Popular advice states that we should refrain from comparing ourselves to others, instead focusing our discerning eyes on who we are currently versus who we were before. Generally speaking, we make strides forward. We fall in love, get the promotion, become more spiritual, achieve a new personal best and learn an important lesson along the way. However, it’s so much harder to come face-to-face with your old self when you’ve primarily seen regression. The perfect relationship failed, the job didn’t work out, meditation took a back seat, your body is aging less-than-gracefully and it’s hard to recognize the roses among the abundance of thorns.
My mom was a successful entrepreneur, so I’ve been plucking self-improvement book off her shelves since before I could read. Prior to the rise of social media and the barrage of digital noise, I knew the value of looking inward and tracking my personal progress. After a decade of cyclic effort, failure, achievement and growth, I was comfortable in my skin and confident in my ability to achieve anything and everything I put my mind to. I was a force to be reckoned with, utterly unstoppable.
Then, four years ago, a nasty infection threw a wrench into the machine and–for the first time in my life–all of the meditation, journaling and solitude in the world would not reveal to me my smallest victories. Gradually, all those areas in which I’d been making gradual strides forward began backsliding. My fitness, friendships, work performance and extracurricular hobbies were all slowly sinking deeper into the quicksand of reality.
Again and again, I remind myself of my “new normal” and my updated definition of progress: My body is trying to tell me something and I’ve responded by creating the space and implementing the necessary tactics to receive and interpret its message. If on any given day, I’ve chosen to listen to my body instead of push it, that is progress.
I’m finally reaching a place where the simplest efforts to heal are enough. My cortisol is extremely high, so I scream when someone taps my shoulder, sob when playfully teased me and I literally jumped out of my seat in a children’s movie this weekend (and yes, the entire audience laughed at me). Even without any emotional stressors, an abundance of physical stressors have sent my body into a state of high alert, forcing all of my physical and cognitive energy circling down the drain.
“A person should be understood as an active process, not a thing.” – Michael Allen Fox
The other day, I stumbled upon the above quote, which deeply resonated with where I am right now–this state of disarray, stunted growth and forced stagnation. Then, I listened to a podcast episode on “productivity shame” which asks why we’re driven to set unrealistic expectations and prone to beat ourselves up when we can’t do it all. It was precisely what I needed to hear. Why am I spending an hour feverishly unloading the dishwasher, folding laundry and scrubbing the toilet when I know the effort will inevitably be followed by a six-hour nap? Why do I insist on staying up to enjoy “quality time” with my boyfriend when my body is insisting on a five o’clock bedtime? Why am I pushing myself so damn hard? What am I hoping to achieve?
Even when I spend every one of my waking minutes productively, it never feels like enough because I’m striving to outdo my previous self. By setting the bar unrealistically high, I am setting myself up for nothing short of failure.
In this day and age, everyone is striving to optimize their lives, myself included. What can I do to achieve my fullest potential and give back to the world in a meaningful and lasting way? How can I achieve this task more efficiently? Is there an easier way? How do I solve this puzzle that is my life?
Just as chemical equations can be rearranged and balanced, energy is neither gained nor lost. Each of us is merely shifting. Perhaps, right now, I’m in the middle of that rearrangement. I imagine some eighteen-year old kid in another dimension is struggling pulling the carbon down from the left side of the equation of my life and staring blankly at the right side, unsure of the next step. Soon enough, a classmate or teacher will guide him. And, perhaps, that student is me and I need to start listening for my inner guide to tell me what’s next.
If life is a journey, why are we so caught up on the path? Why are we keeping track of how many berries we pick, how many barbarians we defeat and how many beautiful sights we see along the way? At the end of the journey, I doubt any of these things will truly have much bearing on our life satisfaction. Rather, I think, we’ll look back fondly on the people who cared and the forks in the path that brought us to our final destination.
Humans are not Rubik’s cubes, meant to be solved as rapidly as possible. Our lives are meant to be a gradual unfolding, like a blossom opening up to the warm morning sun.
Growth stems from change, whether we initially perceive that change to be good or bad. Growth can lead to painful shin splints, embarrassing vocal changes, saggy breasts and incontinence, but growth also leads to personal records on the track, that new freelancing business and life-changing friendships.
Progress is a process and such processes aren’t always linear. We take two steps forward and one step back indefinitely, often failing to recognize the impermanence of each stage on our journey.
Contentment stems from acceptance. We can’t experience satisfaction until we feel perfectly okay with who we are where we are. While big goals are invaluable, we must also familiarize ourselves with reality. Within the confines of possibility, we can nudge out the edges a bit. If I can only scratch three items on my to-do list, what will give me the biggest bang for my buck?
This exercise in re-framing is offering me an entirely new lease on life. My old self was concerned with maintaining special friendships, building muscle mass, boosting earning potential and brainstorming a future novel. I cannot accomplish a single one of these under current circumstances. It’s taken years for that to sink in, but I have finally come to accept that adequate rest, proper nutrition and high-quality medical care are planks along the bridge I must cross to meet my future self.
There is no need for shame. Progress is a process and simply realizing that is the first step on the next leg of my journey.