If this blog has a theme it’s that mastery over limerence comes from living with purpose. That’s the only way I know of to make the lasting changes needed to rob limerence of its power to derail your life. It’s a pity that it’s quite hard to do.
It’s one of life’s great paradoxes: why do we not do the things we know are good for us? Why don’t we exercise more, eat more healthily, behave more responsibly, get more sleep? Everyone knows what’s needed, but it’s surprisingly hard to muster the willpower.
To make the paradox even more irritating, the barriers to “doing the right thing” can be absurdly small. “I was going to go to the gym, but my tracksuit’s dirty.” “I would make a healthy meal, but I’m tired from work so I’ll just bung this ready meal in the microwave.” “I know I shouldn’t reply to LO’s text, but I don’t want him to think I’m upset.”
I’ve been thinking a lot about this over the last few years, trying to understand why living well is hard. One useful idea for clarifying my thoughts has been to try and decide exactly what living with purpose means; to boil it down to a simple single-sentence definition. This is the best I’ve come up with so far:
Making decisions on the basis of whether they will help you embody your ideals.
This could be rephrased around making life better or more fulfilling or happier, but the issue is that all of those concepts are a bit slippery (as I’ve discussed before). Striving towards your ideals seems a good way of framing it. Becoming the sort of person that you would be proud to be. Living life in a way where your ambition is to become more effective and move closer to your conception of an ideal way of living. Happiness and fulfillment should then come as byproducts.
So, what’s the sticking point? What makes it difficult to make those right decisions? Is it the difficulty of properly identifying the right thing to do? Well, yes in part, but if you are acting according to the best information you have, learning from mistakes, and moving in the right direction, the problem of not always knowing the perfect decision is secondary. The bigger problem, in my view, is not being able to persuade yourself to do the right thing. That’s been the sticking point for me.
The ability to do the thing that will make your life better, even if you really don’t feel like doing it.
So the crux of curing limerence, and indeed most other life-disrupting challenges, is to understand what self-discipline is, where it comes from, and how you can develop the skill.
1) It feels like work
Human beings don’t like expending energy. There are very good evolutionary reasons for this, to do with energy conservation and risk taking. Even for work that is not physically demanding, we still resist the effort of exerting ourselves to delay (or refuse) gratification. “Doing the right thing” can feel like that. Like you need to sustain a sort of heightened level of effort to be noble, when actually you’d much rather be comforted. It’s easy to understand why immediate rewarding pleasure is more desirable than abstinence. In his book “Thinking, fast and slow” Daniel Kahneman lays out all the ways that our brains latch on to quick and easy solutions that feel right (but are often wrong), rather than exerting the cognitive effort needed to actually figure out what the best course of action is.
2) Habits are sticky
Changing your lifestyle is non-trivial. I’ve talked before about habits and how ingrained they can become. Even after an immediate success after deciding to take control and live well, lapsing back to gratifying habits comes easy. Especially after stress. Or boredom. For limerents, there is a particular period of danger once the purposeful decision to go no contact has faded into the past. The short-term emotional boost of taking control – the uplift to your self esteem of taking positive action – passes, and you are left feeling deflated, alone, and missing the old fix of LO contact. Your brain spent a long time learning that LO time equals rewarding behaviour. It was the “go to” strategy for feeling good in the old days. It isn’t going to forget that without sustained effort on your part to overwrite it with new habits.
3) Goal directed thinking.
Goals are great. I’m a fan of goals. But.
Attainable goals are good and can be a super-valuable part of a purposeful life (I’ll exercise four times a week; no texting LO at evenings and weekends) but the long-term goal of “living with purpose” is too unfocussed an idea to be an attainable goal. It needs a fundamental difference in mindset – with a goal, you make a special effort to achieve it, pushing yourself until, yes, success! It’s done. The thrill of achievement is then followed by relaxing back to everyday life.
For purposeful living, the goal is to change everyday living. There’s nowhere to relax back to. Your goal is to continually get better. That means there won’t be a payoff thrill when you succeed. There isn’t a finish line to cross, it’s more like a new state of being. The big challenge, therefore, is to find a step-by-step path towards that new mindset.
So what can be done? Is there a way to help ingrain the habits of purposeful living, until they feel more natural and less effort? Here’s a few possibilities I’m trying.
1b) Celebrate successes and forgive lapses
One of the reasons why “doing the right thing” feels hard is that we set unreasonable demands on ourselves. Perfection is impossible, and in fact, too much discipline is rigid and stifling. If you don’t balance self control with occasional indulgence of less noble cravings, you will inevitably rebel. No one wants to be a slave, so don’t be a tyrant to yourself. Celebrate when you have a success (no texting for a week!), and forgive and learn from minor lapses (OK, I texted tonight while drunk, but I will try to understand why that happened and not make that mistake again). The aim is for the small successes to build up over time, and the lapses to happen less often, so you are moving in a positive direction. Be proud of yourself for orienting yourself correctly, and it will help you hold the line.
2b) Use attainable goals wisely
Linked to the previous point: set small goals to give yourself opportunities to succeed. Every time you do the right thing even when you don’t feel like it, you win. Each small victory sets up a self-reinforcing positive loop, making you feel better about yourself and making it more likely you will do the right thing next time too.
3b) Feed yourself wisdom
Read. Psychologists and philosophers have been writing about this stuff for ages. It just takes a while for any individual person to get themselves mentally ready to want to benefit from all that work. Reading about living well is a great way to reinforce the behaviour in yourself. Brian Tracy (a Canadian businessman) recommends starting every day by reading something inspirational for half an hour, to get yourself in a good frame of mind for the whole day. You get to choose what “inspirational” means, but it is a very effective way to program your brain onto a new track.
As I said further up the page, living purposefully is not a goal so much as an ongoing aspiration. It’s a direction of travel. By resolving to try to the best of your ability, with acceptance of errors or missteps along the way, a lot of life becomes more clearer. Decision-making is simplified. If you don’t know what you want, or where you are going, it’s very hard to understand how you should react to the emergence of limerence. What does it mean? What should you do? Who should you talk to? If you have an orienting direction – I want to be the sort of person that acts decisively to improve my life – then it’s a lot easier to answer these questions.
Limerence, in such a worldview, can be accepted as an emotional reality, but not one that alters your decision to act in a purposeful way. Being someone you can admire is the best way to bolster self-esteem. It makes you much less vulnerable to predatory LOs, to flattery, to self-sabotage, and to self-destructive urges.
God knows we’re all a work in progress, but making that work meaningful helps enormously when life gets hard.