Check your Dashboard
I’d like to interrupt whatever else you might be doing, to remind you to check your dashboard; you’ll find there almost all the information you need to keep things running smoothly.
No, I don’t mean the dashboard in your car, although you should be checking that regularly, as well; I mean your body’s dashboard. You can see it when you look within. A lot of problems you might have with yourself can easily be explained by a quick look at your dashboard. Feeling anxious? Feeling depressed? Look at the dashboard; it might tell you why and what you can do about it. Are you cranky and irritable; do you just want to kick someone’s ass? Look at your own dashboard before you blame other people and their behavior. Is your work suffering from some kind of a block; is everything just harder for you now than it was an hour ago? Check the dashboard. Do you believe you need a drink or want scarf down great quantities of food? Yup, you guessed it; check the dashboard before you open the fridge.
Let’s go over all the gauges on the dashboard and you’ll see what I mean.
How fast are you going? How busy are you? Are you working long hours, pressed by deadlines, got lots of appointments, staying out late every night? When you have a lot going on, it wears you down. You don’t have time to take in everything, so a lot passes, with you missing it. It’s harder for you to make a turn, to change if you need a course correction. It’s more difficult to slow down or stop when you’re going fast. Little mistakes become bigger, the more speed you have. Before you know it, a bad incident turns into a bad day, a bad day turns into a bad week, and a bad week, into a bad month. Going too fast uses up your resources faster; you need more food and more rest. You might be tempted to use some drugs to keep you going, and other drugs to help slow you down, when the real problem is you’re just trying to do too much.
If you need to slow down, take some things off your plate, don’t accept so many appointments, decline some assignments, or learn to delegate. I have found, for instance, that if I try to see more than six clients a day, I’m less helpful to them than if I see fewer. I would rather do a good job with fewer than see more and become inattentive and judgmental. Approaching tasks mindfully also helps. Do just one thing at a time; there is rarely any such thing as effective multitasking.
For the human mind, going too slowly can be as much of a problem as going too fast. When you’re going too slow, your life seems empty and boring. You look for stress because everything is too comfortable. You know you’re going too slowly when you scrutinize everything; when everything is a big deal, when others are getting impatient with you. You get paranoid, indecisive, ruminative. Don’t be one of those people who create problems in their life because they’re bored. There’s too much other useful work to be done. Volunteer, for crying out loud. Do something to contribute.
Just as in a car, the right speed varies according to what kind of road you are on; the right speed for your life varies according to what you’re doing. If your work requires great attention to detail or if there’s a lot at stake, you should be going slower than when it does not. Six clients a day is the right pace for me. If I were a surgeon, it would have to be less. If I was a cashier at a store, I could see hundreds before burning out. Also, your speed should vary according to the time of day. You would drive slower after dark than during the day; in the same manner, you should personally slow down in the evening. Slamming on the breaks just before bed does not make for a restful night’s sleep.
Only you know what is the right pace for you. Make it a steady one; avoid jackrabbit starts. I often see people who emerge from a period of depression, when they had been going too slowly, only to speed up and go too fast. It’s like they’re running to keep the depression from catching up. What happens then is that they burn themselves out, making them more susceptible to another depression. Think of it like riding a bicycle; if you go too slow, you tip over; if you go too fast, you can’t keep the pace and have to slow down, and maybe tip over, anyway. Find the minimum speed that keeps you maintaining froward progress and the maximum speed that you can sustain; in this is your optimal pace.
Has it been a while since you’ve eaten? Then, your fuel gauge is low. If you have not been eating well, you will have far less ability to cope than if you get three well balanced meals a day. For instance, most of the problems in family life seem to occur at two times during the day: in the morning when people are rushed and in need of breakfast, and in the time right after you get home, when you’re weary from the day and in need of dinner. Many problems between people can be solved by a simple bite to eat.
Any food is better than none, but not all food is equally beneficial. If your diet is exclusively junk food, you’re not going to be firing on all cylinders. It’s as if you put bad gas in your car.
Hunger, by itself, is not a good indication of the state of your fuel gauge. A lot of people say they’re hungry when they’ve just eaten and there’s no possible reason to require nourishment. People often try to solve all kinds of problems by reaching for food: loneliness, boredom, a reason to take a break; so look at the other gauges before you fire up the stove. Not all problems are solved by food, but lots of problems arise out of true hunger or malnutrition.
In case you don’t know what an ammeter is, it’s that gauge on your car’s dashboard that tells you if its battery is charging. When looking at your body’s dashboard, you should consider if you need a charge. This is one place where my metaphor breaks down; one place where you’re not just like a car. A car can run all day long and charge itself as it goes. You can’t. You have to rest and recuperate. At the very least, you have to step away from a task to be able to look at it with fresh eyes. So, on a scale of one to ten, how tired are you? Have you been getting enough sleep? Is there enough variety in your day, or have things gotten stale?
