Fun Versus Numbing: a Guide

On the surface, you might think that it’s easy to tell the difference between having fun and numbing out: after all, one is enjoyment, and the other is pretty much the absence of feeling. How similar can they really be? And in an ideal world, there would be no similarity, no confusion, and we’d all be blissfully happy whenever we wanted.

We do not live in an ideal world.

We live in a world where nobody taught us how to deal with painful thoughts, how to sit with fear and uncertainty, or the difference between feeling good and feeling distracted. That complicates things.

If you can’t deal with painful thoughts, then they run roughshod over your mind and your life. If painful thoughts are running your life, then everything hurts. If everything hurts, then you’ll do just about anything to make it stop. If you don’t know how to actually deal with the problem, then you’ll settle for ignoring it. If you’re ignoring it, then you need something to distract you from it. If you need a distraction, then you’ll reach for a numbing behavior.

What is a numbing behavior?

Numbing behavior is anything that distracts you from what is going on so that you don’t have to feel any more. It’s not about feeling good, but about suppressing present reality.

It doesn’t feel good, but it doesn’t feel bad, either. It feels like nothing.

I am hesitant to list specific numbing behaviors, because anything I put down could conceivably be part of legitimate fun, too. It’s not about the activity, but about the motivation and the state of mind with which you partake of it. That being said, some activities are more prone to numbing than others.

These include: watching TV, surfing the internet, eating junk food, gossiping, and others. But any of those (except maybe gossiping, though I could be wrong) could be quite enjoyable. Watching your favorite TV show or enjoying a slice of cake can be part of a downright delightful experience…. but it often isn’t.

Supposedly healthy activities can be numbing, too. I have used long walks to numb myself. How? Instead of paying attention to what was going on around me, or processing my thoughts, or indeed taking any sort of joy in the endeavor, I turned it into a death march slash opportunity to sulk. It was procrastination and avoidance, and there was no joy to be had.

Then what is fun?

Fun means enjoying yourself. If you can’t tell the difference between this and the above, then you probably haven’t had fun in awhile. It’s ok – we can fix that! But it’s important to admit the truth, if just to yourself.

Fun – proper fun – involves smiling and laughing. It may evoke feelings of wonder, or of playfulness and curiosity. These are very positive things, linked to increased immune response, energy levels, vitality, and productivity. Those are things that you want, I’m sure of it.

You know that. It’s not that you don’t want to have fun, but that you don’t know how any more. So how do you do that? Unfortunately, joy is highly individual, so I can’t give you a fool-proof three step process guaranteed to work. But I can give you suggestions to try.

  • What did you enjoy as a child? When you’re a child, you have fewer expectations of you, and more free time. What did you enjoy doing with it? Personally, I enjoyed swing sets, riding my bicycle in circles around the neighborhood, reading, writing, and playing alone in my yard, making up stories and talking to the trees. These are things that I still enjoy today (though swing sets are harder to come by). Not in exactly the same way, but they can all be adapted to adult life. How can you adapt your childhood passions? It can be as silly as you like – just make it something you enjoy!
  • Listen to your heart. I love reading and writing, but not about everything. The fastest way for me to loose interest in either of those activities is to adhere to what somebody else thinks I should be reading or writing about. I bet you do the same thing. There’s nothing wrong with using your talents and passions for work or gain, but if you never allow yourself free reign to follow your heart within those pursuits, it’s easy to loose the spark. Of course, it’s possible that you can’t hear what your heart is telling you any more. In that case, check out Pings of Happiness for ideas on how to regain that connection.
  • Be still. This one is risky. Sometimes, sitting quietly HURTS. If there’s a lot you’ve been hiding from, stillness is going to stir it all up. But it also has the potential to unleash a lot of really great ideas, if you stick with it. Give yourself a block of unstructured time, away from any kind of a computer screen, and just let yourself be. Let your mind wander. See what comes up. There could be golden ideas for having fun.
  • Be social. Conversely, you may need to get active. If you have a friend who seems to always be having a blast, see if you can tag along with him or her to some activities. There’s the risk that your interests just don’t line up, there is also a very real possibility that you may break out of your routine, try new things, and have an unexpectedly great time. It’s worth a shot, right?

Lest you misunderstand my meaning, I want to make something very clear: it’s ok to numb out sometimes. I totally understand that something you don’t have the energy to do something more legitimately enjoyable, and zoning out to the TV is the best you can do. If you think I’ve never decided to have a Netflix marathon to avoid feeling something unpleasant, then you are quite wrong. But it can’t be how you deal with everything; that way lies depression, disconnection, and a whole host of ills.

Sometimes, it’s really hard to motivate yourself to do something that might actually be rewarding. What I like to do in those cases (and what I recommend to my clients), is to make myself a deal. I’ll try the more productive thing for 5, 10, or 15 minutes….. but if I’m still not feeling it after that, then I can zone out.

