Push Yourself and Rest; Don’t Hurt or Coddle Yourself
We live in an interesting time. For billions of years, life evolved by searching endlessly for resources, using those resources to grow and reproduce, and then dying. And, at its core, that’s what humans still do today. But the past few centuries have seen great advances in humans’ ability to require less effort to survive and to reduce the risk of not surviving. In just the last several decades, we have seen huge gains in health, productivity, and luxury. People are able to spend their money on expensive material goods such as jewelry and smart phones, vacations, and even to just have someone deliver food made by someone else to their door.
In fact, things are so good that many people don’t know how to do things like cook that most people knew years ago, and top causes of death are ones that are self-imposed like obesity-related illnesses, smoking-related ailments, and suicides. Despite all of this real, objective progress in human’s quality of life, a wealth of psychologically-driven and lifestyle-driven issues have emerged, from depression and anxiety to ulcers to heart conditions. Of course, many of these kinds of ailments may have existed before and simply went undiagnosed, but many others are due to the two extremes of too much psychological stress or too little physical stress. So what can you do to keep yourself from experiencing these issues?
This is a difficult one because the solutions sound easy/obvious and yet I still have to say them because people neglect to do them. Let’s start with the “push yourself” side, which are very straightforward:
- Exercise – Most jobs are relatively sedentary today; people need to exert their bodies to keep their fitness up, to keep their heart, bones, and muscles strong, to help with their digestion, and to even help their immune system function. The last two are sometimes unknown; the reason motion affects the digestive and immune systems is because only the circulatory system has a pumping mechanism (i.e., the heart), whereas these other systems need their nutritional components like fiber and vitamins supplemented with motion to keep them optimal.
- Life Goals – People with well-defined life goals can handle more of life’s stress since it gets them to that end. The famous Nietzsche quote, “He who has a ‘why’ to live can bear almost any ‘how’,” sums up how this works, but the psychological mechanisms at work are both a purpose giving you several reasons and ways to avoid/overcome anxiety and depression and your tolerance being much higher for a greater outcome.
- Regular Practice and Constructive Habits – It is hard to feel like your life is going nowhere when you are improving every day. People who habituate growth and development in their lives are less susceptible to feeling like they are in a rut.
- Stretch Opportunities – Even if you have long-term goals and regular practice, you might just need to push yourself just beyond your comfort level to see if you can progress even more. You might also identify ways to improve that weren’t on your radar. If opportunities present themselves, you can take them instead of assuming that they are not in your plan or outside of your scope of responsibilities.
- Going Above and Beyond – Similar to stretch opportunities, you can choose to do the best you can at whatever it is you are doing. Whether that is school work, a job, or a personal project, going above and beyond pushes you to be the best you can be and not just complete the task with as little effort as possible.
- Volunteering – So many people work hard and feel justified in doing nothing else when they are off the clock. And that is fine if you choose to do so. But two things can happen when taking this approach: complacency/taking things for granted and self-absorption. One option that can keep you grounded and increase your well-being is to help others. Volunteering not only keeps your life in perspective where you can appreciate all the good things in your life, but it also allows you to be a positive impact and contribute to more than just yourself. This is extremely beneficial to mental health and life satisfaction.
- Self-Discipline – There will be days when you want to slack off. How you deal with those moments can be the difference between being good and being the best. To find motivation when you don’t have it—or to just do it, anyway—can be that extra 1% that separates the most successful from everyone else.
So by pushing yourself, you can reach your full potential. Note that you can work hard in constructive ways; while doing the above, eliminate the physical and psychological harm of putting too much stress onto yourself: plan and prepare to avoid injury, and don’t beat yourself up or let negative thoughts get to you that can drag you down. Pushing yourself is about positive striving for success; if you are hurting yourself, you have gone astray.
Every Yang has its Yin; there is balance in all. And for pushing yourself constructively to be effective, you have to balance it with rest and recovery for the next push. Here are a list of rest and recovery items that can help as you try to reach your full potential:
- Fresh Air, Sun, and Nature – Humans spent the majority of their lives outside. There are obvious benefits to getting outside such as the motion, the air quality, and the vitamin D, but there are intangibles that people don’t think about such as benefitting from the peacefulness, getting away from stressors, and connecting with the world around you vs. being focused on your own little world. Being inside for days or weeks at a time with minimal outdoor activity can begin to drag you down.
