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I remember when I admitted I needed to change my life.
My memory of the moment has the charming unreality of tilt-shift photography. It was a clear, sunny autumn afternoon. I was sitting on our couch, legs spread out on the chaise lounge, with a blanket on my lap. The light was hitting just-so on the red vinyl of the legitimately 60s kitchen set just across from me in our open-plan apartment.
My partner sat down beside me and said “I think you should talk to someone.” She had said that to me a few times before and, each time, I said “I’ll think about it” or “I’m managing it.”
This time, I said “Yeah, okay.”
Facing the woe
I had spent the 15-or-so years up until that conversation “managing” depression. My particular flavour is called dysthymia – basically, a chronic form of depression – with a bit of seasonal affective disorder sprinkled in. I was a bit sad all the time and I plummeted every winter.
To illustrate: for three or four consecutive winters, I woke up each morning and, while lying in bed, thought “it’s a good thing we don’t have guns in Australia otherwise I would’ve shot myself already.”
After that, I’d tell myself I’d feel a bit bitter by about 4pm. That helped.
I idly imagined stepping in front of a bus every day on my commute and, upon having that thought, took a step away from the curb. I’d tell myself I’d feel a bit better come spring. That helped.
I called it “the woe”. I was feeling the woe.
I exercised, meditated, ate well, maintained strong friendships and relationships with my family. I did all the things you were supposed to do to help with depression and accepted the rhythms woe.
It was normal. It was me. Right up until my partner convinced me it didn’t have to be and I finally agreed.
No change comes quickly
That was about three years ago. I’m in a much better place now.
I’m still a bit, well… the positive version of it is even-keeled. Rarely too high, rarely too low. But I’m more chipper. I laugh more loudly and more freely. I’m marginally less sarcastic.
The woe still comes. But it’s less consistent and more mild. A gentle drizzle that I can see, feel and welcome. It’ll pass.
Getting here, of course, took time.
No-one achieves anything – not change, growth or even greatness – suddenly. Even enlightenment comes from sitting and practice.
“The monk glimpses the face of god not by scaling a peak in the Himalayas, but by sitting still in silence,” writes Steven Pressfield in his book Turning pro, his book about the changes we need to make in our lives to chase whatever it is we truly desire most. “The physical leads to the spiritual. The humble produces the sublime.”
The time itself is one thing. The kicker is that change – real change – takes pain and sacrifice.
What will you give up?
All personal growth means giving up an equivalent amount of your old self. Even deciding you need to change represents means sacrificing your sense that you’re okay as is.
For me, I needed to accept that I wasn’t “managing” my depression and that I hadn’t been for a long time. I needed to really understand that the nihilism that had infiltrated my default view of the world wasn’t real or honest – it was a reflection of depression.
And, hardest of all, I had to accept that antidepressants would help me. I had spent years telling myself I wasn’t someone who needed medication. I truly believed they could help a lot of people and that taking them was fine. I just didn’t need to. I was managing it. And yet.
The psychologist I was seeing summed it up with one question: “Aren’t you tired of struggling all the time?”
Finding balance in your life often involves giving up parts of yourself and your life that no longer serve you. It takes the self-reflection to notice them, the honesty to accept they no longer work, and the courage to change.
Here’s how M. Scott Peck describes it in his book The road less travelled:
Mature mental health demands, then, an extraordinary capacity to flexibility strike and continually restrike a delicate balance between conflicting needs, goals, responsibilities, directions, et cetera. The essence of this discipline of balancing is ‘giving up.’
Balancing is a discipline precisely because the act of giving something up is painful. In one way or another it is a lesson I have continually learned throughout my life. As must everyone, for as we negotiate the curves and corners of our lives, we must continually give up parts of ourselves. The only alternative to this giving up is not to travel at all the journey of life.
You’re giving up something no matter what. You just need to decide if you’re going to give up part of your life or the opportunity to grow.
Change is a real pain
The challenge, really, is that it’s much easier to give up the opportunity. Staying still is easy. It feels nice – not because it’s good but because it represents the absence of pain.
You realise something isn’t working. It’s a gut punch, it aches. You have the epiphany but, shocker, they don’t always feel great.
Pressfield argues that epiphanies tear us apart before they help us grow. They present a new way of living but, in the process, they strip away a self-lie or delusion. In the process, they offer you two paths: double-down on the lie or do the work required to change.
Unfortunately, the fastest (and easiest) way to get rid of that pain is to convince yourself that everything’s fine. Nothing needs to change. And, because it feels good, it’s easy to think you made the right call.
Facing a problem immediately means embracing pain in pursuit of a better future; ignoring them – and hoping they’ll just go away – means you can continue on enjoying the moment.
Lying to yourself can be a real stroll in the park while changing yourself is a grade ten hike. So you need something to help do the work.
Pressfield describes it well:
In the post-epiphanal moment, we have two things going for us that we didn’t have ninety seconds earlier: we have reality and we have humility. These are powerful allies.
The third thing you need, according to Pressfield, is shame. Shame can help prompt growth if – but only if – it’s acknowledged honestly. Then, you can harness its energy and turn it into will. And will is a necessary part of sustained change.
Looking back, shame helped move me along. I didn’t want to let my partner down; I didn’t want to hamper her life. And I didn’t want to keep wasting winters underneath the woe.
Shame can go wrong, of course, and it isn’t enough to spur change by itself. You need support networks, you need love (both for yourself and from others).
You need self-reflection, honesty and courage. You need time. And you need to decide that you’re prepared give up the parts of yourself that no longer serve you. If you do, you’ll back on that decision fondly.
I know I do.
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