Last night my wife and I had dinner with our dear friends Larry and Pat. What a great night! We ate at a local tapas restaurant, with tastings of many small dishes and a few flavors exotic to our palates. A little wine, a lot of stories (mostly true, many embellished), and deeply satisfying friendship. I think I can speak for each of us when I say we left the scene rested and recreated.
For me this is the best way to replenish the depleted ego. The laughter and love that was shared for four hours lightened all burdens and reminded each of us that it’s in the giving that we receive. Later that night, a bit earlier than usual to bed, a quiet sleepy long rest, and rising early to enjoy the stillness of the new dawn. Feeling like a new man, venturing out into a world with its demands and stressors, but ready, willing, and able to face them all. Replenished, fatigue forgotten, energy renewed.
Depleted ego mind feels like a glue factory between my ears. I know the feeling. And now that I know what it is, and know that it happens naturally as the result of a tired brain with diminished energy, I can let go of any shame or embarrassment over my somewhat impaired mental state. I can more easily accept the limitation, and apply the antidotes. Let’s talk a bit about the correctives to the depleted ego mind.
First, a good meal. Solid research by Roy Baumeister (great psychologist; much research and originator of the idea of “ego depletion;” much more information on him at: http://baumeister.socialpsychology.org/publications) has shown that the ego-depleted brain lacks glucose. A healthy meal, even an unhealthy meal, begins the process of restoring needed energy to the brain. I keep a pack of peanut butter crackers or an apple or an orange or some pretzels with me most of the time. Every morning around 10 am and every afternoon around 3 pm I have a light, carbohydrate based snack whether I feel hungry or not. I’ve been doing this for decades, and it seems to help, though not as much as a few plates of good Spanish tapas! According to Baumeister’s research, I’m right about this.
Second, rest. If you can’t make a decision and you feel like you want to sleep on it, turns out you’re right. A good night’s rest restores the brain, in a sense “reboots” it. When you wake up after a good sleep (naps count, too!) your capacity to decide returns. It’s not that the problem is any simpler, it’s that your ability to decide has returned. And then things SEEM simpler.
Third, laugh. Or, more broadly speaking, experience some happiness, joy, excitement, pleasure. It turns out that “positive affect” (psychologists’ way of saying “feeling good”) also replenishes our mental storehouse of strength. Last week, the day after my meltdown, still feeling some mental lassitude, I took a 15 minute break and turned on the movie channel (TCM). A classic Laurel and Hardy movie, “Way Out West,” was on. My God! I had forgotten how funny they were. I laughed out loud watching them. If you want a good laugh right now, here it is:
Any positive feelings will help with your personal restoration project. That’s where using your support network comes in, too. Feeling the concern of a loved one for our predicament, or having a pleasant conversation with a friend about something OTHER than our problem. Don’t forget your intra-personal support network; that is, indulgence in your hobby, or a good book, some exercise, perhaps some music that brings you back to a great place (for me, a little Cat Stevens or Richie Havens!). Any of these and more that can bring some pleasant feelings will help. But the bottom line is that a simple “feeling good” time helps to restore our minds. Don’t discount the power of a good laugh at a silly movie!
There’s nothing that I’ve mentioned that doesn’t boil down to some good, old fashioned common sense. Perhaps your mother or some other source of wisdom has already told you this kind of advice. I think the most important thing to remember is that getting ego-depleted in stressful times is normal, inevitable if the demands are great enough, and resolvable with some simple solutions, but solutions that take some time and acceptance.
One final thought. Baumeister’s research has shown that sometimes people, when experiencing ego-depletion, can rise to another challenge despite their fatigue. He’s found that with the proper incentive, people can go the extra mile. He’s hypothesized that we naturally hold a little of our ego-strength in reserve in case another demand arises that we can’t ignore. The incentive could be material but often it is found in the urgency of the new demand. So when you’re feeling a bit down and out, don’t doubt that you have anything left, because you probably do. Just don’t demand that you find it and use it unless you must. Give yourself a break. Eat a healthy meal. Rest. Relax. Have a laugh, enjoy the company of a friend, or take time to be still and silent. Let your brain work its own magic and heal. Come back another day to play hard again.
Next post: Ego-Strengthening. How do we make the “muscle” of mental control stronger, so we’re less prone to ego-depletion. As you might guess, this is where mindfulness practice will come in!