As you know, in addition to being a shrink, I’m also a writer. Actually, I’m seldom a writer for more than a couple hours a day. It’s tough to get time to do it, but, at any one sitting, it’s also tough to keep it up for long. I am normally quite fertile with ideas, but they run dry after an hour or so. I generally can easily find the words to express myself, but that, too, deteriorates after more than an hour. At that point I have to take a break, walk around, do something physical, preferably; then, when I return, I’m refreshed. I’ve also found that a nap can help, too, or, even better, a good night’s sleep. When doing creative work, my mind goes on even when I’m not at the computer. I think you will find you are the same way when it comes to creative things you do.
Oil is that substance that goes between the moving parts of an engine and ensures that they don’t hurt one another. So, look at how smoothly your relationships are going; is there a lot of heat and friction?
When assessing how smoothly things are going with others, you should consider how things are going between you and the guy in the next cubicle as well as the relationship between you and your spouse, parents, siblings, friends, or children. You may actually spend more time with the guy in the next cubicle, so the health of that alliance matters.
When things are not going smoothly in a relationship, you can feel one of two ways. Either the relationship feels too distant, or it feels too close. It feels too distant when the other person fails to respond to you, when she seems to break and go her own way, and when you are betrayed. It feels too close when you lose your own identity, when he seems to make decisions for you, or when you can’t be happy unless he is happy.
The optimal level of closeness tends to change over time and be different for each relationship. A twenty year old can tolerate far more closeness with his new girlfriend than he can with his mother, and he may desire less closeness with the girlfriend as their relationship progresses. The optimal level of closeness can vary between the two people in a relationship. The young adult’s mother may well desire to be closer than the young adult can tolerate. This may cause her to be intrusive and him to flee; the more he flees, the more intrusive she becomes, the more he flees, and so on and so forth. All of this is normal and really, really tricky.
Therefore, get a reading about how you feel regarding the closeness/distance of each of your relationships and towards people in general. There are times when you just want to be left alone. There are other times when you want to curl up in someone’s lap and cuddle. Most of the time you’re somewhere in the middle, but if you have someone who desires the exact level of closeness that you do, just when you want it, it’s a miracle and should be respected as such.
You should definitely check your dashboard’s temperature gauge; it’s a measure of the intensity of your emotions. You get hot when you are angry, obviously, but you are also hot when you are scared, in extreme pain, or filled with desire. Hot is whenever your more animal nature begins to take over and you leave behind being rational, careful, and deliberative. That’s not always a bad thing. You definitely want your animal nature to take over when you’re having sex, when you’re in the middle of a fight, or any other time when it doesn’t pay to think too much. Hot is better in an emergency.
However, if you are hot all the time, you’re going to wear yourself out; you’ll blow your stack, you’ll melt down. Not everything is an emergency. Automatic responses are often the very things that get us into trouble.
Nonetheless, it’s also not good to run too cold, either. The beautiful things in life include your feelings. Your emotions teach you your values. We all know people who are frigid and cold, ice water runs through their veins; they’re hard to relate to.
The reading on the temperature gauge is often connected to the readings on the other gauges. When you are speeding, you tend to be hot. When you’re creeping, you’re cold. When things are not running smoothly in your relationships, you’re hot. When you need to recharge, you get hot for a while, but then you go cold. Looking at the temperature gauge is a good way of assessing your overall health and well being.
This dashboard is a deluxe model; it has a compass included, so that you can tell if you’re heading in the right direction. Use it. Miles driven the wrong way are wasted effort that add unnecessarily to the wear and tear of your body.
The things you spend your time and energy on should get you closer to your objectives and your objectives should have something to do with your values. Too many people spend too much time and effort on the things that don’t matter to them.
Here’s an exercise that can help you tell if you are heading in the right direction. Make a list of the things most important to you, like family, health, education, work, watching sports, shopping, playing video games, whatever. Rank them according to their order of importance. Next, make a list of which of those categories you spend the most time on, in rank order. The two lists should be identical; if they are not, then you’re heading the wrong way.
If you look at your compass and find you are heading the right way, that’s important to know, too. A lot of the time, like at work, for instance, you have unpleasant, fatiguing tasks to do in unpleasant circumstances. It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that this work may be for an important purpose: making something beautiful or useful, healing, or feeding others. A purpose can give your drudgery some dignity.
The last gauge I want to mention is one you don’t have to check very often. The reading on your odometer doesn’t turn over very fast. You know how old you are; you know how many miles you have on you; but, you may not realize the degree to which the functioning of your mind and body changes over time. You need less sleep as you get older, but more rest. If you kept eating the same amount of food when you are old as you did when you were young, you’d be very fat. You’ve mastered many skills and could get things done quickly, but you often slow down. You may have learned the art of keeping a relationship running smoothly, but you may be stuck in maladaptive patterns. Your feelings are usually less intense, but you still care, deeply.
When you were young, you could probably get away with ignoring the needs of your body. You pounded it and it bounced back gracefully. It never seemed to complain. As you get older, all of the abuse you visited on your body begins to show. You can feel it. It starts to rebel and you can’t count on it to do as much for you anymore. You could end up bitter enemies, you and your body, or you could learn to work together. Working together means listening to the needs of your body; it means looking at your dashboard and learning what it can teach you.
Keith Wilson writes on mental health and relationship issues on his blog, Madness 101.