The nights are drawing in. Autumn is upon us. For many, the change of season comes and gos with relative ease. But for some, winter is a time of low mood, low energy, junk food, hibernation, or even clinical depression.
For the MindThatEgo Podcast #3, I speak with psychologist and leading expert on Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), Dr. Kelly Rohan. Kelly has undertaken extensive research around SAD as the Director of Clinical Training at the University of Vermont. Though light therapy is the frequent go-to for combating seasonal depressive symptoms, Kelly’s work has uncovered the important role thinking processes play in regulating seasonal mood.
In fact, the use of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is more effective than light therapy in preventing relapse. No longer do any of us have to feel helpless victims to our biology and body-clock; by working on our thoughts and creating healthy behaviour patterns, it’s possible to banish winter blues.
Talking points include:
The difference between normal fluctuation in mood, Winter Blues and full-blow SAD.
What Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is and how it combats SAD.
The effectiveness of CBT versus Light Therapy.
Noting common cognitive distortions contributing to low mood.
Ways to schedule activities to override the habit of hibernation.
How cultural messages can give us a bad impression of winter.
Mindful exercises to override symptoms.
Some example CBT restructuring… with real life examples from yours truly ;)!
Practical tools you can start using today to make winter fun and enjoyable.
In this article I’ll share my personal (and detailed) experience with suicidal thoughts, which could be triggering. If you are currently experiencing suicidal thoughts or extremely low mood please visit Samaritans.org or call +44 (0) 8457 90 90 90. Those in Berlin can contact: International Helpline Berlin: 030-44 01 06 07.
I first contemplated taking my life when I was 18. I felt the world would be better off without me. This wasn’t self-pity or melodrama — I genuinely felt the world would improve with a Ricky-shaped hole in it. I didn’t plan on telling anyone my intention. That’d put a spanner in the works. It’s not easy planning suicide if people know about it. Especially if those people love you.
I was exhausted by the daily emotional pain. I was overwhelmed and I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t really know what was going on or why I felt the way I did. I had no idea what steps to put in place to manage the feelings and thoughts I had. There was no escape.
Countless quiet Sunday mornings I’d lie in bed, paralysed by a sense of foreboding, thoughts of death ringing in my ears. Suicide, a symptom of depression, disguised itself as a rational form of treatment.
A Lunchtime SOS
One day I cried in front of my mum. I remember that day because it was the day after my mum rescued me on my lunch break, after I made an SOS phone call. I was working in a law firm and I’d just been promoted, somehow functioning despite regular panic attacks and a death wish. My first task in the new role wasn’t difficult. I had to phone a solicitors’ office and ask for their email address. Well, that’s a piece of piss, I thought.
So why couldn’t I do it? 9:10am, 10 minutes into the day. I’m a sitting duck at my desk, just about keeping my head above wave after wave of despair. I’m shaking. I can’t breathe. I feel like I’m going to pass out. I wait. I pretend to look busy, hoping no one will detect how I’m feeling. I make it until 12pm. “Just gonna pop out for lunch,” I say as nonchalantly as possible, tripping over the chair as I stand. I fling my bag over my shoulder, pleading for no one to ask: “Ricky, why are you taking your bag with you to lunch?”
Of course, no one asked such a innocuous question. But to the depressed and anxious mind, this question was a threat. It was a threat because my bag symbolised freedom. It symbolised my intent to walk out of the door and to never come back. If anyone asked, well… I’d find an excuse. Knowing me, I’d fail to find one. I’d probably cry and in front of the whole office. Game over. I’d be revealed for the pathetic, depressed weakling I was. Man up, or end it all, my thoughts told me.
“I Can’t Do It”
I walked out that lunchtime and phoned my mum instead. “I can’t do it, can you pick me up?” No matter how old you get, there’s nothing more comforting than your mum coming to pick you up. She did, of course, her maternal intuition knowing not to ask too many questions in response to my cryptic-yet-obvious plea for help. She knew she needed to be there and that’s all for now, and she was.
The confession was freeing. A weight lifted. Truth be told this moment was coming for a long time; the depression was consuming me, the anxiety burning from the inside. Until that point, I’d only confided in my girlfriend of the time. Neither of us knew how to handle it. The time had come to share the burden; through the tears the next morning I confessed. “I just feel so sad, and I don’t know why.”
It’d be some years before I explained to my family that “so sad” meant suicidal. Although the stigma is reducing, there’s a visceral response to talk of suicide. It’s almost too much to handle, yet one of the most effective ways of fighting the cause is by being open.
Before writing this article, I was speaking to my mate Ben. I’m vocal about my mental health experiences, yet in seven years of friendship, I realised I’d not once spoken fully about my experience with suicidal thoughts.
Mental illness and stigma kills people, far too many people, and the easier we can openly discuss, the better. So here goes.
The Times I’ve Wanted To End My Life
I’ve had three or four suicidal spells. Lunchtime walk-out was one moment in a year-long period where killing myself felt a viable option. I remember searching on Google for techniques. I considered crashing my car on the motorway and making it look like an accident. One of my more flamboyant plans was to jump off the Bristol Suspension Bridge. Then I discovered they had suicide barriers. Balls.
