As we’re slowly emerging from the pandemic, the way we feel may surprise us. As Melinda Wenner Moyer explained in her recent piece in Elemental, it’s perfectly natural that we’re not bursting with enthusiasm just yet.
In fact, now is the moment when many people’s mental health is taking the biggest dip.
For many of us, the amount of thinking we’ve done over the past year has hit us hard. We’ve been forced to evaluate our lives from all possible angles. We asked ourselves serious questions about why we’re here and what we’re doing. Often, we’ve done that in an all-encompassing veil of self-help messages that urged us to finally figure out our life purpose.
This may have been more detrimental than helpful.
Maybe you started questioning your desires and motivations for whatever you’re already doing with your life. Or, you’re not sure about which people you want to stick with in the new, post-pandemic reality. You may also have concluded that you’re not anywhere near to where you “should” be by now — and you’re beating yourself up for it.
If it feels like I’m reading your thoughts, that’s because I’ve experienced all of the above — especially in the past few weeks, as we’re starting to see the other side of the pandemic. I’m becoming hyper-aware that, very soon, I’ll need to go out and live the “real life” once again. The truth is… I’m terrified of this.
I can tell that the past year has taken a toll on my mental health, as I know it did for many others. What I have found is that, right now, traditional self-help techniques only keep me spinning in circles.
And that’s why, with this article, I’d like to suggest a different way.
Disclaimer: I’m no mental health practitioner and below I’m only sharing what worked for me. I’m not claiming that contemplation is a quick fix for any mental health illness.
By traditional “self-help techniques,” I mean the tools, practices, worksheets, and exercises that employ your thinking mind to analyze and “figure itself out.”
Things like inquiry processes to capture and question your thoughts. Journaling exercises. Personality tests. Habit and mood trackers. Now, I’m not saying that these techniques can’t be helpful. However, they have limitations and drawbacks that can be experienced especially by those who already overthink their lives a bunch.
And after the pandemic year, that’s a lot of people.
One of those limitations is that many of these techniques require you to — directly or not — ask some form of the “why” question. And when it comes to trying to understand what’s going on in our minds, asking “why?” can be misleading. It may keep you stuck more than it helps you get out of your thinking loops. Researcher and organizational psychologist Tasha Eurich explains:
“As it turns out, ‘why’ is a surprisingly ineffective self-awareness question. Research has shown that we simply do not have access to many of the unconscious thoughts, feelings, and motives we’re searching for. And because so much is trapped outside of our conscious awareness, we tend to invent answers that feel true but are often wrong.”
Overdoing self-reflection may not only lead to inaccurate answers. It may also encourage ruminative thoughts, and that rarely improves mental health. As a study of recently bereaved men found out, “self-reflective, ruminative coping with negative emotions and social friction are associated with longer and more severe periods of depressed mood following stressful events.”
Trying to “talk ourselves into” feeling better or finding meaning in life may also have two other consequences. These are the ones I know from personal experience:
- It fuels exaggerated focus on the self, a kind of obsession with optimizing your life for happiness. This may lead to treating other people in an instrumental way, e.g., “Is this person a positive enough influence in my life, or should I cut ties with them?”
- It reinforces the idea that there are parts of you that are absolutely unacceptable and you should, therefore, find a way to eradicate them.
These two factors may cause you to see yourself as (1) dramatically separated from others and (2) a subject to constant moral judgment. The two belong to the same thinking loop. You start cultivating very strong views of what you should and shouldn’t be experiencing. That causes you to feel even more separated from others and judge them — as well as yourself — really hard.
If you want a concrete example, here I am to reveal one from my personal life. This is something I still feel lots of shame around and sharing it feels edgy — but it’s a great example of how overanalyzing myself and constantly introspecting got me nowhere.
Right now I’m in a really great, nurturing romantic relationship. Or at least, I feel like it most of the time. However, I also fall for a recurring pattern of doubting whether he is the “right person for me.” Once every month or so, I go into the fearful mode of thinking and questioning whether we really belong together.
When that happens, these thoughts feel so real that I don’t know what to believe anymore. I’m almost ready to abandon the relationship and run away, even though I feel awesome in it for the other 90% of the time.
Worst of all, I judge myself to be a horrible person for having those thoughts. I desperately try to hide them from my boyfriend because they just feel wrong to have. It feels unfair towards him. It feels like I’m cheating on him, even though I know that these doubts have more to do with me than with him.
Because those thoughts appear to be so “wrong,” I started looking for “techniques” to fix them. I wanted to explain to myself where they come from, and ultimately, dismiss them as “not real.” What’s real is my love for him that I feel most of the time.
However, it recently occurred to me that the more I try to get rid of my fearful thoughts, the more I consolidate the belief that I’m a bad person for having them. I couldn’t even see what exactly I was thinking, because I was so busy running away from those thoughts.
In Jungian terms, I’ve been keeping the shadow part of me from coming to the light. And, the more I did that, the scarier that shadow became.
“Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.” — Carl Jung
The problem with most intellectual self-help techniques is that they keep us stuck in a rigid framework of right and wrong. Because they set out to change us in some way, they reinforce the idea that some things are “good” and others “bad” — to do, to think, but most importantly, to be.
