Tuesday, August 01, 2006

set points and emotional growth

Dieticians will tell you that we all have set points when it comes to weight.
If, say, you normally weigh around 150 pounds, it will be hard to go much above or below that without adjusting your metabolic rate, which can be done through exercise or stasis.

Having just devoured an excessively large portion of green tofu curry and Thai iced tea, I let this thought comfort me. Yes, I am probably gaining weight as I sit here typing (how many calories does typing burn? that's a joke) but thanks to my set point, it won't be too bad, as long as I continue to stay active. Then I remember that this recent heat wave has kept me from walking everyday like I used to, and I resign myself to getting old and fat.

I've been thinking more seriously about the set point theory, though. If it's at work in our bodies, might it also be at work in other areas of our lives? What about in immaterial areas, like emotions?

I've noticed that I often have the same recurrent emotional and behavioral responses to certain circumstances, as if living on a loop, as if regulated by an internal thermostat that's constantly gauging my emotional temperature, determining when to shut off and when to turn back on to maintain a stable 75 degrees.

Exhibit A: Success.

A multitude of things have led me to develop a turbulent relationship to both the concept and experience of success in the arena of career.
Much of this has to do with ideas handed down to me by clashing backgrounds.
On my father's side, I was expected to be successful in the western sense of the word, achieving fame and material fortune. With a model for a mother and a photographer for a father, it was naturally assumed that I would follow in their footsteps. It turned out that after the age of 16, the fashion world didn't want me anymore, and- I later discovered- I didn't want it.
On my mother's side, I was expected to be successful in the eastern sense of the word, achieving enlightenment and non-attachment. I was told at school that if I meditated regularly and well, I would be enlightened by the age of sixteen.
Needless to say, sixteen came and went without my transforming into either Giselle or Gandhi.

These conflicting ideas as to what success meant left me with a profound confusion that I am still tryinging to balance and resolve for myself.
I've always tended to side with the more spiritual view of success as something marked by a deeply personal process, independent of external recognition or achievement.

This is my set point.

I believe in this set point, in this definition of success. It causes me to seek out and appreciate people and experiences that have a more enduring qualitiy to them, that have incorporeal worth. At the same time I am a human being living in a physically manifest world. Attempts to disregard, discredit, or discard this fact in sole surrender to an attempted experience of the transcendent would be foolish.
It would be throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

This is where my set point becomes my greatest obstacle to growth.

When faced with the prospect or reality of success, my set point is exceeded and I become filled with such anxiety that I panic. It is an experience so upsetting that I simply avoid, as best I can, any and all circumstances that might provoke it. Therefore, I generally shy away from opportunities that lend themselves to the possibility of success.

On the other hand, I am a naturally ambitious person.
I want know things, to do things, and to affect positive change in the world.
My thermostat won't allow me to drop below a certain level of productivity before I become as equally uncomfortable at the prospect of failure as I am at that of success.

If it's true, then - as I've come to feel it is- that our emotions are as tied to a set point as our physical bodies are, what is the emotional equivalent to working out on the treadmill?
What can we do to reset our emotional metabolisms the way we reset our physical ones?

I don't have a pat answer for this, and most likely, there isn't one.
The more I search for answers, the more I come to recognize the value of sitting quietly in the questions.

Maybe the best we can do is to struggle with our set points and accept them for what they are. Maybe they won't ever change dramatically, but maybe their range will expand, bit by bit, until one day we realize that the thermostat has climbed a little higher than normal, that we feel a little warmer than would usually be comfortable, and that it's okay.

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“Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Willing is not enough; we must do.” -Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

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