I had a special spot in a beautiful park some miles from my house I’d morbidly nominated as “the spot.” One day soon, I told myself, I’ll go there and I’ll overdose on pills, washed down with vodka to make sure. Occasionally I’d drive to the spot, stop the car, sit. Wait. Contemplate whether to get out the car, to walk to “the spot.” I never got out of the car. I sat until the sun set, the darkness embracing me, a familiar embrace.
Aside from fantasising and plotting, I’ve been dangerously close to taking action a few times. Stumbling back from town, dizzy from five-too-many Jägerbombs, far too much smooth R’n’B and Joop Jump aftershave, I argued with my girlfriend over the phone. It’s five in the morning and I’m five minutes from home.
Fuelled by the falling out, something kicks in and I turn around, back from where I’ve came, towards the canal. I walk onto the bridge, a bridge I cross on my daily commute. I climb over the barrier. I sit and stare at the mud-brown water below, contemplating the jump. Not today, I decide in the end, and go home.
Stoppage Amongst The Cutlery
I had another severe bout of depression at university, triggered viciously by the sudden death of a friend in a motorcycle accident. I fell apart. I experienced extreme paranoia, panic, suicidal thoughts, I heard voices. The noise was deafening. Staying alive was a challenge; sitting on a bus was the mental equivalent of holding my hand over a burning flame. Lecture halls were sensory torture. Social interactions were exercises in how long I could act hinged when wildly unhinged under the surface. It’s surprising how far smiling and cracking jokes can get you.
Drinking didn’t help, neither did drugs, I did both. In a similar incident to years prior, triggered by a drunken argument with my then-girlfriend, I storm back from town, walk into my kitchen, find the sharpest knife and hold it to my wrist. I hold long enough for the cold blade to warm to my body temperature. The next day I attend a friend’s birthday party. I joke as I retell the story of storming home. I censor my stoppage amongst the cutlery.
Depression Is A Great Teacher
All things considered, it might sound weird to say I wouldn’t change a thing. Depression has been my greatest teacher. Depression taught me courage. It made me realise the power we each have to shape our perception of the world. Depression forced me into a journey of understanding the mind, to glimpse behind the curtain. Knowing what true rock bottom feels like opened me up to a new appreciation of normal.
It’s not easy to recollect and articulate these experiences. But I do so with a purpose. I want to send a message of hope to anyone feeling the way I did. I’m here now, behind these words. I survived, somehow, and I’m happy to say in the years passing, I’ve experienced stillness, tranquility, peace, contentment, fulfilment, joy. Not all the time, of course, but it’s a miracle I feel the way I do now. I experience low mood at a tiny fraction of what once was.
Contemplating suicide isn’t contemplating physical death. It’s contemplating an escape from extreme suffering. Within the midst of immense mental pain lies an opportunity for rebirth. An opportunity for the self-image to crumble, the ego to disintegrate. It’s an opportunity to rebuild. In A Road Less Travelled, M. Scott Peck goes so far to argue mental illness is an act of grace, a “powerful force originating outside of consciousness which nurtures our spiritual growth.”
Indeed, depression, anxiety, psychosis and a host of mental illnesses are so much more than emotional responses to events. They’re messages from the soul.
Shameful To Shamanic
Suicidal thoughts don’t have to be acted upon. Instead, if we transform our approach to mental illness and reduce stigma, we find Peck’s words ring true. We find emotions are a form of inner intelligence telling us something isn’t right, the beginning of a significant shift in consciousness. In many indigenous tribes, those who suffer become healers and shamans. Their mental illness is viewed as a gift.
If you’re reading this now, and you’ve experienced suicidal thoughts, this post is for you. Seeing the experience as a gift may feel almost insulting. But I want you to remember hopelessness is not truth, it’s a symptom. I want you to make a promise to yourself to keep going. I want you to have the courage to continue to fight. I want you to surprise yourself by living and experiencing things you never felt possible. I want you to look back in 10 years time, teary-eyed and stunned by the beauty you’ve seen, beauty you never thought possible. All of this beauty lies ahead, hidden from view.
I don’t know what stopped me from harming myself, but something did. If you’ve had suicidal thoughts and you’re reading this now, it’s what stopped you. Never underestimate the power in staying alive. And never underestimate the power that has kept you alive. Let this be an indication of your strength, a reminder you can rebuild, transform, grow, experience, love, laugh, create, take control.
For now, just keep going.
Need to talk? Hey, I’m Ricky, creator of MindThatEgo. If this article has affected you, please feel open to comment below, or message me directly at [email protected]. Thank you so much for reading.
Navigating the flow of life can be compared to captaining a ship. Sometimes the ocean is calm and navigation doesn’t require much effort. Sometimes the ocean is vicious and navigation is difficult. Sometimes we may navigate choppy water with effortless skill, anchored by inner stillness. Sometimes we may struggle to navigate the calmest waters, feeling overwhelmed as much by storms within as waves without.