When we get even a hint of suspicion that we might be “bad people” because of what we think and feel, our ego will do almost anything to cover up those wrongful thoughts and feelings. This way, they go back into the shadow — and, as Carl Jung noticed, this often means they keep driving our lives without us even realizing it.
They become the “fate” you may feel powerless to do anything about.
This kept happening to me and so I needed to reframe my approach. While trying to “analyze” or “understand why” I was having those fearful thoughts, I was making it all about me, me, me. And honestly, I got tired of being so self-absorbed whenever a difficulty hit.
So, I tried contemplation instead. To me, to contemplate means to sit and take in as much of my reality as possible, while seeing myself as just one part of the picture — rather than the center of it.
“Contemplation is both personal and communal, internal and external. It helps us let go of our usual, self-focused way of thinking and doing things so that our compassionate, connected, and creative self can emerge. Through contemplation we develop the capacity to witness our egoic motivations, bringing this awareness into our day-to-day actions and living with increased freedom and authenticity through deeper awareness of our self and God’s Self.” — Center for Action and Contemplation
Contemplating your reality means looking at it as a work of art. This allows you to trade your self-centered, moralistic point of view for a holistic and aesthetic approach. This means you don’t focus quite as much on what you should or shouldn’t be experiencing as on appreciating the reality in which you play only a part.
Rather than following some commandments around what “should” be, you’re freer to appreciate the magnificence of whatever already is. Again, this is very similar to appreciating art — for example, a painting whose meaning you don’t fully understand. However, the fact that you don’t understand it doesn’t mean there’s something “right” or “wrong” with it.
You’re simply interacting with an artistic landscape, the aesthetic vision of the painter.
Carolyn Elliott, the author of “Existential Kink,” describes how we can bring a similar aesthetic approach to our lives, as a way of integrating our shadowy parts:
“It’s possible to be sad, angry, disappointed — in a turned-on way. It’s just a matter of giving yourself permission to fully feel the raw sensation that those emotions present, to meet the sensation with your innocence rather than your cynical judgment and ‘stories’ about what these emotional sensations mean. In other words, it’s magically useful to take an aesthetic, imaginative, artistic approach to your life and feelings rather than a dire, moralizing approach. (…) Let’s take the feeling of sadness as an example. An open, receptive approach to this emotion might be, ‘Ah, a deep heavy feeling of sadness, how exquisite. Hmm, let me feel into this, what is the texture, the sound? It’s rather spongy, and when I pay close attention, I notice in my heart it sounds like a slow xylophone melody playing in a rainy alley.’ As opposed to, ‘Oh no, a deep heavy feeling of sadness. This must mean I’m a failure and my life sucks and I’m screwed. Everyone knows only losers feel sad.’
The first attitude is a playful, aesthetic one. The second, a serious, moralizing one.
Try taking the aesthetic approach.”
The aesthetic, contemplative approach to your feelings and thoughts may not be the easiest to begin with. When you try to contemplate your shadowy parts, they may be too challenging to look at at first. You may slip back into the patterns of suppression before you realize.
That’s why I’d recommend starting with something easier. Tune into your physical surroundings and observe them as if they were a movie you’re a part of — but not necessarily starring in it. Rather, try to see yourself as an extra, someone who participates in the events but isn’t essential to the story.
The life around you goes on, even if you’re not actively engaging. This means you’re not superior or inferior to other forms of life. Your existence matters — but so does the one of the cat crossing the street, the grass covering your backyard, and the angry drivers stuck in traffic.
That’s how I observed my reality this morning when I went to the nearby river to contemplate. I looked at all the details of the landscape that I usually mindlessly skim over. I tried to see the whole picture of life around — and myself only as one part of it all.
To ease myself into this contemplation, I remembered these beautiful words of “Desiderata:”
“Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.”
That last phrase, “the universe is unfolding as it should,” brought an immense sense of relief. If that was true, I thought, it’d also mean that there was nothing wrong with me. There was nothing wrong with my re-occurring doubts about my relationship. I wasn’t a bad person for having those thoughts.
What if, in fact, just the opposite was true? What if me having those thoughts was one of the many signs that the universe — and, by extension, my life — was unfolding exactly as it should?
Seeing that possibility allowed me to relax and finally start paying attention to what was around me:
I saw yellow daffodils and trash. Blossoming trees alongside the polluted river. The blue sky with a dark cloud approaching in the distance. And, quite magically, I was able to contemplate it all — not from the standpoint of what should and shouldn’t be in the picture, but from the aesthetic perspective of looking at a true work of art.
In that perspective, the ugly and the beautiful were not only both allowed. They created a perfect combination, a symbiosis that would become incomplete if anything was to be taken out.
And so it is in our lives. We don’t need to take out anything in order to be at peace. Most of the time, we also don’t need another self-help technique to “sort things out” and arrive at some distant “bliss.”
Maybe we only need one thing: To see it all as a coherent, perfectly valid work of art. And that’s not just some out-there, beautiful slogan. Even neuropsychologist Judy Ho will tell you that “some of the best moments in life, when you truly feel good, are full of mixed emotions.”
Deep, appreciative contemplation allows you to add anything you want to that emotional mix.