Helping Yourself To Self Help

2010 March 22

Today, we’re putting a new twist on old-school self help. Have you noticed that we don’t often ask ourselves questions, at least not of the exploratory variety. Sure, there’s the rhetorical What am I going to do now? OMG, where are my keys? Why can’t I ever finish a carton of soy milk before it goes bad? etc., but not the kind of queries that we actually sit down to devote time to answering. Questions that when taken seriously might help us get a better look at where our head is, what makes us tick and what factors are contributing to our current state of mind.

Photo by Sebastian Niedlich

So, just for fun (and possibly enlightenment purposes) I want to delve into a few of those questions today. Instead of writing them out and then asking you to ask them to yourself, which is both a little awkward and kinda smurfy, I thought it would be easier to imagine me asking them and you responding as you see fit (you trust me, right?). You can think over your answers silently, share them out loud with your cat or write them down on paper. And just for the record, to make this as authentic as possible, I’m sitting here in a tweed jacket with fake leather patches on the sleeves and I have a pipe. But not a real pipe, one of those bubble pipes that kids have. The kind where you blow into them and bubbles come out of the bowl?  I just have to be careful not to inhale or I’ll end up with a mouthful of soap.

Now to the questions. Ready?

When are you happy? Please note the format of the question – I’m not asking what makes you happy. To which you could answer unicorns, single malt scotch or hitting all the green lights on your commute. No, I want you to describe the situations and contexts in which you experience happiness in your daily life.  What are you doing? Are there other people with you?  What are they doing? Once you have your list, I want you to see if you find any common themes –  maybe all of the activities you describe revolve around creating things and sharing them with others? Or maybe they all feature various modes of problem solving? Try to identify if there’s a pattern to the happy.

What are the biggest roadblocks in your life right now? These can relate to any facet of your life – career, family, relationships, etc. Try to describe or analyze  how they’re holding you back. For example,  let’s say your answer  is money. You have $75 000 in student loan debt, your job barely covers your bills and you’re worried about long-term job security. Maybe this financial ambiguity is keeping you from pursuing new opportunities,  you feel tied to your job (even if it isn’t the right fit for you) because it’s  a source of stability and you feel as if your debt burden is preventing you from exploring possibilities that might be a better fit because they would require an additional investment of resources –  going back to school, starting your own business, etc. When you get right down to it, your roadblock is a lack of autonomy to make and implement decisions because of what you see as the constraints of your financial situation. Once you get beyond the one word answer to this question, you can see that because you’re able to define your roadblocks more broadly, you can start considering the fact they can be attacked via more than one approach. It’s no longer simply a linear relationship between lack of money and lack of choice; there are means of increasing your feeling of control over your life that are non-monetary in nature and that will give you some sort of sense of autonomy in the interim between now and digging yourself out of debt.

If you weren’t faced with any constraints, expectations or obligations, what would you be doing for the rest of your life? If you didn’t have worries about paying bills, living up to your “potential,” or making anyone proud, how would you spend your days?  I like this question, because everyone’s first inclination is to talk about traveling the world or spending their days on a beach,  but when you start really turning this over in your mind, most people still have this hardwired desire to contribute to society, to create and share some sort of value, but the nature of what that value is is often both much more altruistic and more reflective of their own interests and talents when you take the need to make money out of the equation. It’s a telling question.

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