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Learn to float - 1/19/2007

Everyone has problems. There’s no way to live in this world without experiencing conflicts or  anxiety-provoking events.  Think about it.  In the course of a lifetime, 50% of married couples will get divorced.  If you have children, you are bound to experience concern, fear and frustration because of them.  If you live long enough, you’re bound to deal with some form of illness or physical impairment, and experience the loss of someone dear to you.  Fortunately, the key to living well isn’t whether or not you have problems, it’s how you cope with them.

That being the case, I would have you identify your primary means of coping,  i.e.: the defense mechanisms you use when faced with upset.  Do you yell, become ill, angry or critical?  Do you push others away or ask for their help?  Do you overeat, drink, submerge yourself in work, children, or  new projects?  Do you become engrossed in your problems, become excessively concerned with your appearance or completely let yourself go, or begin buying things you don’t need?  Once you recognize what you do, it is equally important that you determine the degree to which you do it and the extent that it is emotionally detrimental to your adjustment and relationships.  The reason being that defense mechanisms are always excessive in nature.  So, ask yourself “What do I do to excess?”  Why?  Because it is only after you recognize your defense mechanisms that you can use them in a positive manner, as warning flags that indicate “You’re troubled or scared.”  To illustrate, my coping techniques are fat, funny and fast.  So, whenever I begin  gaining too much weight, telling too many jokes, or becoming extra hyper, I ask myself “What’s bothering me?”  I’m also aware that my first two answers may be lies, so I have to dig deep for the truth, because it’s only when you genuinely know what’s broken that you can fix it.  

Remember, there is no way to live life without upset, or occasionally experiencing conflicting needs or desires which can cause you to feel you’re drowning, overwhelmed or frightened to death.  That’s when your defense mechanisms kick in and you want to fight or flee but, in your attempt to save yourself, your own coping mechanisms can prove detrimental.  For example, an occasional drink or infrequent desire to be alone isn’t necessarily an issue.  But, when excessive, they, or any of the other previously mentioned defenses become problems in themselves.  They may aid you to deal with your immediate fears, but the long-term price you pay is that you become alcoholic, obese, abusive, withdrawn or depressed.

There is another alternative.   Instead of fighting or fleeing, learn to float.  Let me provide an example of the value of floating.  It’s a lesson I learned that’s so simple, I wondered why I never thought of it before.  Probably it’s because we’re blind to those things that are most obvious.  Some time ago, I decided to upgrade my TV/stereo system.  Although the equipment was there and working, I thought it could be drastically improved.  I called someone who assured me it was an easy task and that he could keep it within budget.  However, it turned out that I needed additional equipment.  Eventually, shipping boxes and new instruction books began to fill the room.  When it was finally done, the system didn’t work at all.  When I turned the TV on, the satellite sent the message “weak signal”.  If I had a picture, I had no sound.  If I had sound, I had no picture.  Additionally, the stereo system was a total mess.  It began to threaten my whole sense of well-being.  My initial budget tripled, I had half the performance I had originally and I felt frustrated and dumb.  Finally, the man said “The problem is the satellite.  You need to call them.”  It took all the restraint I had not to put my hands around his neck.  Instead, I called the satellite provider.  Have you ever tried to talk to an automated telephone system?  The line was busy for hours, to the point that I gave up, set my alarm clock for  2:00 a..m.. and called then.  Surprisingly, a live person answered!  I described the problem and told him about the “weak signal” messages the TV was displaying.  He proceeded to go through a set of instructions, which I followed explicitly, but to no avail.  Three hours later, he said to me “ We can’t fix it”.  My reaction was immediate and hysterical.  “Don’t panic” he said.  “Go in the back and pull all the plugs.”  Five minutes later, he said “Plug everything in again.”  Then we went through the same procedure we tried earlier.  Lo and behold, the TV worked!   For a moment I wanted to jump up and down like a child and shout “It works, the TV works!”  

Then I thought I’ve had the same problem with my computer.  Because, I’m a certified computer idiot, I have frequently managed to press so many buttons that my computer would totally freeze up and nothing would work.   That used to paralyze me!  But I’ve become adept at shutting the computer off and rebooting it, which somehow allows it to reconfigure.   

That’s exactly what you can do when you find yourself hung up with conflicting problems, heightened anxiety and emotionally paralyzing frustration.  All you need to do is pull the mental plugs so you can later reboot.  What that means is put some distance between you and your problems.  Go exercise, sleep, attend a yoga class, meditate, take a coffee break, or call a friend.  You can’t always fix everything all at once.  You may want to, and society may support that behavior, but it doesn’t work long-term.  It’s not readily understandable why things become better after you pull the plug. It’s only important to know that they do.  It works for computers and satellites and it can for you, because human beings are far more capable of restoring themselves, of solving their problems and reconfiguring than any manmade piece of equipment.   

It’s really pretty simple.  Instead of fighting or fleeing,  float.  So, in the future, when things become overwhelming, totally anxiety-producing, and you’re paralyzed or confused, separate yourself from the problem, shut yourself down for a short period of time and know that, after a break, you’ll be far better able to face and resolve what’s troubling you.  

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