The important thing is to start trying to fit some real fun into your life. The more you do it, the easier it’ll be, and the better you’ll feel. The better you feel, the easier it’ll be to actually deal with whatever had you so stressed that you had to numb in the first place. And the easier it is to deal with that, the easier it is to have fun, thus creating a lovely, self-perpetuating cycle of joy.

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Spring Stress

In a way, spring can be as hard as winter. On the one hand, the light is back, it’s getting warm again, and there is a strong impulse to get out there and do all the things. But that’s a lot of pressure, particularly if you’re coming off of winter depression (which just means that you feel even more desperate, because you believe that you have to make up for time you lost not getting things done when it was cold and dark). And pressure, as you may have noticed, is not always conducive to activity. Sometimes, pressure just increases the likelihood that you are eating Ben and Jerry’s while watching a Netflix marathon.

What’s a pressure-averse person to do?

  • What do you actually want to get done? It’s easy to get swept up in a torrent of things to do, but not every item on your to do list is created equal. For instance, while getting your garden in order may be a perfectly nice idea, some weeds will not actually kill you. So if you hate it, feel free to skip it for a bit.
  • Get outside. Yes, that is an order. Not only will the sunlight feel oh-so-wonderful, but spending time in nature will soothe your harried soul. It’s true! Try spending 20 minutes in a natural environment (or natural-ish), just sitting and watching. Pay attention to all of your senses: not only sight, but sound, touch, smell, and even taste.
  • Do something fun. Yes, I know that you’re trying to be productive, but bear with me. Right now, you’re stressed and kind of miserable, right? So how productive are you really being? That’s what I thought. You don’t have anything to lose by taking some time for fun. It doesn’t have to be huge – you could just take 10 minutes to browse the magazines at the grocery store, if that floats your boat! – so you really have no excuse. Just, be sure it’s something genuinely fun, and not numbing. Bonus points if it gets you away from the internet.

Contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to do everything. Yes, some people may be sitting around with the equivalent of a score card, but ask yourself this: how much fun can those people be having? And even more importantly, are these people really worth caring about? I’d bet that the people whose opinion you truly value (as opposed to the people you feel like you ought to impress) are too busy doing their own thing – and having fun doing it! – to pay attention to what you have and have not gotten done. And trust me – you’re a lot more fun when you aren’t over burdened.

Here’s what it boils down to: you get to decide how you spend these lovely hours of daylight. If you’re feeling drained instead of energized, you have the option to change your priorities, or at least look at new ways to get the necessities done. I dare you to look at your to do list with some curiosity, and see where you can make things easier or more fun.

I want you to do one of the following three things:

  • Remove something from your to-do list that you’re absolutely dreading
  • Add something fun and exciting to your to-do list
  • Take something on your to-do list and make it more fun

I know you can manage one out of these three. Pick one, then share below to commit to it!

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Why Starting Something New is Hard

I am not, by nature, a patient person. When I have an idea, I want to implement it now. When I learn something new, I want to try it now. And when I sense that something has the potential to be transformative, I want that transformation right now this very minute. It’s probably lucky for me that the world doesn’t work that way (I’d never be prepared for the the results if I didn’t go through the process first!), but that doesn’t make the waiting any easier.

Such is the beginning of my journey into nature based coaching. First, I had to wait a whole two weeks for the class to start. I must have read most of the class manual by then, or at least skimmed it. I cross-referenced the recommended reading list with my local library system, and added everything that was available from the latter to my list of books to be read. Then I started reading them.

You might notice that none of those things are actually learning nature based coaching; it’s almost all reading. Actually integrating a new skill or idea requires action, not research.

A problem I frequently have (and I bet some of you do, too!) is conflating the two. I get excited, and start researching the heck out of something. But it’s not fulfilling, because researching the thing is not the same as doing the thing. It just isn’t. So my excitement builds and builds, but it isn’t built on anything. My wild imaginings and dreams have no foundations. And so they crumble.

If I can escape this trap, so can you.

I asked myself: what can I do right now to further this goal or build foundations for this dream? When I started naysaying every single idea I came up with, I questioned the hell out of those excuses.

I came to the insistent thought that I can’t do anything yet – the homework for this week is all writing and reflecting (which is lovely and important and very much too similar to my comfort zone to give me the stretch experience I need ASAP), and I don’t know enough to actually do anything constructive. Then I realized that I had at least 2 actual, practical ideas to try, based on the recording I had just listened to for class. I set about to implement them. But even if I hasn’t listened to that recording yet, it would still be a lie. At any point, and without any outside encouragement or direction, I could step outside into nature and start paying attention. And that, my friends, is exactly what I was actually looking for.

