It’s a part of the human condition, isn’t it – to always want more. We start to feel dissatisfied with certain aspects of our lives. And from there, it’s natural to try to “fix” whatever feels like is wrong.
Maybe the excitement’s gone from your relationship, so you start wondering whether you should look for a new partner. Maybe the day-to-day frustrations of your job are overshadowing the parts which bring you joy.
However, I’d argue that many of us (including me) have a tendency to misdiagnose the root of why we’re feeling so bad. And, even worse, the steps we take to try to make ourselves happier often fall flat.
For me personally, I sometimes find myself lying in bed, not wanting to get up. I can’t immediately think of anything which motivates me… so instead I choose to go back to sleep and dream.
I love dreaming, escaping from reality.
In fact, for the last few mornings now, I’ve not wanted to get up and face the day.
Now, this not wanting to get up – it’s a warning sign that something is not right in my life.
By default, my problem-solving brain jumps straight to thoughts about my career (or lack thereof). Am I engaged in work which feels fulfilling? Am I reaching my potential? Am I doing enough with my life, or am I merely wasting it?
Whilst I think these questions can be useful and motivating, for me they often just make me feel worse.
Those questions are grounded in lack. They assume there’s something I don’t already have, and that I can’t be happy until I achieve whatever’s missing. It feels like there’s a hole in my life that needs filling, urgently.
I feel like I won’t be able to shift this heavy, unpleasant feeling which permeates my body and mind unless I make some drastic changes to my life.
But wait a minute – I’ve been here before. This is a familiar path I’ve walked many times, even though it always feels like it’s the very first time I’ve been through this.
This feeling has quite a lot to do with depression. But even though that explains a lot, it’s not the whole story…
My Other Battle
When I think about the great struggles in my life, two in particular stand out: yes, there’s depression as I mentioned above, but also there’s addiction.
Depression and addiction – lots of people think they know what those terms mean, but they’re two words which I feel are often misunderstood. I think it’s very difficult for most people to truly understand what those diseases are like unless you’ve actually experienced them yourself.
I find it hard to know when to stop. That’s been true all my life. Among my oldest friends, I was known as the guy who always took things too far.
In my head it was a simple equation: if X is good, then more of X is better.
Most children learn the importance of moderation and delayed gratification. For whatever reason, those skills have never really embedded themselves into my head properly.
Even at age 43, I still often binge on sugar, especially late at night. It gives me a huge rush, but then the next day I feel awful.
There’s a pincer movement of pain from two angles: there’s the physical symptoms of the sugar hangover, foggy thinking and depression; then there’s the psychological pain of feeling like I’ve let myself down again.
For most people, changing bad habits is really hard. Just look at the number of people who try to diet and fail… or they diet successfully for a while, but soon afterwards fall back into old habits.
For many of us, controlling our food intake is really difficult, even when the negative consequences involve serious diseases.
For me, excess sugar directly causes depression and increases my risk of suicide. There’s hardly a more severe consequence than that.
And yet, even though I know how high the stakes are, I still struggle to moderate my behaviour. And I struggle to understand why I behave this way.
It’s so frustrating… I know that I prefer feeling healthy, having more energy, thinking clearly, feeling happy… and yet I struggle to make the right choices.
Tying Everything Together
Earlier I mentioned I’ve been finding it difficult recently to get out of bed. And my first instinct is to decide there must be something major wrong with my life… but I miss the wood for the trees.
In actual fact, the cause(s) of my low moods are almost always the same. It comes down to 3 fundamentals which are almopst embarrassingly basic…
Food, sleep and exercise.
How boring is that?! Maybe that’s why my problem-solving brain overlooks them – they don’t seem very interesting.
Food – if I consume excessive amounts of sugar, I get depressed. And that makes me need more sleep, I find it harder to get out of bed, I lack of energy, have no motivation etc.
Sleep – If I have too many late nights, I build up a sleep deficit, which again contributes towards depression, low mood, lack of energy etc.
Exercise – If I’m not getting enough exercise, it increases the likelihood of depression, especially in conjunction with poor eating habits and insufficient sleep.
It’s Occam’s Razor isn’t it – the correct answer to a complex situation is often the simplest one.
I don’t need to turn my life upside down and embark on a whole new career in order to feel motivated to get out of bed… I just need to eat sensibly and go to bed at a reasonable time.
Why Do I Overeat?
I think part of it comes down to that innate desire to push things to extremes. It’s a part of my personality… if X is good then more X must be better.
And I think perhaps it’ll just be a continual retraining process where I have to negotiate with myself. I need to train myself into having better habits.
And my “inner child” has a lot to do with this too. The impulsive behaviour, the lack of moderation… those are quite childish. And I don’t mean “childish” in a derogatory sense…
The usual way of looking at children vs adults is to see that one progresses into the other: We start as children, then we transition into adults and leave all childish things behind.
But it seems to me that this is a false dichotomy.
In reality, we never really leave the childish parts of ourselves behind. In fact, all we do is wrap our inner childs with a veneer of adult-like behaviours.
Think of yourself like an onion. The core is your inner child. Then, as we grow older, we add layer upon layer of supposedly adult behaviours which help us to navigate society.
That inner child never goes away. We can choose to ignore it, but I think that’s a mistake.
Our inner child seems to control a lot of our behaviour, and sometimes it doesn’t make much sense to our adult way of viewing the world.
I think that for many of us, including me, it’s important recognise and accept our inner child, and practice negotiating with them.
We need to ask ourselves: what does our inner child want? How can “adult us” help our inner child to achieve its desires in healthy and sensible ways?
Last night, I felt the familiar urge to take a trip to the supermarket and buy armfuls of icecream and cookies. The supermarket would be closing in 30 minutes, adding to the sense of excitement.
But this time, rather than give in to my impulsive urges, I turned inwards, to my inner child. I asked him what he was trying to achieve here.
What was it that 5-year-old me was looking for, which he felt the sugar binge would solve?
My inner child answered clearly: it’s about excitement, it’s about short-term pleasure and feeling good.
“But are there other ways to get that excitement and feeling good which aren’t so harmful?” I asked myself.
I already knew the answer.
The urge to rush out to the supermarket faded and was replaced with a kind of sadness.
I realised I didn’t really want ice cream itself. I just wanted to feel excitement and happiness.
The ice cream was a proxy for happiness.
So then I asked myself what’s a better way to achieve happiness. Again, I already knew the answer. I’ve been here many times before.
The best way to consistently experience those positive feelings is to be sensible… to make responsible, adult choices around food, sleep and exercise.
My inner child felt sad, but he also knew that avoiding sugar and going to bed was the right decision.
Does this mark a watershed moment? Does this mean I will never again stay up stupidly late or have ridiculous sugar binges?
Whilst I wish that was the case, I’m realistic enough to know that this retraining process is difficult and it takes consistent effort.
I have to keep reminding myself that massive sugar binges might make me feel better temporarily, but the negative consequences far outweigh any short-term benefits.
If I don’t want my inner child to dominate my behaviour, I have to patiently engage in dialogue with him, again and again.
I can’t be a tyrant to myself. I have to negotiate.
Sometimes “adult me” will lose those negotiations and I’ll give in to being reckless and impulsive.
But that’s OK. I’m a work in progress.
Sure, I will keep forgetting. I will keep making mistakes.
But as long as I keep aiming to head in the right direction, that’s what life is all about.
Now pass me that piece of raw brocolli 😉