Put In The Work
Practice your mental health like you would your physical health.
Today’s post is about putting in the work to achieve a better state of mental health. If you read my previous post, you know I’ve been trying to improve my mental health this football season by refusing to tilt.
How’s it going? My initial instinct is “fairly well”. I definitely have a better attitude than in previous seasons when watching the games on Sundays. However, if I zoom out, my overall mental health this football season is about as bad as it’s ever been, and my no tilting stance has waned a bit in recent weeks.
One of the issues with not tilting is that it’s somewhat incompatible to devote so much time and effort (especially when watching/sweating the games after lineups have been set and I no longer have control) to something while telling yourself not to get worked up over the results. I’m still trying to find the right balance here.
Recently, a friend of mine was painfully close to winning a bunch of money in a fantasy football contest. He detailed what that was like here: My Dark Twisted Fantasy Sweat.
What Peter talks about in that post really struck a chord with me, in particular the juxtaposition of how he was telling himself to feel and knew he should feel (grateful for winning the money he did and how if events had happened a little differently he would have been so stoked) compared to how he actually felt:
“Despite that self-awareness, it still took me a couple hours to shake off the disappointment. Even with things are going exceptionally well, our dumb lizard brains find a way to ruin the enjoyment.”
Some of this is a combination of human nature and societal conditioning that we’re never going to fully beat, but Peter’s post got me thinking about how sometimes with mental health we try to will it into existence without putting in the work. To be clear, I’m not saying that’s what Peter did, but it’s my own interpretation of how I’ve felt being in similar spots as Peter.
Earlier this season, I had a coin flip lineup decision that went the wrong way. On a somewhat arbitrary decision, I went from winning first place in a tournament to not even coming remotely close to cashing at all.
Despite telling myself that those decisions will even out over time and that it doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things (it’s really quite trivial when you zoom out), every other hour or so for a day or two my brain would pester me: “Why didn’t you just play the other side of that coin flip? You would have won everything!”
And it’s clear that what we recognize consciously is so easily overridden by our subconscious. And the reason is we’re not putting in the work.
What do I mean by this? Well, mental health isn’t something you can turn on and off as you please. It’s not enough to know how we should think and feel if we’re not consistently living it.
Anyone who has ever been told or told someone else “Don’t worry about it” when they’re nervous about something intuitively understands this. Does saying those words ever actually work?
Yet, we still say or are told some version of “Don’t worry about it” or “Be present” or “Have gratitude”. It’s not that those platitudes are incorrect, but they lack meaning without practice behind it.
This example may be extreme, but if you were running a marathon, you’d never not train for it because you consciously knew what you needed to do. Imagine stepping on the starting line, thinking you’re going to race well because you identified what splits you need to hit, how to manage your gait, what your fuel strategy is, etc., but you aren’t actually in the right shape to do any of that because you haven’t trained.
It’s a ludicrous concept. And while it’s not a perfect analogy, it’s not totally off base either. Why should we expect to be more patient with people if we never practice patience? Is it because we identify we need to be more patient (or insert whatever goal you have), we are vain enough to think it will magically happen?
I think I’ve mentioned Ryan Holiday of Daily Stoic in a previous post, but he’s someone whose work I follow and admire. What Holiday points out about stoicism is that it’s not just some ancient philosophy meant to be studied theoretically. Stoicism is meant to be practiced daily and to have actionable applications to our lives; almost any situation or interaction is an opportunity to practice.
That’s something I am trying to be more mindful of moving forward. If I’m struggling to let yesterday’s football results go, I need to understand that simply telling myself “let it go” isn’t enough. I need to find a way to practice letting things go. Maybe that means meditating on some consistent frequency or catching myself in a trivial argument and deciding to let it go, likely a combination of a few things.
If you want to stop reaching for your cell phone around friends and family, practice not reaching for your cell phone when you’re simply bored at home or waiting in line somewhere. If you want to be a more optimistic person when things aren’t going well, practice finding the silver lining in mundane situations daily. If you want to be more appreciative of your friends and family, consciously think of something positive about them each night before you go to bed.
It’s always good to acknowledge a change we need to make, something we’d like to be better at. But don’t expect the change to take hold or the improvement to follow because of that recognition alone, especially at the time when it’s most critical and difficult. Golfers practice their golf swing an absurd number of times in no small part because they need that swing to hold up under the most pressure filled of circumstances. They don’t cut practice short because they hit a few good balls and know what their swing is supposed to be like. If they did, there wouldn’t be enough of a foundation to rely on when things weren’t going well or pressure mounted.
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