Yesterday, I couldn’t steer; I let go of the ship’s wheel, knees shaking from seasickness. I stumbled to the edge and gazed into the distance, fear rising as abruptly as the crashing of the wildest shore. What I had previously navigated suddenly overwhelmed me. I felt paralysed. Mindfulness was resigned to memory as I became preoccupied by thoughts, lost in visions of the future.
I’ve been here before. I’ve capsized, gone overboard, fought to keep my head above water. However, a selection of tools, resources and robust self-care has helped me to recover quickly. Writing hasn’t flowed recently, but what better time to approach a subject I’m sure we can all relate to to some degree?
Why not write about my experience of feeling overwhelmed, from the inside out?
Here are observations of the subtleties of mind as I was momentarily stopped in my tracks. Step by step, this is an uncensored, behind-the-scenes examination of feeling overwhelmed with life. I’m hoping this article will contain relatable experiences, helping you find an approach to manage a similar situation.
Feeling Overwhelmed With Life Started With An Energy Dip
“Tonight I’m gonna rest my chemistry.” — Interpol, Rest My Chemistry.
The first vaguely noticeable red flag was a dip in energy. Not the usual daily fluctuation, but something deeper, beyond the restoration of sleep. An essential Life Force, described as ch’i in Chinese culture, Prana in Hindu philosophy, and many other names across many centuries and cultures. I became aware of such an energy deficiency days before overwhelm hit. And… I ignored it! Even though I strive to maintain balance and understand the importance of rest, I overextended myself energetically. I didn’t take note. I didn’t switch off.
Switching off for me slowing down, taking it easy for a while. It doesn’t include relaxation techniques or meditating or socialising (important for introverts) or reading, but instead doing nothing. The type of self-indulgent, cosy nothing most of us engage in during a harmless winter cold.
Having periods where we rest and recharge is vital. But as covered in an article on time valuation, doing nothing is low value because it isn’t productive. As a result of these internalised beliefs, the dip in energy was accompanied by an inner resistance, operating outside of my awareness. I attempted to carry on as usual, rather than respect my body’s message to slow down; despite a clear reminder on my wrist…
Burnout Via Resistance
Many of us face chronic burnout due to similar resistance, ignoring the warning signs of stress. We don’t pay attention to our natural, limited energy resources, instead attempting to soldier on with an IV drip of caffeine and false-promises of slowing down at some fixed point in the future. Resistance manifests differently for everyone, but for me, it arrived in the form of emotionalfrustration, combined with a sense of inconvenience:
“Uhh, not now, low energy! I have things to do. Why am I tired? I shouldn’t be. This isn’t fair. How do I return to how I felt days ago?”
This string of inner-dialogue is insightful. The first section — “not now!” — is me resisting. I’m attempting to push away unwanted sensations. Essentially, I’m in denial. I then question the why of the situation, another form of resistance. Then, I indulge in unnecessary suffering and pity, spinning the narrative things “shouldn’t be” this way, that it’s “unfair”. The last section — “how can I get back to how I was” — has a different structure. This is a form of resistance manifesting as attachment to the past.
Mindfulness is attempting to be in the moment to the best of our ability. Yet here I was, wistfully indulging in what once was, craving the return of energy and creative flow. The paradox is, attachment to a previous state is one of the biggest barriers between feeling alive in the present and, ironically, experiencing the desired state again. You can’t be fully in the moment when your mind is stuck in memories of past, or imagined futures. During this stage, I was floating between two timelines while unwittingly neglecting The Now.
The Illusion Of A Fearful Future
The energy dip began late last week, Thursday or Friday. I can’t quite remember. But after a few day’s resistance, I’d become intoxicated by the mind. Self-awareness is the ability to step back from thoughts and feelings. Yet indulging in memories of the past led to identifying strongly with thought. The stronger we identify, the harder it is to step back. Indulging in memory is a deceitful form of identification and often hard to catch. Ultimately, it’s a powerful pull from The Now, disguised as a way to diagnose present-moment pain by searching for answers in the past.
I didn’t chastise myself, as that defeats the purpose of balance and self-compassion. But it’s important to note at this point, I was struggling to step back from thinking because my reserves were low. My ch’i needed to recuperate, and I wasn’t giving it necessary space. Tiredness, hunger, illness — these challenges make mental resilience harder to harvest. I felt like I was trapped in the middle of a swarm of bees, attempting to swat one away at a time. Each thought felt tangible, real. As someone prone to depression, this is the moment a dear old friend, hopelessness, turns up for a reunion.
That’s because, as well as becoming attached to the past, I projected my current state into the future. That’s when overwhelm really kicked in. Scenario after scenario popped into my mind as I visualised myself unable to cope, catastrophising my imagined future. I can’t cope was swiftly followed by hopelessness. This worst-case-scenario projection is a breeding ground for anxiety and stress.
It can be hard to remember these are only thoughts, and we all have the resourcefulness in any given moment to step back, witness, and become The Observer. Fortunately, I soon became aware of my inner resistance and my mind’s time-travelling tendency. This is when change began.
