choice, tuesday morning coffee

Tuesday Morning Coffee: Chewing the Couch

Today is voting day. Not for everyone (like me), and one could argue not for very “exciting” races. But millions of people have the chance to select the people they think will make their own lives better, make their communities better, make this country better.

Even though this an odd-year election, this is still a chance to make our voices heard and make an incremental change that will lead to something greater. It’s perhaps a lesson in making every little bit count — even the small choices can have a big effect.

My therapist once told me that, when faced with what we see as a Major Life Change, it can help to change the word “decision” into the word “choice.”

Our brains have a way of overdramatizing some of the choices we face over the course of our lives. And this doesn’t really happen in a way proportional to the gravity of the choice. In my own life, the choice to move to Israel for my post-doc and for a relationship sometimes feels easier than choosing what to eat for dinner or what plans to keep on my social calendar. My therapist’s point was that the word “decision” feeds into this by making the choices seem permanent and hold more weight than maybe they do.

Sometimes, at least for me, this over-dramatization comes in the form of feeling stuck, feeling hopeless, feeling uncertain. When I’m not feeling satisfied, or if I’m truly feeling depressed, it can feel daunting to take on the challenge of a Major Life Change to feel better. Even breaking the problem down into bite-sized pieces, as we’re all taught to do when going after a goal, seems either a waste of time or overwhelming in itself.

I have the added blessing and curse of a character trait that wants to logically plan out the steps to get from point A (where I am now) to point B (where I want to be). This trait has helped me many times, but it also makes it really uncomfortable to sit in the space between A and B. It makes it especially uncomfortable if I don’t know where B is, but I just know that A isn’t working. I want to channel my longing and drive to something else, something better, but instead it turns into stress and anxiety. Like a big dog without a backyard to run around in, my desire to move, to grow, and not being able to causes me to chew the couch and your favorite pair of expensive shoes.

Chewing the couch for me looks like: filling my calendar beyond the point of what’s sustainable or even what feels good for my introverted self. Devising projects and tasks that are pretty random in nature but things I like to do in the moment to fill up time and make myself feel like I’m being productive. Even if they’re things I really want to do (like, cooking all weekend to reset the lazy diet I’d gotten on in the throes of a deadline), they’re almost done frantically, to fill a void.

Chewing the couch for me looks like: suppressing the very real emotions I’m feeling about being in this uncomfortable space, because I want to avoid feeling uncomfortable, and then realizing one day that I don’t really feel anything, just a general flatness of being.

Chewing the couch for me looks like: surrendering my decision-making power to everyone around me. I’m not able to make simple decisions (that what to eat thing, again) or I tell myself — and I do truly end up believing this — that I don’t care, what everyone else wants is fine, I’ll just go with the flow.

This isn’t chewing the couch. This is pissing on it. My ability to suppress emotions paired with a very real fear of disappointing other people creates a perfect storm of complacency. This not caring is a very passively comfortable place to be. It’s like floating along a river in a swan float (I’m now no longer a dog, by the way. It’s a morning of mixed metaphors). Silly and frivolous, not really designed for carrying someone down a river, but fun and good enough. It carries me along without me having to do any work. I may even tie myself onto someone else and get dragged along for a while.

But life is not all fun and games and swan floats. The minute there is turbulence or an obstacle to navigate around, my swan float is pretty useless. I find myself wishing for a canoe, something with paddles. But I needed the canoe from the beginning, to make the slight adjustments in smooth water that would set me up for success when the water gets rough. It’s then easy to get angry at the person who suggested the swan float in the first place, promising a luxurious trip, or the river for being rough, or the person who dragged me down one fork when maybe I wanted to go down the other.

So what can I do, with my useless swan float?

I can swim to shore, regroup, and continue my journey on foot — not the way I expected to go, but a way that will move me forward.

I can wait on the shore for someone to offer to help — and accept help from someone paddling a canoe, not someone on a swan float.

While I wait, I can sulk or I can build a structure to keep me warm and dry and maybe I’ll end up liking it so much that I stay.

If I don’t know how to move forward on shore, I can walk back to the last place I saw canoes for sale, trusting that the temporary backwards movement will result in overall forward progress.

Or I can sit on shore, cursing the deflated float, cursing the river, cursing my friends who have progressed down-river, cursing myself for being so stupid to have gotten here.

These are all choices. There are, in fact, more choices that result in progress than choices that result in stagnation. But the latter doesn’t require any work, and in fact may be the anti-choice — the choice you make when you don’t want to make any other choice.

The point is, choose something that will require a little bit of effort, a little bit of work, because progress doesn’t happen by cursing the past. And if I try something that doesn’t lead me to where I thought it would, it’s not a failure, it’s an experiment. I can always try something else. I can always choose to try something else.

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