The Cumulative Effect of Life

Can you ever achieve perfect balance?

Have you ever heard the parable of the frog in boiling water? If a frog is placed in tepid water that is slowly brought to a boil, the frog will adjust to the rising water temperature without noticing it, resulting in boiling to death. In contrast, toss a frog into a pot of boiling water and it will immediately recognize the danger and jump out, avoiding death. As a metaphor we ask, what do we fail to recognize over time that might slowly be harming or even killing us?

Patterns, like slowly boiling water, can be difficult to notice, especially if they are yours, but when identified, can be powerful. In my work with both individuals and groups, over the last few decades, identifying patterns has been a bit of a hobby. It is much easier to sit back and watch the collective movement of others than to realize you are just as swept up in the group as everyone else. We tend to think we are making all these decisions about our direction or movement when really, we tend to move as a group. Think about the grouping of generations. Are you Gen X? A baby boomer? A Millennial (Gen Y)? Or even Gen Z? In 1928, Karl Mannheim, a sociologist, published a paper proposing a theory of generations and our Gen terminology and identification was born. He posited people are heavily influenced by their socio-historical environment of the shared experiences of their youth, which in turn influences the following generation. Makes sense, especially if you compare your “behavior” and tendencies with the generation before or after yours.

I’m Gen X, all the way. As a latchkey kid, my freshman year in high school, I watched the launch of MTV at my neighbor’s house, whose father worked for a cable company. It was 24-hours a day of full-length concerts initially, until video killed the radio star, of course. Women were moving at a rapid pace into the work force, hence the need for the latchkey because mom was bringing home some bacon, too, before frying it up in a pan. Baby Boomers were the 9-to-5 world, and leave it to Beaver’s mom to stand at the door at 5:30 pm, dress pressed, hair and makeup perfect, cocktail in hand, ready to leave her hard-working husband alone until dinner. As technology in television influenced us to want more, Gen X “be-grunginly” explored entrepreneur-ship because we didn’t want to be cookie-cutters anymore. And so, the tectonic plates of the human collective movement shifted, just like they did once again in the 1980’s, as technology and ability to connected via a world wide web of (not only) deceit began to unknowingly influence our behavior. And so on, and so forth.

The pattern I have been noticing lately has been that of complete energetic depletion. Umm, “duh,” you might say, but that shouldn’t be used to brush off the importance. Everyone I know and everyone I work with these days is just plain exhausted. Over the last decade, the corporate world has begun to acknowledge the wide-spread fatigue, perhaps only due to the financial impact of a less-than-optimal energy, and thus production, of their workers. Be that as it may, we will take it and look for ways to feel better so we can perform better. For my first decade in corporate training, I worked for a company that focused on energy and energy management. This is where I learned about the concept of “recovery.” At first, this word was a distant and vague representation of weakness. The recovery room after surgery, recovery from addiction, or the simple need for recovery meant that you must not be able to take it…whatever “it” might be. Ah, the power of cultural bullsh*t. In 1956, endocrinologist Hans Selye published The Stress of Life, a book about stress, our need for it, and how we adapt to it. He coined the term “stress,” but it wasn’t a bad word to him. There were two ways to talk about stress to Selye: Eu-stress, or good stress, and Dis-stress, or bad stress. This second publication was a follow up to his work of twenty years on his General Adaptation Syndrome, or how the body responds to stress chemically, and the devastating diseases that inevitably follow too much dis-stress. Yes, we are nearly a hundred years later and still arguing that we can out-smart the physical consequences of too much dis-stress…and as I have learned, a lack of recovery.

While learning about recovery and our terrible relationship to not only the word, but also the concept, my mentor, Jim Loehr, gave me a book that blew me away. It is an exercise physiology undergraduate textbook called, Enhancing Recovery. I was working on writing a program on resilience, a word we seem to love, maybe because it has a connotation of power and strength as opposed to “recovery,” which people wince unknowingly when they hear it. I have watched the reactions of people for years when I use these words and it is unmistakable. The introduction to this textbook had the most powerful statement, one that still impacts me and everyone I share it with. A little explanation first. In longer distance sports, like cycling, swimming, or distance running, there is a condition known as “overtraining syndrome.” When an athlete’s level of fatigue from a seriously high load of training negatively impacts performance, they call it overtraining. There is a clinical diagnosis for it, and it rests upon bloodwork, cardiac function, and general complaints. The literature is vague and unable to really pin down a way to diagnose, let alone treat successfully. Perhaps this is the driver for his first line of the book: there is no such thing as overtraining syndrome, there is simply a condition of under-recovery. Bam!