Opening Up To The Richness Of Melancholy
“I’m going to go home, put my jogging bottoms on, and be nice to myself.” — Me. Yesterday.
I was sitting in one of my favourite cafes having finished one task for the day, with many left, struggling to ignore my lagging Life Force. Suddenly, awareness illuminated my mind. A sense of comfort glided into my consciousness like a warm hug, acknowledging my need to slow down with the loving assuredness of a caring parent. Immediately I abandoned resistance and accepted my energetic nature and sense of overwhelm.
Free from the tension of resistance, I opened up to how I was feeling in full detail. I became The Observer of thoughts, emotions and visualisations, rather than feeling infused with them.
A rich spectrum of emotion came to the forefront of my awareness, and I realised I’d been resisting a delicate sadness, a midnight-green melancholy. Selectively numbing our inner experience isn’t possible, instead we numb everything. My resistance had closed my heart to a degree; now, I cracked it open and vulnerability flourished. The humidity of numbness was pierced by rainfall of sensitivity, as the enriching aroma of petrichor enlivened my emotional landscape.
Awareness opens us to the exquisite shades of inner experience. Now the air was clear, I could see the factors contributing to my state of mind.
I noticed two voices: The Victim and The Saboteur. I needed to manage these voice to avoid indulgence and the risk of becoming stuck, which could lead to a depressive episode. I’ve discovered ways of facilitating the needs of each. Your approach might be different. Experiment, be creative, see what works for you, but keep the balance of the Middle Way in mind. Here’s my approach.
Giving The Victim The Spotlight
The Victim is the voice within that tells me life’s unfair, that things shouldn’t be this way, that I’m a victim of circumstance and someone else or something else is to blame. It’s an alluring voice, a voice resonating with me for many years. It’s a common voice, one which only serves to strip us of power and make us feel helpless. Thanks to the catalyst of awareness, I moved into The Observer role and created space from thought, allowing me to tune into this familiar thinking pattern. This allowed me to empower myself, relinquish blame and remember:
I am the only person responsible for resolving this mood.
Succumbing to The Victim mindset only makes things worse. Realising responsibility is Stage One in dealing with The Victim, but there’s another practice I find particularly effective. The Victim wants attention, it wants to be heard. So I give it the spotlight for a select period of time. I step into the role like an actor stepping on stage and consciously indulge in a self-centered, pitying rant. I feel the frustration and unfairness with the vigour of a bawling child:
“Life is so hard! It’s so unfair! Why can’t I just be allowed to live out my dream? Surely I’m working hard enough for it? Won’t someone notice me? Come along and make things easier? I never get my own way. Poor me!”
This is similar to the inner-dialogue I used to cleanse my mind. Try it — it’s cathartic! The key is doing it with awareness. We can call this purposeful self-ranting, its aim to satisfy and quieten The Victim. Putting pen to paper and writing this string of dialogue is just as, if not more, effective.
Having purged The Victim, the voice dimmed. Now The Saboteur came to the forefront (personified as The Matrix‘s Agent Smith). The Saboteur knows what’s good for me and actively tries to encourage me to do the complete opposite. Thanks Agent Smith.
This time, The Saboteur was encouraging me to binge-eat, to binge-drink, to stop going to the gym, to stop writing, to abandon MindThatEgo, to sabotage relationships, to sink into the murkiness of the ocean while waving the white flag and throwing in the towel.
Silencing The Saboteur
The Saboteur is an interesting part of my psyche because I know the depths it can take me. I feel its presence, and acting against it can take a great effort. The sooner it’s managed, the better.
When I woke this morning I felt better, but The Saboteur was still there. “Don’t get out of bed,” it said, “you’re tired, you don’t have energy.” It was telling me there was no point in going to the gym. This isn’t a voice to pay attention to. Indeed sometimes my body does need to rest, or I do need more sleep. But thinking processes courtesy of The Saboteur arrive in narrative form; not intuition or sensation from the body. The latter is worth paying attention to.
Knowing its nature, I deal with The Saboteur differently than The Victim. I’ll give in a little, feeding its needs in a way I know won’t cause harm. Then…
I tell it to fuck off.
Seriously. Try it. Having recharged yesterday my resilience returned, and I was having none of it. I was regaining control and aside from tenderness, The Saboteur was my biggest challenge. Noticing its attempt to prevent me from starting my day, I knew I had the choice to listen, or to fight. So I stood in the mirror, stared deeply into my eyes, and channelled my warrior.
Carrying this mindset into the gym, each rep became act of defiance. Evidencing how effective weight training is in managing my mental health, I could feel The Saboteur retreat. It knew its place, it knew I wasn’t playing games.
As a side note, it’s interesting to witness the balancing of feminine and masculine energies throughout this process. I needed to cultivate a feminine energy to open up to vulnerability and sensitivity. Once I’d accepted and processed my emotions, it took a cultivation of masculine energy to overcome The Saboteur; a perfect illustration of the duality of yin and yang.
I suspect the depletion of my Life Force arose from an imbalance that needed to be addressed.