- Sleep – In 2022, 35.2% of all adults in the U.S. report sleeping for less than 7 hours per night. (I, unfortunately, am one of those people) Lack of sleep has a myriad of negative effects, from impairing your ability to drive (note: it can be more impairing than consuming alcohol) to making you eat more and feel more irritable. If you don’t sleep, you can really be hurting yourself.
- Meditation – Life forms used to live with a lot of stress because they were under threat of death much of the time. But, surprisingly, they were pretty effective at relaxing when they weren’t under stress. Life has gotten much more complex for humans, with bills, family problems, work challenges, and personal issues. One day, you’re getting your driver’s license, the next you need to go to the doctor. Schedules get busy, and it can be difficult to shut your mind off with all of the things that you need to juggle in your mind. As a result, many (if not most) people don’t get the mental rest that they need. Meditation is, therefore, an effective practice to make yourself quiet your mind and give yourself a few minutes of peace.
- Cleaning and Grooming – In addition to hygiene preventing disease, feeling clean, healthy, and attractive can go a long way to feeling good about yourself and keeping you fresh.
- Exercise – Yes, it is so important that I’m putting it twice. But, on this side, we are talking about less intense exercises such as stretching, long-distance running, yoga, and tai chi. These kinds of exercise are good for clearing the mind, reducing stress, and recovering from physical and mental exertion.
- Social Activity – Depending on whether you’re an extrovert or introvert, you might prefer more party-like scenes or small gatherings. In either case, human connection can really help with your well-being, from getting your mind off your problems to having someone there to help you through them. Make sure you have social support to keep you going—especially through tough times, but without engagement during the good times there might not be anyone there when you need them.
- Recreation – Even people with very meaningful jobs can benefit from other activities that are rewarding. As great as it is to do passive activities like TV, social media, and eating, active engagement in painting, reading, writing, building, and other creative outlets allow you to really put some fresh, vivacious energy into your life without the stress that comes with life responsibilities.
There are many more, but hopefully this gives you some ideas of ways to recover from life’s stress after you have appropriately pushed yourself. Note that I intentionally left out the go-to activities that, while helpful for unwinding in many cases, can result in overindulging or addictive behavior, including food, social media, TV, video games, alcohol, sexual activity, and gambling. You can definitely use them as part of your rest and recovery process, but be careful that you don’t get sucked in to the point where it detracts from your growth.
One final point on the “coddling” side: Just like you shouldn’t do things to hurt yourself, you also need to prevent yourself from becoming too “sheltered” and unable to handle life. There are plenty of people who do everything they can to protect themselves from things they don’t like, and you definitely should spend more time on things that make you better and happier and less on things that don’t. But, as we’ve seen in recent years with the increase in peanut allergies from overprotecting children, optimal growth requires some sort of adversity or challenge. If you protect yourself from anything that is difficult, challenging, stressful, or risky, your ability to handle those situations at all atrophies.
And we see that in the state of the world today where people fight and scream when things are not exactly the way that they think they should be (probably the best example of this trend being the epic meltdowns of My Sweet 16 that were the epitome of coddled children freaking out when an event entirely for them was anything but perfect). While there are situations in which you will need to do this, in general it’s not going to do anything. In fact, you’ll get others to think less of you and your adversaries to dig into their beliefs more. It’ll make you feel worse and achieve nothing. Instead of avoiding anything that makes you feel uncomfortable, you should seek opportunities to be a positive force during those times. Whether you volunteer to help recover from a natural disaster or decide to host a fundraiser for a cause, you are more constructive when you are making things better than showing your entitlement by expecting the world to change at your whim.
Whatever you do in life, remember to balance pushing yourself and resting and recovering. Keep a watchful eye that you don’t overload one side or the other, and also be careful that you don’t go too far into hurting or coddling yourself. By striking a healthy balance, you’ll optimize your growth. Too much pushing or too much rest will hinder your progress or limit your potential.