Tuesday, December 27, 2011

A Matter of Excess

As therapists, we often tout the virtue of moderation. After all, many forms of mental illness seem to be a matter of excess or extremes. For example, the compulsions of OCD are ordinary behaviors done excessively. Other anxiety disorders involve excessive worry. Mania involves excessive energy and pleasure-seeking (shopping, gambling, sex), while depression often brings extremes of hopelessness and worthlessness. Addictions involve excessive use of a substance, while eating disorders involve excessive eating or dieting. All in all, it's clear that excess produces a fair amount of suffering.

And yet, humans seem inexorably drawn to excess - a fact that is perhaps most evident during the holidays. People spend too much, eat too much, drink too much, stay up too late, get up too early (or late) and do it all again.  It's little wonder that the holidays can leave a literal - and metaphorical - hangover. 

The literal should be obvious. The metaphorical hangover comes in several forms. Perhaps most common is the post-holiday let-down - blahs or blues as the excitement of the holidays end, holiday hype gets deflated by reality, and everyone has to face the return of the daily grind. Another hangover comes as post-holiday regrets, as people are confronted by their holiday excesses, perhaps when they step on a scale, or get the credit card bill. Regrets can also happen when our "visions of sugar plums" don't come true, we don't get to see the people or do the things we hoped. Maybe a hangover takes the form of things we put off, forgot or decided not to do during the holidays, even just being behind on household chores and errands. 

While we cope with the literal hangover with Tylenol and water, many people are tempted to cope with the metaphorical hangover by "balancing out" their excesses by going to the other extreme. Enter the New Year's Resolution. People vow to follow a diet, or a budget, to give up drinking or smoking cold turkey, to exercise, etc, etc. 

The problem is that our Resolutions are still extremes, and therefore a form of excess (more on this in a later post). We're often not "successful" in keeping resolutions because we define them so rigidly, in black-and-white terms with excessive demands of ourselves that just aren't sustainable. A better antidote to holiday excesses is to strive to regain some balance. To find the middle instead of sending the pendulum swinging so far the other way. 

And what is balance? As hard to define as it is to attain, I believe balance is the fine art of indulging ourselves now and then without overindulging, denying ourselves now and then without always feeling denied, to do enough without stressing out about doing it all. Good enough but not perfect. Nor can we seek or expect perfect balance - that would be a contradiction. A goal we don't beat ourselves up for not reaching.

How do you define balance? Excess?
How do you help clients (and yourselves) find balance?

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