The human body and brain are designed for oscillation. Ninety-minute intervals have been found to be a typical pattern for a person based on human blood metabolite studies. Basically, they found a natural wave-like amplitude change in blood chemistry influenced by nothing other than the body itself. Think about it, how long can you sit in a chair without getting fidgety? I have facilitated day-long sessions for thousands of people and if I make them sit there longer than an hour and a half, I may as well be reading from a phone book. We all hit a wall around ninety-minutes and that is when a “recovery break” is given, no matter where I am in the content. Okay, so that is on an hourly basis, what about a day or a week or a month? Well, miss the hourly oscillation and your day becomes one of catch-up energetically, which spills over to the next day, which then becomes a week, and oh, yes, then a month, and before you know it, you have gone years without proper oscillation—or recovery. Selye said for every stress event, you need to recover. Every in breath is followed by an out breath, period. Imagine never breathing out, you would die. And that is what Selye warned us of nearly a century ago.

This is the call I get every week now for years: “I don’t know what is wrong with me, I just can’t seem to function properly anymore. Even when I know something, either intuitively or even intellectually, it doesn’t matter, I can’t get it right anyway. I lose my temper easily. I cry easily. I become frustrated more often and faster than I want to admit. I can’t wait to get home and crawl in bed and go to sleep. But then my sleep sucks and I toss and turn and then wake up and do it all over again.” Overtraining syndrome? Nope. Under-recovery suffering. I had a first session this week, which sounded like many of the first sessions recently. An accomplished professional, she was starting to feel like she was going backwards and didn’t know what to do. She described the last few years and it became obvious. She started with her horse, of course, and the year of on-and-off lameness and the frustrations and worries from that. She had lost a family member in the last year after an illness and that had been a tremendous dis-stressor. A child went off to college and as a result, her marriage had taken diverse tracks, resulting in a separation. Due to work and trying to find something new, her life was now split between several states, as she has an aging parent to care for, a new business venture, and an old life still holding on. As she told this story out loud, I could hear the wear become more and more revealed, and more and more obvious to her. “Oh yeah, and one more thing…” she said a few times. She didn’t realize the number of significant events occurring in succession and some simultaneously. “You know, all of this has a cumulative effect,” I said, “Life has a cumulative effect.”

Once you miss the window of opportunity for recovery, rehabilitation becomes necessary. Think about a chronic athletic injury. If you let it go for too long, it continues to progress in terms of pain and severity. Once you finally call “uncle,” it requires rehabilitation, or restoration by therapeutic means. So, you missed all those opportunities to stop, reflect, re-evaluate, and recover before needing a total overhaul. For every stress event, you need recovery. The cool part is recovery doesn’t have to be a long or involved process, it can be short and sweet, as simple as taking a few intentional breaths. Baby boomers had recovery built-in, workdays were 9-to-5 and that was sacred, answering machines didn’t exist, there were no cell phones or portable computers, and so no one bothered to try to get you to look at that email at 8:45 pm. Gen X had something to prove, perhaps, to try to be better than our fore-fathers, and so the lines between work and life began to blur. By the time our poor Millennials hit the pavement, it was a moving walkway with no rest for the weary and no concept of this need for rest…a pot of slowly boiling water.

We have too much on our proverbial plates and are juggling way too many of them at that same time. Just because we can “take it” doesn’t mean we should. It is a constant struggle to find this so-called balance in our completely off-balance world, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. I help people with this all the time and still struggle with it personally on a daily basis. It is hard, really hard. Once your resources are depleted, your ability to function on a high-level plummet, no matter how tough you think you are. You continue to function, sure, but what you don’t realize and can’t see is how far from your ability you truly are. And so, you push harder and press yourself longer, going even deeper into deficit energetically. And then you get sick or diseased and that is your “wake-up call,” and if you survive it, it moves you into a different paradigm about work-life balance. I am interested in avoiding the wake-up call and changing our paradigm before it costs us dramatically. The most famous paradigm shift was “discovering” the world was round. New worlds were not even explored for fear of sailing off the edge of the Earth. It was not just a paradigm but a truth and a belief, all wrapped into a cultural moray. And then, someone sailed off too far, and didn’t sail off the edge, and bam, everyone’s thinking changed and new worlds were discovered. You can change your paradigm with some effort. First, identify it. It will be some version of if I work less hard/hours/diligently, I won’t be as productive. Second, poke holes in your theory. Hmm, I was so productive after vacation and getting a little rest, I wonder if I felt more rested more regularly if that wouldn’t increase my productivity in general? Third, come up with a plan and a partner in crime. If you try to change your world without changing some of the people in it, you will fail. Tell your team or boss or family how WE are going to look for better balance, whatever that means to you and yours. And then be a rabid dog about getting it, not the slow-boiling frog.

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