Words of Wisdom Everyone Ignores - but shouldn't
reposted from HuffPost OWN
She generally gave herself very good advice
(though she very seldom followed it).
That's what Lewis Carroll wrote
about Alice, and it's true of most people. We go through life generally
getting good counsel about what's best for us—and then vigorously
ignoring it. This explains why I never run out of clients. It's amazing:
Intelligent adults pay me for advice so obvious worms can follow it
(this, as we'll see, is no exaggeration), then fail to act on it, then
pay me to advise them again.
Here and now, out of sheer guilt, I've decided to spell out the best
-- and, mysteriously, most ignored! -- advice I possess. If you follow
it, I guarantee the results will be positive. If you don't, at least you
won't be alone.
This one suggestion is all you really need to find your destiny, form
loving relationships, achieve optimal health, and have the best life
story in the bingo parlor during your golden years. And it isn't hard to
remember, judging by the fact that worms easily take it to heart. Put a
worm at the bottom of a simple T-shaped maze, with food in the left
side of the top and a mild electric shock in the right, and it will
develop fervent leftist inclinations. Yet many clever humans turn
repeatedly to the very things that ruin our health and happiness:
artery-clogging junk food, alcoholic lovers, soul-crushing jobs.
We do this because, unlike worms, we convince ourselves that there
are good reasons to do ourselves harm. We say things like "I had a hard
day; I deserve this industrial-size bag of chips." Or "You always hurt
the one you love." Or "But I need the paycheck!" Yet I believe all human
beings -- even politicians -- are born with the capacity for suffering
and joy for a reason: so that we can navigate the world as well as a
Notice that I'm putting the emphasis on how something leaves you
feeling, not on how you imagine it will make you feel. Worms have to
experience a maze several times before they start making optimal
decisions. Once the experience registers, however, they trust it. Not so
with us. We overthink experience -- and end up bedazzled by the same
electricity that Tasered our last relationship, or disdaining the
simplicity of things that reliably nourish us.
Today, try pausing before any action you take and recall how that
action made you feel in the past. For example, writing often seems
frightening or burdensome to me before I start, yet as many writers
before me have said, I love having written. On the other hand, while
nothing seems more appetizing to me than baked goods, I know that both
wheat and sugar leave me feeling droopy and queasy. Just pausing to
vividly recall the past result of each action helps me choose writing
over procrastination and bananas over cookies. If you think through how
each action leaves you feeling, you'll find yourself more and more able
to choose those that add up to your best life.
2. To achieve bigger goals, take smaller steps.
As a teenager, I often injured myself trying to run mountain trails.
Then I noticed that bikers downshift to climb hills. I began mimicking
them, taking steps so tiny they felt inconsequential. This allowed me to
run uphill quickly without getting tired, winded, or hurt. The one race
in which I actually placed was on a mountain trail where I scurried
along like a mouse on a mission, zipping past runners whose gazelle-like
leaps were taxing their lungs and ruining their knees.
It turns out that the tiny-steps approach applies to any difficult
thing, from schoolwork to parenthood to career. The bigger the task, the
smaller my steps. If I feel myself tiring or avoiding tasks, I cut my
steps in half, then in half again, until each step feels easy. Between
steps, I give myself a reward -- nothing huge, just a ten-minute nap in
the sun, a smoothie, some online window shopping.
My clients find this shocking. They want to achieve big goals, and
they love those spectacular, gazelle-like leaps. One client I'll call
Roberta planned to start getting up two hours early each morning,
running to the gym, and lifting weights before work. She'd had this plan
for five years. She hadn't acted on it once. I suggested that, instead,
she get up five minutes early, put on gym clothes, then have coffee --
full stop. She thought this ridiculous (they always do), but it worked
(it usually does). Roberta's five minutes in gym clothes grew to ten,
then to 15, then to a Zumba class she loved. She's still increasing her
fitness, one tiny step at a time.
3. Lie down and rest for a while.
Speaking of health regimens, there's a big piece of getting fit that
most of us shortchange: rest. The majority of my clients who complain of
depression, anxiety, irritability, and weight gain are actually
chronically tired. The problems caused by lack of rest can feel so
intricate, but the solution is so simple: Lie down, dear. Just lie down.
If you've ever attended a meeting after lunch, you know the mild coma
endocrinologists call postprandial dip, which makes you want to lay
your head down and drool during your boss's PowerPoint presentations.
And why not? Totally relaxing for just ten minutes can reenergize your
body, sharpen your mind, and make you much less likely to weep when you
can't find a stapler.
In many cultures, it's customary to lie down during the day. In ours,
it's emphatically not. To get used to the idea anyway, try a yoga class
or the Alexander Technique, which you can do on the floor -- any floor,
even at work (instructions available online). If all else fails, just
channel your inner worm.
4. When you don't know what to say, try the truth.
I won't lie: Investing in resting can cause social awkwardness. For
example, an acquaintance I'll call Jill recently asked me to drive an
hour (each way) to meet her for dinner. I was exhausted, and though I
like Jill, I've learned the hard way that when I put politeness over
basic needs, I end up feeling resentful, which damages the relationship.
When I suggested that Jill and I take a rain check, she frostily
asked what could possibly be more important than a chance to connect
with her. I tried to invent a fictional business trip or convincing
symptoms of bird flu, but my perfidious mouth blurted the truth: "I want
to lie down."
I felt Jill's outrage as she absorbed the fact that on my priority
list, getting some rest outranked dining with her. Truth often has this
effect, but despite the initial sting, it makes for stronger
relationships. If I'd lied, I'd have misled Jill and angered myself. I
want friends who want what's best for me, and Jill can either accept
that or find someone who's willing to dine under duress.
No matter what your truth may be -- about political views, movie
preferences, the desire to live "off the grid" eating roadkill -- calmly
expressing it cuts a clear path through the jungle of social
5. Free yourself from dysfunctional people by refusing to try to control them.
You don't even need to say it -- I can already hear you thinking: If I
tell the truth in every awkward situation, there will be hell to pay
with my mother/husband/sister/coworker/book club! I get it: There are
people in your life who, for various reasons, don't want your truth. You
may think you have to change those people to live in total
authenticity. Don't even try.
I labored for decades to make sad people happy, rigid people
flexible, aggressive people empathetic, and so on, before finally
noticing that (1) this never worked, and (2) it drove me insane. Then I
read codependency expert Melody Beattie's advice on how to deal with
dysfunctional people: "Unhook from their system by refusing to try to
change or influence them." This felt totally alien and absolutely right,
and it works. The key, I've found, is to stay the heck away from the
idea of "making" someone do, feel, or think anything. This is not your
job. Your job is to maximize your own happiness, kindness, and health.
Let others choose whether to follow.
At this point, I should note that Alice in Wonderland did take some
of her own advice. She remembered, for example, that "if you drink much
from a bottle marked 'poison,' it is almost certain to disagree with
you, sooner or later."
You've already had enough life experience to notice when a situation,
a person, or a task is marked "poison." Remember how much that
situation hurt the last time, and choose one that feels better now. Take
small steps, lying down often along the way. Tell the truth and stay in
your own business. Anything else is poison. And if you actually use
this seldom-followed advice, you may one day wake up and realize that
your life has become a wonderland.
Martha Beck's latest book is Finding Your Way in a Wild World (Free Press).