Stop Your Mental Tug-of-War
A few years ago, I overheard my son and a friend talking about an interaction they had with someone at school who was argumentative.
I listened to them discuss how frustrating it was when they could not end the debate, and smiled when I heard my son’s friend say matter-of-factly, “we just have to let go of the rope!” In his mind, engaging with the other student was like picking up a rope for a battle of tug-of-war.
But he knew he didn’t have to play that game. He could stop pulling, drop the rope, and opt out of that stressful situation. I don’t know whether he learned that somewhere or came up with it on his own, but I was impressed and I hope that pragmatic, resilient perspective sticks with him into adulthood.
Sometimes life feels like a tug of war, doesn’t it? With us in the middle being yanked from side to side as competing priorities try to gain our undivided attention, it can often seem like we never get to choose where our energy goes. Other times we are on one side of the rope, trying to pull experiences and achievements towards us. And of course, the harder we pull, the more invested we become, and the more determined we are to win the prize of having won.
In fact, we spend so much time pulling on that rope, pulling experiences and achievements over the obstacles, over the rugged surface of resistance, through whatever gets thrown in our way to distract us from our course, that eventually we wonder why it has to be so hard. We think it shouldn’t be this hard. This week, I invite you to consider what you may be pulling on – or what is pulling you – and whether it is worth hanging on to.
How do we choose what to pull? Some things are worth pulling into your life. When you are facing a health crisis, a scary diagnosis, or other urgent need to change your habits, it’s worth your energy to start pulling. Change is hard, and we are set in our ways. In this case, pulling may mean challenging yourself to choose a bag of apples at the grocery store and not get the caramel dip to accompany them. That is not easy to do! Pulling may mean not having a glass of wine when everyone else is. Difficult, but worth the effort when the payoff can change the trajectory of your life. As a wellness coach, I want change to be a natural process that happens when we are ready. In reality, there are times when we have to force change, and pull hard to get to a safer place.
How do we know when to let go? Everyone loves a fighter! Cheering for someone who beats the odds and overcomes a challenge is inspirational, and being the person who inspires in that way is appealing to a lot of us (*ahem* me). But while some health goals are admirable and would be a great achievement, they come at the wrong time in our lives for the amount of energy they require. I learned this lesson personally when I tried to simultaneously run a wellness consulting business, care for a newborn, train for a marathon, and continue juggling all of the balls I already had in the air. The decision to let go was made for me when I began having physical signs of stress and, as a health professional, read the writing on the wall. I had to press pause on some of my business goals until I could devote more energy to them. I changed my running goals to something that gave me the challenge of training without the exhaustion of a marathon. I let go, so I could hang on to what was more urgent.
Here are signs that it is time to let go of the rope: when you are feeling like it shouldn’t be this hard, and that you’re working really, really hard for results that are elusive at best, it’s time to let go. When you become resentful about working so much harder than others and not enjoying the process, it’s time to let go. When you realize you have been working on the same goal for a very long time and have not seen a change that warrants the energy you have invested, it is time to let go. When you begin to dread the time when you need to turn attention to the goal at hand and have to talk yourself into it most days, it is time to let go.
Letting go doesn’t always feel like a responsible option, and sometimes it is just not possible. We can’t just let go of our responsibilities as parents, at work, or to loved ones who depend on us. We can let go of extracurricular activities we that we have chosen to take on, other people’s priorities that we have obligated ourselves to, and really great ideas that are more likely to thrive at a time when there is less competition for your attention.
How do we deal with how it feels to let go? I’m sure you have heard this before: if you love something, set it free; what comes back is meant to be. There will be times when letting go is an indulgent relief, like deciding to not reach your goal weight but be happy five pounds heavier. There will be times when letting go feels like giving up, like when you have to say goodbye to someone who is a toxic influence in your life despite your best efforts to be friends. Mourn that feeling of loss, and remind yourself of what you gain as a result. If it is helpful, keep a journal where you can record the benefits you experience as a result of not pulling on that rope anymore. Look around and enjoy the life that you were missing when you were focused on the rope.
One of my biggest fears as a wellness coach is that my clients will become impatient with the slow rate of lasting change, and it is tempting to let them grab a rope and pull because I want them to feel the triumph and thrill of accomplishing a challenge. I love cheering for the underdog, too! But the real reward comes in knowing when to let go, feeling confident that it will free you up to enjoy the life you were meant to have.
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About This Blog
Each week, I write the "Healthy Heather Blog" in the Tallahassee Democrat. It is republished here in case you are not a subscriber (what???). Sometimes it is really good and other times it is just okay. Thanks for reading it regardless of your opinion!