you've made that day in preparation for for a comfortable round of self-criticism, see it as an opportunity and write them down.

The list will probably be ugly but that's okay.  Try tracing them backward and forward and maybe it will give you an insight you can work with.

For example: the other day I didn't feel too great, wondered why, and realized I'd eaten six donuts, several slices of banana bread, four cheese tea biscuits, and I'm not quite sure how many chocolate chip cookies but it was a lot.  That discovery led to quite a number of bad feelings, the nature of which I will leave to your imagination.  Let's just say that if I'd written those down, the list would be an absolute stinker.

Instead I thought about how that much non-essential food got near me in the first place.

Here's the backwards trace on that question:

On a recent trip back from the cottage I suggested a stop in a town with a second-hand shop where I found a fantastic pair of chairs last year.

I wanted to stop there because after two years of pulling towels out of the dressers at the cottage in the spring and noticing they still smelled so great I didn't even need to give them a fresh wash, I realized I could save myself a lot of time and stress and space if I could store cottage linens in dressers up there all winter, rather than in plastic tubs in the garage at home.

And I'd sensibly measured and identified three opportunities for adding more plastic-free, mouse-proof dresser-type storage.

All good reasons to stop at that very pretty town for an early morning antique run, right?

And now the forwards trace.

That town also has a really, really amazing bakery.

Which opens earlier than any other retail store, so it makes perfect sense to stop there if you get to town before the official start of furniture business, thereby making good use of time.  Especially if you're not sure the antique store will be open that day, thereby salvaging any wasted effort.

The bakery was recommended to me by a good friend I don't get to see much over the summer, so visiting there produces tangible memories of good times.

The food in the bakery is all prepared by real people in real time, not with giant machines and preservatives, so choosing and consuming it feels like a summer treat and like a dip into a different part of the pool that is the Handmade Lifestyle.  Oh, and a contribution to the always-important small-town economy.  Yay!

All those things are cheerful and positive.  How can they have led me to put so much sugar into my system in one day - well beyond the levels that could remotely be considered healthy?  You know, apart from the indisputable facts that everything in the bakery looked delicious, I am indecisive, and so many baked things are stale by the same time tomorrow.

Taking a closer look at each of the forward and backward points, it looks to me like my goals were to streamline my spring and fall cottage tasks and make efficient use of time, have some happy holiday experiences, and reinforce my sense of living a cheerful creative life.

Well, three guesses what problem all that sugar was hiding from my view - and the hint is, it's the opposite of what I was trying to achieve.  Right now I'm way busier than I want to be, I'm not giving myself enough opportunities to do things I think are fun, and I'm not being as creative as I need to be to feel happy.

The thing about problems is that they feed themselves into your subconscious really, really effectively.  I know myself pretty well so I did kind of suspect when I suggested stopping at the bakery that things wouldn't end well.  But I didn't realize I was trying to compensate for being too busy.

Another thing about problems is that they are so much easier to solve than you think.  I got up the next morning accepting that a little disorganization is bearable, made a point of catching up with some friends, tossed out some expendable chores in favour of a nap to make up for lost sleep, and wrote up the drafts for this week's self-help posts because if I'm not writing, I'm not happy. Within hours I was so much more comfortable.. and I didn't need any more sugar either.  True, I have to keep up a little of that every day until my schedule clears, but at least I know now why it's so important not to push myself so hard.

Fix the problem, my friends.  It's your best path to peace of mind.