A Summary Of Overcoming Overwhelm
“It ain’t about how hard you hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward.” — Rocky Balboa
As I write, I feel lighter. Seasickness subsided. Knees no longer wobble. More space, more flow. Past and future have less pull, present. I’m aware I still need rest, but the change is noticeable. In the past this would have lasted much, much longer. Best of all, I’m ready to get back behind the wheel, to steer the ship through challenging waters. However, I’m also aware I need time to adjust to my usual pace.
I’ll end by summarising my approach to dealing with overwhelm. The initial step is relinquishing resistance and denial of how I am truly feeling: physically; emotionally; cognitively; energetically. I pay attention to the tendency of my mind to indulge in the past, or project fearfully into the future. Then I open up to my full experience, allowing myself to be vulnerable. If sadness arises, I allow it to wash over me, and experience it with self-compassion and curiosity. This allows other contributing factors to surface.
On this occasion these were the voices of The Victim and The Saboteur. Each needed to be managed in their own way, allowing me to clear the mind and to re-focus on the here and now, while respecting the need to adjust back to my usual pace, to find balance.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed and struggling to navigate, I hope these techniques help you find your sea legs. Remember: this too shall pass. Be kind to yourself. Allow yourself to feel. In no time, you’ll be back behind the wheel.
In the chaos of modern, fast-paced living, it often feels we don’t have enough time for… well, anything. Time is of the essence, time can be well spent or wasted, time is money, time is valuable, time is ticking, and above all else — time flies. If only we could manage our time efficiently, we’ll have all the time in the world and achieve all it is we desire time after time. Modern convention says time management is absolutely essential to keep track, to help achieve our goals. Not so fast, though; I’m going to argue time management is secondary to something more important — time valuation.
This approach is less focused on the physical act of scheduling in a journal or diary. Instead, the focus is the abstract, mental visualisation of how each of us perceive future time. Entries in a diary within themselves aren’t stressful, but the way we perceive our timeline of upcoming events often leads to stress or anxiety. Let me begin by explaining my distinction between time management and time valuation.
What Is Time Management And How Can It Cause Stress?
Time management is a way of managing and arranging the things we need to do into the time we have. I visualise this process as a calendar in our mind’s eye. The things we need to do are entities we attempt to fit into this mental calendar, from the important (go to work, pay bills) to the not-so-important (take the bins out, shower, tidy room, organise internet bookmarks) — and everything in between.
These are usually a mixture of physical entries in a diary and mental notes floating around in the recesses of the mind. However they are stored, stress arises when the things we need to do don’t comfortably synchronise with the time we have.
It can drain a lot of energy, and make us incredibly frustrated, when we mentally pluck tasks out of the air and try to squish them into an apparently restrictive amount of time. Let’s call this squishing process the square peg, round hole approach. For example, I may have a number of things to do floating around my mind’s eye for an upcoming week. They may or may not be entries in a diary:
Reply to Whatsapp messages
Make time for reading
That errand I’ve been putting off for too long
When I attempt to manage my time, I float each of these entities to fill the vacant space in the calendar of my mind’s eye. This may be accompanied by a visualisation or prophecy of each event, playing like a movie in the mind — along with a perception of how much time it will take. As is frequently the case, during this process I may feel there’s no way I’ll fit the things I need to do into the time I have. I feel stressed, I feel powerless, I sometimes feel paralysed. This leaves me despairing: “How am I going to get all of this done?”
The square peg, round hole approach is a recipe for stress due to a number of problems with the process of assigning the things we need to do to the time we have. It can apply to any time period: the next hour, day, week, month, year, or even lifetime. Fortunately we can train our brains and take control of this process, making it serve us effectively in both pragmatic planning and emotional ease. Before understanding how to take control, I’ll highlight the problems with the square peg, round hole approach. Becoming aware is the first step in making change.
Problem #1: Most Of Us Don’t Accurately Perceive Time
“Temporality temporalizes as a future which makes present in the process of having been.” ― Martin Heidegger, Being and Time
Humans are notoriously bad at mentally perceiving time. Not so much the rationalisation of “it’ll take me 30 minutes to exercise,” but more the experience of time. Time’s nature is one of life’s greatest mysteries; it’s heavily subjective, illusionary and is influenced by the context of events. This is understandable as our brains lack the pathways to process temporal information.
Unreliable future-projection certainly has a big influence on my life. When I visualise the things I need to do, I struggle to visualise accurately how much time they will take. Let’s say a smouldering passion of mine is to write a book. Write a book becomes an entity in my mind’s eye, floating around in an abstract manner, waiting to be assigned to the time I have. Writing a book is a long, drawn out process and I might have formed the following mistaken belief:
“Writing a book takes a long time. I’ll need to dedicate a number of hours each week to writing, even when I don’t feel like it.”
Eager to get going and excited by the prospect of structuring time for writing, I say to myself — the most important thing is time management. Write a book becomes another mental entity on the list of things I need to do. The trouble is, even before attempting to write a book, the things I need to do don’t fit the time I have — at least from my perception. I may have formed an additional mistaken belief:
“In the past I’ve never had time to sit down and write, because the things I need to do always outweigh the time I have. The only way to write a book, which will take a number of hours per week, for a year or more, is to get more time so the time I have fits the time it takes.”