Here’s the secret: what ever you want, whatever you’re looking for, you can start to find it in this moment. Maybe not the whole big thing you’re imagining, but a small piece of it, or at least the first step to getting there, is ALWAYS available to you. It may require thinking outside the box or stepping outside of your comfort zone. Actually, it will always involve stepping outside of your comfort zone. If it didn’t, you’d already be doing it. But that’s ok! You can step outside of your comfort zone! You just have to do it mindfully, so you don’t get too overwhelmed.

Now it’s your turn. Where are you researching instead of building? What is one action you could take today to start “doing?” It doesn’t have to be anything big. It can be as simple as calling a loved one to say hello, going for a walk, or spending 15 minutes putting pen to paper.

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My Least Favorite Question

There is a question in the self-help community that I hear a lot: what would you do if you knew you could not fail? I do not like it one bit.

Why not?

Because it presumes that fear of failure is the only thing holding us back. Honestly, fear of success is just as common, and even more insidious. Failure is embarrassing and painful, but it leaves the status quo in tact. Success, on the other hand, almost always bring with it a plethora of changes, big and small, that have the potential to really scare us.

Because it sounds condescending. This could just be me, but this question always makes me feel like the asker thinks that s/he is above the fear of failure, and that’s just plain wrong. Everybody is afraid of failure sometimes. Everybody sometimes let’s that fear hold them back – yes, even life coaches who think they should know better.

The question’s heart is in the right place, I do know that. It’s important to sometimes ask ourselves to consider how we set our own limits and hold ourselves back. But that question isn’t for everything.

I’d like to suggest some alternate questions, that I think are better for getting to the heart of what the original is aiming for.

What would you do if failure was guaranteed? This could be a really fun opportunity, because the pressure is completely off. There’s no possibility of success, so failure won’t reflect poorly on you. There’s no way you’d go after something doomed to fail if the outcome was the only important part – this is a question to direct you to something where the endeavor itself is the reward, and everybody needs more of those in their life!

What would you do if there were no consequences? Yes, this list may well begin with “eat my weight in chocolate and kick my ex-boss in the ‘nads,” but keep writing answers until you get past those first, flippant answers. Seriously, if you weren’t afraid of what other people thought, how much time it would take away from other activities, or how it might otherwise impact your life, what would you try?

We all get stuck sometimes, and we all need help seeing the possibilities. If asking “What would I do if I knew I could not fail?” fills you with inspiration and motivation, then by all means, ask it early and ask it often! But if not, I hope you can find another way to peek beneath the fears that keep you stuck, so you can find some new directions.

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Pings of Happiness: How to Return from Depression

When you’ve been struggling with depression, the first time you experience joy again is a revelation. But it takes a long time to get there, and even longer to trust it.

The journey begins with a tiny glimmer of happiness: the first smile that actually reaches your eyes, or laughter that leaves you feeling a tad bit refreshed. If you’re clever (and you’re paying enough attention to notice it), you’ll follow up on whatever caused that feeling. Person, activity, book, idea: whatever it is, you need more of it.

Creative Commons photo posted to Flickr by plantsforpermaculture

Creative Commons photo posted to Flickr by plantsforpermaculture

So you pursue it. You spend more time with that person, read more books by that author, research that concept, renew that hobby. And it’s ok, but not quite as good as that moment of happiness. But you stay alert, and one day, while following that hint, you get another hit of happiness, this time a bit larger than the last. Some specific aspect of what you were already pursuing come to light, or else that pursuit led you to something else – you meet someone, or you try a new hobby, or you just look at the world in a different way for moment.

Now you pursue that new track, and it’s not bad – better than you were before, for sure! – but you still aren’t exactly happy. You stay alert, you keep looking for those little pings of happiness, and you keep following them. You’re a tracker now, alert to any signs of that most elusive of beasts: happiness. Each time you find a new track and follow it, you get another tiny hit of joy, and feel just a little bit better than you did before. Every once in awhile, you lose the scent, but then you just go back to the last hot track you found and start again from there.

One day, it hits you: you come upon an idea, pursuit, person, or place and makes you feel like the sun itself has risen and found a place in your heart. That feeling – the one you are struggling to contain, let along identify – is joy.

This isn’t the end of depression, of course. You’re going to have to continue to pursue joy with a dedication that borders on obsession, but you’ve found your path. It may twist and turn, but now you’re on it. And you know how to find it again, when you lose it.

I’ve been following a series of hot tracks myself, lately. It started with a renewed interest in the animals that live in my city, stopped off at The Urban Bestiary, and has now led me to sign up for nature-based coach training with the Sagefire Institute. After a challenging winter, I’m coming back home to myself at long last. I can’t wait to share the continuation of that journey with you all! May you find the same peace, joy, and excitement that I have.

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