You’re in a pool, but you are a poor swimmer. They tell you to just tread water, but you feel like you’re just flailing, thrashing around in hopes of keeping your head above the surface. You’re tired. You want to quit.
This is how life feels sometimes, in small and large ways. This is how it feels when you’re at work and you’re tired or distracted, but you feel like you need to push through to get things done. This is how it feels when you’re dealing with a difficult or frustrating social interaction, but you don’t want to lose your patience. And in a bigger way, this is how it can feel to be depressed, when nothing feels worth doing but you know things need to get done. How do you keep your head above water?
A typical bit of advice is to hang in there, don’t give up, “just keep swimming“, and things will get better with time. This is good advice. If you can tread water (or thrash around) long enough, your arms will get stronger, and you’ll learn the most useful motions to use to keep yourself afloat. In real life, this often looks like new strategies for dealing with your fatigue, your difficult encounters, and your emotions. If you can get through today then you really might feel better tomorrow.
But there’s a cost to pushing through. At work your distracted state of mind translates into lower productivity, or even mistakes. And God, it’s hard to push through feelings of anger, stress, or hopelessness. Sometimes when you push through, you lash out and do something you regret. If nothing else, you suffer psychologically more than you’d like to. These factors must be weighed too.
If the alternative is full submission, giving up and sinking into the depths forever, then of course swim you must, physical or psychological costs notwithstanding. But–and hear me out on this–what if you sink… just for a minute? You quit thrashing and rest your aching muscles, just for a minute? You’ll sink, but if you stay present you’ll see that you can often recover by pushing off of the bottom of the pool. Doing so, you might regain some of your energy or even rise higher above the surface than was possible before.
What I’m advocating is a mindful awareness of what your body or mind really need when you’re struggling. The struggle itself can be a trigger, a signal that you need to take a mindful moment to reassess what you’re doing. And the assessment may indicate that you need a break, maybe to take a walk or watch an episode of Friends. It may indicate that you should leave this party that you pushed yourself to go to, or at least step outside for some air. It may indicate that you should end this conversation before it turns into a fight and you say something you can’t take back. Take a moment, notice what you notice, and decide whether to push through or let yourself sink.
Of course, before you let yourself sink even a little bit, you need to know how deep the water is. If your battle is with addiction or abuse, you may be struggling against a mighty ocean that will pull you under if you show even the slightest sign of weakness. However, in other circumstances consider that after a short break you might come back refreshed and ready to work again. Just consider that a little bit of sinking may, in fact, be helpful in keeping you afloat.
You may not be sure what kind of situation you’re in, how deep the pool is or if you can recover from a deep sink. If that’s true, get curious! Feel the situation out, reaching down with your toes every so slightly, deeper each time, to see what you can do and what you can’t. You might allow yourself a 5 minute break from studying, and see that this is all you needed. Maybe if you take a full 30 minutes you will lose your motivation to work at all; this is useful information! Optimize! Doing Your Best requires curiosity and experimentation, or else you will always be stuck where you are.
Finally, cut yourself some slack. You didn’t choose your mind, or your thoughts, or the tides you’re swimming against. Even if you had a hand in putting yourself where you are, you didn’t choose the tools you have available to stay afloat. Self-criticism and shame are yet more struggles worth being more mindful of; the power they hold over you can often be defused if you let them in, sinking into the feelings they produce in your body. Don’t fear them.
So think of sinking as yet another method of learning to swim. And if you can, try to push off the bottom of the pool.