Now the process of time management has a few deceptive layers. I have an attempt to synchronise the things I need to do into the time I have, with an erroneous belief of how much time it takes. This leads to another mistaken belief — the only way to do what I want to do is get more time. Yet time isn’t a commodity, something to gain or throw away, so I have tricked myself into believing there simply isn’t time to write a book, and consequently writing a book is a fanciful, impossible dream.
Interestingly a 2009 study led by Dr. Zauberman, a professor of marketing at Wharton School of Business, explored the subjective feeling of elapsed time. “For many people, we think about our [past] goals, and if nothing much has happened with those then suddenly it seems like it was just yesterday that we set them,” he told The New York Times. This perception can change “depending on what you think about, and how.”
Zauberman’s study could be significant in understanding how the above limiting belief of not having enough time is formed by memory and perception of past attempts at achieving goals. If we live our lives taking the square peg, round hole approach and not pursuing our passions or desires, we can become stuck in self-fulfilling cycle of lack of time. We perceive time as flying by, as limited. We project this erroneous belief into our mental calendar and can’t find space. Writing a book becomes a write off.
Problem #2: We Value Certain Tasks By Productivity
“Time isn’t precious at all, because it is an illusion. What you perceive as precious is not time but the one point that is out of time: the Now. That is precious indeed.” — Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now
On top of erroneously perceiving how much time it takes, there’s another key mistaken belief in modern culture:
“I can’t afford to waste my time, because it is valuable.”
What this common mistaken belief is really saying is: “If I’m not being productive, my time is wasted.” As Tolle points out in the above quote, this is a fallacy. Time isn’t precious, but each waking moment is. Yet we’ve been taught to value the concept of time, the idea of a blissful future where all our materialistic dreams are fulfilled.
This is an important element of time management and our perception of time — we live in an economically-driven, materialistic society that deems “productivity” as valuable, because it contributes to economy, and thus its agenda. Society does not value being because being is the antithesis of this agenda.
There are a number of forces at play here. Culturally, we assimilate the idea that a) time is valuable and it cannot be wasted and b) there is a hierarchy of productivity (thus value) framed by economically-driven principles. The number one principle for productivity is spending our time in a way that makes money. Other values closely linked include achievement, framed within itself to essentially mean career success, and material gain (get the house, get the car, get the iPhone X). You could argue escapism, and hedonism, cunningly weave their way into this value system as a means of “switching off” from incessant productivity.
I’ll let the words of Bill Hicks illustrate this particular point. The provocative stand-up comedian believed the key to understanding a society was to look at the drugs it permissed. In his typically astute, cynical view:
“Except for pharmaceutical poison, there are essentially only two drugs that Western civilization tolerates: Caffeine from Monday to Friday to energize you enough to make you a productive member of society, and alcohol from Friday to Monday to keep you too stupid to figure out the prison that you are living in.”
Problem #3: Productivity Is Based On Values Driven By Economic Agenda
There are many more layers and this order isn’t an exact science, but in a nutshell, our economically-driven, materialistic society frames what productivity is, and the best way to spend our time is to be productive. I’d argue:
Productivity has become an addiction.
We strive to be more productive, with the aid of modern technology. We strive for motivation, the elixir or productivity. We’re productive at the cost of our mental health and wellness. We’re even transforming mindfulness into a tool to make employees more productive at the workplace. All this leads to most of us feeling a noticeable twinge of guilt any time we aren’t productive. But it’s important to remember it’s all a matter of perspective.
Time spent “not being productive” is framed that way because of societies hierarchy of values. When we abide by the value society gives time, and money-centered productivity, it means we value other pursuits as less than. Doing nothing is a cardinal sin, the epitome of not being productive. Taking time to reflect. Doing for the sake of doing. Being for the sake of being. Writing. Painting. Walking. Playing. Resting. These are noble pursuits that nourish the soul — yet they do not hold much value in the hierarchy of productivity.
Problem #4: Time Management Is Subconsciously Filtered By Values
Mentally the entities in our mind’s eye — the things we need to do — are arranged in accordance to values assimilated by society’s hierarchy of productivity. We can further break the things we need to do into the following:
Core needs: eat, sleep, pay bills, shelter. These are essential to survival and are naturally high value.
Hierarchy of productivity: entities linked to the hierarchy of productivity are a close second. Making money, striving for success, moving forwards, career progression. These are future-based and attainment-based, thus making the future more valuable than the present (Tolle rightly refers to this notion as insanity).
Escapism: we are social animals — socialisation is a core need. But there’s emphasis in modern times to always be seen as having fun, escaping, creating Instagram, Facebook ready “moments.” During alone-time, escapism may include binge-watching Netflix or digesting social media. This form of escapism encourages a lack of self-reflection, self-insight and consequently self-actualisation.
