Regroup on life’s winding path

There’s an old story about the young bride and the ham. Cooking a ham for the first time, she lopped off both ends of the ham, threw them away, and put the ham in the pan to bake. Her husband questioned her–what was wrong with those pieces? They looked perfectly fine to him. The young woman answered “my mother always did it that way.” Humoring her husband, she called up her mom to ask the reason. Dear old mom gave the same reply–her mom had always cut and tossed the ends as well. Working up the chain of grandmothers in pursuit of the origin of this supposed necessary step in ham preparation, great-grandmother finally had the answer: to make the ham fit in her pan.

Even if you’ve never baked a ham, you may be a locked-in creature of habit. Two examples have jumped out lately. In infancy, parents strive to meet the baby’s needs ASAP, jumping at the least cry or whimper. It’s true that babies who are fed on demand and picked up promptly when they cry become securely attached to their caregivers and even cry less. And of course we don’t want our children to be unhappy–ever. As kids grow, however, this strategy needs to evolve. If parents don’t teach children that a) others have needs too and b) waiting is sometimes necessary, we risk raising self-centered brats with no capacity to soothe themselves or delay gratification.

An achievement-oriented, perfectionistic drive toward life is another strategy to revise over time. Working toward 120% throughout school, even into graduate/professional training and establishment of a career, is rewarded because it leads to accomplishments. At some point, however, the value of this over-the-top drive reaches the tipping point. Continually working for 120%–or even 100%—is exhausting. We feel never good enough; we’ve never “arrived.” We don’t allow ourselves to savor accomplishments, in favor of life balance. And when we try to back off, because of the human tendency toward all or nothing thinking, we feel like failures. Either it’s 120%, or nada. We don’t know how to find that middle ground of perfectly good–or even excellent–versus perfection.

When we forget to question the path, the tradition, the long-held strategy, misery and frustration can result. Needs and goals change; steps to achieve those shift. Who says the old way is still the best way? More of the same is counterproductive.

When feeling stressed or stuck, challenge your strategy. Do something different for a change. At the Chopra retreat that I attended recently, leader Davidji, challenged us to write down an expectation we had for the outcome to a usual interpersonal encounter. We then flipped the paper over and had to write five other possible scenarios–mind-bending, in a challenging and good way. The next time your strategic habit is not working, push yourself to generate five new alternatives. And then apply a new solution, for a possibly pleasant surprise–relief!