Perhaps the most important lesson I’ve learned so far in my journey towards mental health is the importance of playing the long game.
The long game I’m referring to is the awareness of how my present actions will impact both my future relationships and personal growth, and the ability to make real time behavior modifications as a result.
In other words, I’m learning the importance of how what I’m saying and doing today is going to set me up for the future I want tomorrow.
Let’s first take a look at the long game in terms of relationships.
In the past, I would let my emotions get the best of me when I dealt with disagreements; I often feel misunderstood or invalidated when I’m trying to share my opinion, and I also have an incessant need to be right (I’m working on it…)
As a result, I would often find myself in arguments or debates with those around me.
During those arguments it was brought to my attention that I can be difficult, defensive, and insulting (in other words, my emotions were in control.)
This stems from my desire to be seen as intelligent and feel like my thoughts and opinions matter, but I don’t want to be described as the above anymore; so I took a hard look at myself and the way I handle communication because clearly I was going about it in all the wrong ways.
I was only concerned with short term results: being right in the moment, winning arguments, or proving people wrong. But in doing so I lost sight of what’s most important: the long term ramifications of my present actions.
Does it really matter if I win an argument, if how I got there causes the other person to dislike me? And is it really that important to be right, if it will leave those around me feeling less-than or insulted?
Obviously the answer is no, so I’ve tried to make significant changes in how I talk to people.
Playing the long game involves a DBT concept called wise mind: we each have what’s considered a reason mind and emotion mind, and wise mind is the integration of the two; a sort of middle ground between logic and emotion.
It’s about shifting my focus from how I feel in the moment to what’s best for the over-all relationship, then expressing my opinions from a calm and thoughtful place. The key to this (for me) is focusing on how what I’m saying (and the way I’m saying it) will make the other person feel.
I’m letting go of the need to be right all the time, and allowing others to freely express their opinions without always inserting my own into the conversation; sometimes it’s enough to just listen.
I’m also doing my best to stop being defensive.
People tend to get defensive when they feel attacked or misunderstood, but it signifies an inability to accept honest feedback, and to me, defensiveness is incredibly invalidating.
So I’m focusing on truly listening and taking ownership of my behavior instead of jumping to defend myself, because I’ve definitely been guilty of this behavior in the past.
Now that doesn’t mean I never disagree with people, I just try to do it in a more thoughtful and inclusive way, choose my battles wisely, and utilize wise mind when I feel my emotions start to take over.
A lot of my anxiety involves fear over the future, which can create a paralyzing hell in the present. I’m often overwhelmed about everything I need/want to do, see and learn, and as a result, nothing would get done.
However, inaction is like fuel to the fire of anxiety, and to beat this, the key for me is playing the long game. For personal growth this involves doing something every day that leads me closer to my goals in life.
I believe it was Pablo Picasso who said, “action is the foundational key to all success.”
With that in mind, I created a list of all the goals I have for myself, thought about what I would need to do to accomplish them, then created monthly spreadsheets of related “action items” that would bring me closer to each goal.
For example, two of my goals are to be healthy and have a clean house: the action items are then things like eat vegetables, exercise for 30 minutes, do the dishes, make the bed, etc.
If I complete an action item I mark an “x” for that day, then at the end of the month I tally them up to see what goals I’m making good progress on, and which still need work.
Now I’ve always been good at setting goals, but actually following through on them was the hard part.
I wasted a lot of time wishing and waiting for things to just happen or change, or for motivation to strike; but I finally realized no one was coming to save me, and any changes I wanted to see were up to me to make happen.
Motivation doesn’t just spontaneously show up; you have to create it for yourself.
The last two lines of William Ernest Henley’s Invictus, “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul,” give a similar idea: I’m the one in control of my life.
No one is going to learn Spanish for me, no one is going to lift weights to improve my physical fitness, and I’m not going to wake up one morning and love cleaning. But by breaking things down into smaller tasks, I can do at least one thing every day that brings me closer to my goals, and that helps me feel like I’m making real progress.
The more tasks/action items I complete in a day, the more motivation I find to keep doing them.
In doing this it becomes less about accomplishing the large, overall goal (which can feel overwhelming,) and more about daily growth and personal development, and making small but consistent changes that will improve my future.
One of my favorite lines in the book Advice From A Spiritual Friend addresses the concept like this: “If a bucket can be filled by drops of water, why cannot the mind be liberated by progressive inner development?”
Playing the Long Game
Learning to play the long game in my relationships and personal growth has truly been life changing.
Without all the arguments or debates, my interactions with other people are far more friendly and rewarding. Instead of looking for ways to prove myself, I now look for ways I can be positive and agreeable, and as the saying goes, I truly try to treat others the way I want to be treated.
I’m learning which battles are worth fighting, and staying focused on how my future relationships are directly affected by the way I communicate.
Setting goals and making consistent efforts to achieve them has created a sense of order and meaning in my life, and as a result I’ve gained more control over my consciousness.
Now I know both what I want in life and what needs to be done to get there, and having plans in place to achieve my goals has significantly reduced my anxiety.
Playing the long game is all about creating the best future for myself, and to get there I need to keep paying attention to what I say and do today, so my relationships are strong, happy, and healthy tomorrow, and I’m truly living the best life possible.