Doing stuff or “busyness”: doing nothing is low value, so many of us fill our time rushing from one thing to the next, doing stuff to avoid doing nothing.
Again, these categories are far from exact science, but they hopefully provide an idea of how the motivating factors behind the mental process of assigning the things we need to do into the time we have. Let’s return to the book example to clarify. I start the process of time management by attempting to assign the entity write a book into the time I have in my mind’s eye. This process encompasses a flawed perception of how much time it takes.
During this process, conflicting values will fight it out to see where write a book can fit. The values I assign to write a book may include fulfilment, satisfaction, creative expression, and so on. However, in a value system based on society’s values, these rank poorly. In a Top Trumps standoff, fulfilment, satisfaction, and creativity can’t match making money, doing stuff, and even plays second fiddle to fun or escapism. I’ve lost count of moments in the past where I’ve planned to get up early and write, only to choose to get drunk the evening before and sleep in.
The Solution: Conscious Time Valuation
Time valuation is more important than time management and here’s why:
If we don’t consciously apply value to the things we need to do, those values are set for us.
If we simply attempt time management, the process is dictated by the hierarchy of productivity and external values fitting the agenda of an economically-driven society. Once aware of this process, the antidote is to empower ourselves by setting our own values. This transforms the process in a way that serves us. Back to the book example; if I consciously set this at high value and understand the process of time management, the process of assigning the things I need to do to the time I have changes.
Instead of trying to fit a square peg in a round hole, I trim the edges and make the square a circle. Write a book becomes high-value, beating other categories such as doing stuff, escapism, and even the hierarchy of productivity. The process of assigning the things I need to do into the time I have becomes a conscious, creative, and fluid activity.
Other things I need to do are automatically ranked lower, and therefore will not take precedent when attempting to fill the time I have. Identifying write a book as high value allows for more flexibility; perhaps I acknowledge even 30 minutes of writing per day is valuable, and actively schedule the time, turning the abstract notion into a concrete reality. Maybe I go to bed early so I can wake earlier to write. This is the process of trimming the edges, making the square peg circle:
“Writing a book is high-value. I will assign two hours to write on Wednesday evening and rearrange the things I need to do if necessary.”
I’m not advocating irresponsibility. Meeting core needs and gaining financial income to provide security and shelter are necessities. Socialisation is a necessity to the extent of keeping our relationships, sense of connection and intimacy healthy. Escapism is necessary at times, as long it doesn’t become a habitual avoidance technique. Balance is key.
But if we can incorporate the conscious time valuation, imagine the difference when assigning the things we need to do into the time we have. Writing a book has transformed from a task that takes lots of time and doesn’t fit the time we have, to becoming a concrete addition to the mental calendar, immovable, valuable.
The Higher The Value, The More Likely You’ll Stick To Completing The Task
An additional bonus is that high-value entries become solid entries in the mind’s eye, not featherweight entries easily blown by the wind of outside influence. Let’s use exercise as an example. Take three people: Person A regularly works out multiple times per week. Person B enjoys exercise and understands how important it is for health, yet never gets more time to go to the gym or run. Person C doesn’t value exercise.
For argument’s sake, let’s say they are both contracted the same amount of hours per week, at the same company, and have the same level of social invites, same core needs, and same day-to-day responsibilities. In this scenario:
Person A has consciously placed high-value on exercise, so exercise becomes a solid entry in the calendar of their mind’s eye. When undertaking the process of assigning the things they need to do to the time they have, exercise ranks highly. When looking at the time they have, Person A sets solid entry for exercise, three times per week, and always manages to “make time” for it.
Person B, though clear on the value of exercise, hasn’t consciously assigned it higher value than external values. They may be unaware they are influenced by the perceived value of busyness, escapism, the hierarchy of productivity. They take the square peg, round hole approach and always struggle to get more time for exercise. When exercise is successfully scheduled, it is low value, and easily replaced by other events.
Person C doesn’t assign value to exercise. It’s not even an entry on the things I need to do. But what happens if Person C develops diabetes or suffers a heart attack? Exercise enters the things I need to do. Depending on the person’s desire to improve their health, they may then end up in the same situation as Person A or Person C. They either consciously place high-value on staying well, or struggle to get more time as exercise plays second fiddle to external values.
These examples aren’t clear cut. There are many areas in our life we subconsciously assign value and manage our time accordingly. The main point to take home is this:
Consciously assigning value can transform the way you assign the things you need to do to the time you have.
This transformation leads then to a more fulfilling, relaxed, rounded and balanced use of the most precious thing you have — not time, but the present moment.
During the midst of agonising depression, I was an expert at facades. Years ago, I remember lying in bed with my then-girlfriend, riddled with anxiety and despair before a social event. She was one of my sole confidents, one of the only people I’d managed to sidestep the shame and stigma of mental illness. Feeling free to express my emotions, I’d explain the unbearable sense of being unable to cope; “I can’t do this,” I’d tell her, as my world trembled on the brink collapse. She’d respond in love and support, gently urging me to be open and honest with my friends. I’d give her a look. “I can’t dothat.”
