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A New Yardstick

At the beginning of this New Year, many people – both patients at the institute and friends and acquaintances in the community – have shared a similar concern with me.  They express, in one way or another, that at the start of 2009 they never expected to end up where they are now.  They feel they should be further along, that they’re not getting anyplace.  In fact, many feel that they’ve actually lost ground, personally and financially, over the past twelve months.

I can acknowledge that this is how they feel, but I also recognize that they are speaking from their emotions and pain.  I have empathy and compassion for them and gladly share it.

At the same time, I want to offer them – and you too if you are struggling with similar thoughts – a fresh perspective.  I believe, truthfully, that most of us in fact are definitely moving forward.  It may not be tangible right now, it may look like we’re only treading water, but the truth is we are making progress.

For months, many of us have been working very hard just to keep up.  Or, we may not even be keeping up or meeting our overhead, even using our very best efforts.  When this continues for an extended period of time, when we are struggling to survive day after day, we get physically and emotionally exhausted.  We become vulnerable to negative emotions like worry, frustration, discouragement, and despair.

Our view of life can become dark and hopeless.  But let me assure you, that view is not an accurate picture of where we are.  We may not be able to see what’s at the end of this road that we’re working so hard to survive on, but there will be light at the end of the tunnel, these times and our efforts will pay off.

What we need – what I strongly encourage to my friends and patients – is to find a new “yardstick”.   We need to change the way we measure our progress and success.

Specifically, this means you must stop measuring your success in dollars and cents.  That’s an old yardstick we all have in us.  It can be easy to mark our progress in life by our savings account balances, the value of our homes, our cars, and other material possessions.  Let me offer you three ways to help you change your mindset and turn in your old yardstick for a new one.

  1. Stop trying to live up to your own unrealistic expectations.

I’m going to ask you a painful question.  Do you value yourself based on your net worth?  If your answer is yes to this question, at least part of the time, you’re not alone.  Identifying ourselves with our possessions, equating our worth as a person with our money and belongings is a temptation as old as man.  Remember you are a unique, valuable, irreplaceable human being with intrinsic worth and abilities.  You have immeasurable value in yourself and in the contribution only you can make to the lives of those you love and to your community.

  1. Stop trying to live up to others’ unrealistic expectations.

Here are a few more painful questions.  Does what other people think of you tend to run your life?  Do you see yourself mostly through the eyes of others?  Have you exchanged the pursuit of your own passion and calling for a pursuit of status or acceptability?  If you didn’t feel driven to live up to other people expectations, how would you see yourself differently, and what might you do differently with your life?

  1. Stop using “if . . . then . . . “ thinking.

Does this sound at all familiar?  “If I could get (fill in the blank) dollars saved in the bank, then I’d be happy” – or feel safe – or be ready for retirement – or able to go on a nice vacation – or free to try a new career, the list could go on and on.  This is a form of wishful, magical thinking.  It’s a way of postponing life and action.  The truth is that there are no guarantees.  As I’ve written about before, we don’t know what tomorrow will bring.  While planning is important, we truly need to live one day at a time, making the best of what is in front of us today.

I want to add one other thought from my recent experiences with patients and friends.  People who are in debt now and getting behind on payments are frequently being treated by lenders and creditors not as if they have made mistakes, but as if they are bad people.  They attack people’s self-worth in an effort to recover the money owed.  I think these tactics are despicable.  I’ll write more about this in my next post.