Ego Replenishment – Applying The Antidotes

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!

Peace,

Jim

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Ego Depletion

A few weeks ago I had a very long work day.  Started at about 8 a.m.  Drove to Milford DE and did 3 hours worth of teaching (workshops on managing stress and integrating spirituality into the therapeutic process).  Drove to New Castle and taught a 5 hour class (Classification of Psychopathology).  Got home at 11 p.m.; just your basic 15 hour work day.

The next day was better, only about 10 hours long, but capped with a drive to have dinner with my mom, my sister and her husband, and my nephew and his wife.  We had an excellent dinner and a lot of table camaraderie, but the reality of my mother’s deteriorating mind as she slips slowly into dementia is always upsetting.  I teach about this disease, and I understand it fully, but that doesn’t temper the emotional impact of hearing your mom say “and who are you?”

I got home that night just in time for the results show of “Dancing With The Stars.”  It was about all I could handle.  I was calm emotionally, but for the life of me couldn’t figure out who was most likely to be voted off the show!  I know, it’s such a trivial thing, but it felt like my mind was encased in glue.  I had a true case of “brain freeze,” and not the kind you get from eating your ice cream too fast!

That night I had great difficulty sleeping despite my exhaustion.  The next morning, after making a pretty simple but careless error that resulted in a broken vase, I had a meltdown.  A few hours later, pondering what happened, I remembered a psychological construct that I used to study closely, but that had fallen out of my awareness.  I realized that I had just experienced “ego depletion.”

Ego depletion occurs following any effort to self-regulate; that is, any effort to curb an intention, a desire, or even a thought you don’t particularly care for.  Humans are constantly experiencing emotions and thoughts and desires that make us feel like we must act RIGHT NOW.  Some we follow, but when we don’t it’s because we’ve done something psychologists call “self regulation.”  Self regulation is one of the most human of actions; it’s simply the effort we put into preventing that RIGHT NOW action.  Every time we close the refrigerator door WITHOUT noshing on that leftover mac & cheese we’ve self regulated.  Every time we go back and reposition the drapery hooks that turned out to be an inch too low (oy vey, what a project that was last Saturday!), we’ve self regulated.  The hardest circumstances are when we have conflicting motivations: cake tastes great (pleasure motivation) but my waistline has expanded lately (self appraisal motivation).  Self regulating in these circumstances is depleting; actually, it’s ego depleting.  And once we’re ego depleted we’re less capable of the next act of self regulation.

Self regulation is a fancy name for what we call “willpower,” and exercising willpower takes energy.  It turns out that willpower, the ability to self regulate, can be understood metaphorically as a muscle. Use it too much and it gets tired.  With fatigue comes languor, a lethargy that says “I don’t think I can make one more decision.”  In a word, we feel lost, as if we can’t make one more decision.  We’re out of gas, there’s no more RIGHT NOW in us.

Has this ever happened to you?  I’m certain it has.  We’ve all worked impossibly long days.  We’ve all had to make too many hard decisions, worried endlessly about someone we love, felt overwhelmed by a torrent of bad luck in our lives.  There’s a lot we can do in the area of ego replenishment (next post!), but it’s helpful to recognize and name “ego depletion” when it happens.  Naming what’s happening is helpful. Naming it doesn’t fix it, but naming it gives me a handle on what is going on in my body/mind, and now I can begin to consider solutions.  And knowing that it’s a phenomenon that occurs naturally, and is not an indication of some defect in me, helps me to better abide the fatigue.  In my next post I’ll talk a bit about how our body/mind recovers naturally, and how we can help it along.  But in the meantime, keep a (metaphorical) eye on your self, notice when you’ve become ego depleted, and give yourself a break.  That simple act of self compassion, of not thinking less of yourself because you’re weak (and we are ALL weak at times), is a great beginning to ego replenishment.