She’d be amazed as, when it was time, I’d transform. I’d stand up, walk to the wardrobe, and slip on my deliberately sewn cloak of illusion. I’d walk out of my room, smile on face, bounce in step, and the stage was set — it was time for me to act carefree, not a worry in the world, the joker, confident, sociable. During interactions, I’d expel great energy to hide any loose stitching in the illusion, any signs of anxiety or sadness would be covered up by a joke or a deflection or more shots or a cheeky line.
Our Personas Hide Who We Truly Are
For anyone experience mental illness, this carefree, happy garment will be familiar. We’re so afraid of sharing our true selves to the world, a self we truly believe is flawed, damaged and unwelcome, we’d rather act out a persona. It’s win-win, right? If the persona is rejected, you can bask in the glory of a job well done. “Muahaha, my persona has been rejected, but little do they know it isn’t the real me.” Carl Jung identified the persona as follows:
“A kind of mask, designed on the one hand to make a definite impression upon others, and on the other to conceal the true nature of the individual.”
To varying degrees, we all hide behind personas. Though it’s more evident for those trying to “hide” mental illness or a perceived imperfect self, we all chop and change the way we act depending on environment or the people we are surrounded by. Though Jung highlights the importance of a flexible persona in adapting to society, for most of us, our personas lead to use acting in ways that aren’t true to ourselves.
A huge step for me was becoming aware (during therapy) of how my carefree persona was making things worse. Stepping into the carefree garment was an attempt to protect myself against the emotions I was feeling. This barrier between myself and my emotions turned into denial of those emotions. This lack of acceptance added inner-tension — and a heap extra suffering.
It affected my behaviour, too. If feeling in a low mood or low on energy, instead of thinking: “It’s okay, I won’t be anything I’m not and that’s fine,” I’d stress about how challenging it’d be to appear energetic, friendly, carefree. That’d convince me often to avoid social events. Curiously, I’ve also noticed that embracing these so-called “negative” states actually leads me to entering social situations and having a much better time; I don’t waste energy hiding myself, so I can connect with people in whichever way is relevant at the time.
The Importance Of Congruence And Self-Actualisation
Humanistic psychologist and all-round hero Carl Rogers notes the importance of congruence and self-actualisation. In a nutshell, Rogers believes our main purpose is to become the person we are truly meant to be. In his words:
“The organism has one basic tendency and striving – to actualise, maintain, and enhance the experiencing organism.”
The experiencing organism is who we truly are in any given moment, not who we feel we need to be, or should be, in any given moment. During my own personal and spiritual growth my personas have begun to melt away. Of course, they are still there, but I’m getting closer and closer to being at ease, and in tune, with who I am. If I feel low on energy, I accept it. I don’t try and be the life and soul if my life and soul are in need of some downtime. I don’t try to please others by being upbeat if in doing so, I overextend myself.
Most of us tend to have an idea of how we should act. The beliefs of how we should act are formed during our upbringing. Generally speaking, they don’t serve us as they encourage us to act in a way incongruent to our inner world. Maybe it’s the belief you should always appear happy as you don’t want to bring others down. Or the belief you should always be nice.
A significant belief I had exacerbating depression and anxiety was closely linked to the concept of masculinity. Big boys don’t cry, and strength is always remaining emotionally “stable.” Thus, the facade attempted to mould my emotions to fit this concept. I was then judging myself based on how accurately I lived up to this concept. Obviously, I never did.
You Don’t Have To Be Anything For Anyone
As I’ve moved from a facade which was essentially a survival tactic, I’ve noticed the multitude of facades I’ve easily slipped into in many situations. They’ve caused my anxiety, stress, and depleted my energy. As per Rogers belief all humans have immense potential to blossom and be in our own individual ways, having the courage to remove the mask doesn’t make you selfish, or uncaring. It enable us to channel our humanistic traits, authentically. It allows us to connect with others. It allows us to embrace part of the contract of being human is being flawed, imperfect.
Remember: You don’t have to be funny. You don’t have to be happy all of the time. You don’t have to be full of energy. You don’t have to be smart. You don’t have to always get things right. You don’t have to always be nice. You don’t have to know what you want. You don’t have to always have the courage to seek the things you do want. You don’t have to always be thinking of others. You don’t have to always say yes. You don’t have to spend time with people who bring you down. You don’t need to always be loving. You don’t have to do what your parents want. You don’t have to do what your peers expect of you. You don’t have to do what culture expects of you. You don’t always have to be strong. You don’t have to “man up.” You don’t have to “stop being so sensitive.” You don’t have to be perfect.
As Don Miguel Ruiz writes in The Four Agreements:
“Just do your best — in any circumstance in your life. It doesn’t matter if you are sick or tired, if you always do your best there is no way you can judge yourself. And if you don’t judge yourself there is no way you are going to suffer from guilt, blame, and self-punishment.”
Removing facades take immense courage. But in doing so, you self-actualise. You live in congruence with who it is you really are. In taking this courageous step, you’ll realise instead of unveiling something hideous and undeserving, you’ll blossom.