Discover more from Never Done
Brain poison: green, yellow, red
It's an imperfect scale to describe anxiety, but it's not about the science.
Lately, therapy has been very existential, and there's a lot of talk around what I want, and how I came to conclusion that I wanted it. It's a running theme in my writing to explore this feeling of "decent goals, but imperfect motivations," and it's with greater clarity that I try to re-frame.
I feel like there's a cycle that has a couple blanks that I'm looking to fill in and explain, and when I do that, I'll have a greater understanding on how I managed to have some level of success without being able to acknowledge that I was the one that earned it. There's still this pervasive "not enough" feeling that's slowly being ground down, but "what exactly do you want?" is still a very open-ended and intimidating question.
One of the conversations I had with my therapist involved me saying that I "didn't want a life entirely free from stress" because that would probably be very boring, and also unrealistic. You're unlikely to be able to avoid all problems, conflict or uncertainty in life, and I wanted to find a middle ground between what I felt was asking people to coddle me, and a harsh "thrive in constant difficulty, or you're not going to make it."
In thinking about it a little more, I came up with a gradient colour scale from green to red to describe the types of stressors I deal with, and how I deal with them.
Green represents a nice neutral, or happy period of my life where I feel like I have flexibility and freedom to be able to pursue things that interest me. There is no guilt in choosing what I want to do, and there's nothing that's tugging at me in terms of "I should be doing this instead." I’m comfortable spending time on hobbies or entertainment without the thought of “what I should be doing to get ahead,” which means I’m generally at peace with my decisions and the direction my life is going.
Yellow represents a stressful time in my life, such as a busy period at work or something that takes my attention fully. If I have what is essentially a crunch period at work, that would be "peak yellow"; I'm not doing anything besides my job, and then coming home to rest and do it again. This would obviously be unsustainable, which is why I view it as an extreme — a green-yellow middle ground represents still being able to pursue hobbies, interests and relationships while also dealing with stressors.
“Yellow stress” doesn’t even have to be predictable — if the balance of green and yellow moments is right, I feel confident that I can handle moments of difficulty, and they’ll pass.
Red is different, because it isn't "Yellow, but worse." Red represents when my anxiety or depression influences how I deal with stress — typically, it would cause overthinking as to whether "my life will always be like this" or not, or whether I will be able to achieve my goals for life in general.
A yellow-red position involves being able to navigate stress with small-to-medium amounts of existential spiral, while fully-red means that I've likely burned out, or in the process of burning out. “Red stress” typically involves me thinking “I am trapped, I’m never going to escape, this is always going to be this hard.”
Never Done is about the work we do to try to understand ourselves. Feel free to subscribe if you want to see more of it.
The idea (as I told my therapist) was to be in the position of green, green-yellow, or yellow. I would characterize a lot of my life having skipping "solo yellow" in terms of being able to navigate stress without overthinking about the greater implication to my life. This is usually accompanied with questions like:
What are my goals for life? Are my goals even something I want, or are they just to satisfy people (family, friends) in pursuit of greater connection?
Am I being my most authentic self? Are the people around me seeing that authentic self, or do I feel like it's hidden behind multiple masks?
What's even the point of this struggle if I'm just setting myself up to struggle further? What am I really living for?
Am I trying hard enough? Am I truly doing enough to try to improve my life? Do I really have the license to think this period of my life is difficult, when I’m not doing all I can?
Obviously these sound harsh, because they're pretty extreme questions; however, when you're burned out, they seem like the questions you "should be focusing on" in order to improve your station.
I can say that getting a mundane, stable job I've been pretty out of the red, but it creeps back in from time to time as I think about getting older, and the fear of "blinking, being a decade older, and being nowhere." Thankfully, being able to narrow down this fear of missing out on my potential has given me a way of focusing on why and how that anxiety affects me.
I wish I could round this post out with some kind of miracle cure, but I think every person is going to face the red zone a bit differently. I don't think the majority of us over-thinkers want to be patronized and live a life truly free of challenge; we just want to face challenges with clear heads and without handicapping ourselves further with things that feel like they matter, but can't really be resolved by ruminating hard enough.
I believe in us, though. I truly believe that I can make small steps to the point where my upbringing, or past events will no longer define how I handle this scale, and that a life of green-to-yellow (with maybe enough red to be self-aware) is possible.
I'm going to keep trying for it.
Thanks for reading.