Peace,

Jim

PS I know that the Buddhists in the crowd use the word “ego” to denote the illusion of a self that doesn’t exist.  I’m using the word a bit differently here, the way psychologists refer to the energy within that unifies our conscious awareness.  I know, I know, sounds like a lot of jargon.  But trust me, I’m not feeding into any illusions!

Acceptance and Depression

This is a hard one.  How can someone use those two words together?  It seems antithetical to our purpose: to eliminate depression.  Yet those who suffer from this illness know that elimination is tricky business.  Depression lingers in the background.  Even when it’s absent it seems to lurk.  The dread of a relapse into a depressive episode often precipitates the next event.  It’s a conundrum, a terribly difficult problem, one steeped in paradox and nuance.

This is a bit of a tangent, but it will come back to the topic at hand.  I love baseball.  I love the slow pace of play.  I love a pitching battle.  I love a slugfest.  Watching a pitcher like Roy Halladay work a batter, baffle him with the way his ball moves first one way, then another, at different speeds, different angles.  Never knowing what will come next.  It’s an art form.  At its best baseball provides ample opportunity to find metaphors for the way we live.  And baseball, all of sports for that matter, provides a metaphor in the simple expression “playing hurt.”

Playing hurt means that the injury is painful but does not fully prevent the athlete from competing, if not up to the usual high standard s/he sets, then up to an acceptable standard.  When an athlete “plays hurt” s/he can still play well, still contribute, still offer help to the team.  But it’s not easy, and may be downright painful.  At the end of the game there’s icing down to do, analgesics to take, perhaps a massage or a heating pad.  Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation (RICE) tonight; play hurt again tomorrow and more RICE.  The athlete who can play hurt is an exemplar of tenacity; s/he perseveres.

Acceptance is an attribute of the spiritual warrior.  To accept that the “noonday demon,” Andrew Solomon’s pithy depression metaphor, has arrived, has caused injury, and is the source of great hurt, is an act of courage.  One must clear out all traces of denial, look with clarity at the situation of living, and live radically.  To state with willingness, perhaps even with some measure of alacrity, that this disruptive guest has arrived once again, and I am ready to “play hurt,” willing to be a part of humanity in the midst of my suffering, is an act that is deeply paradoxical to the way this illness makes us feel. But it may be the only way out of the suffering.  Playing hurt, playing as well as I can and accepting that I will play more poorly than I would like, and that it is acceptable to play at this moment in this condition.  Playing as part of my team, part of my cadre of friends, family, co-workers.  Playing for the sake of playing.  Playing without preconceived notions of success or failure.  Playing because it is my birthright to play.  And playing each day to the full, even when that “full” feels empty.  But knowing that I must play, even when playing hurt.

When I play hurt I win, even when I lose.  When I play hurt I conquer my self, my needs, my desire for things to be other than they are.  Each one of us knows what it means to play hurt; we’ve all been there in the deep pit of physical injury and emotional despair.  But when we’re willing to play hurt we accept that this deep pit may hold me but it cannot contain me and it certainly cannot define me.  And then even in our imprisonment we are free.  And being free, we are fully human, fully ourselves.

Believe me, I have no illusions about how difficult it is to play hurt.  I have failed to rise to those occasions many times throughout my life.  But when I’ve practiced acceptance and been willing to play hurt, I’ve always had the experience of transcendence, knowing that I’m part of something more important than myself.  It doesn’t come at once, it may take weeks or months, even years, to realize, but it’s there.

If you struggle with depression consider the possibility of playing hurt.  A few years ago a pitcher for the Boston Red Sox, Curt Schilling, did just that.  Remarkably, with blood streaming from his injured ankle, he led the Sox to their first World Series win since 1918 when their #1 starting pitcher was Babe Ruth.  His courage and perseverance were inspirational.  I invite you to learn more about Schilling’s courage by watching this link to YouTube:

Listen for two statements he makes: “It wasn’t gratifying until it was over” and “I can be a very good pitcher regardless of my velocity.”  I think there’s wisdom for us all, if only we’re willing to “play hurt.”

Peace,

Jim