When people first start down the road of self-work, they tend to assume that “fixing yourself” is a lot like fixing a leak in an old house. For years, everything was just fine! But now there’s a leak, and they can’t seem to fix it themself. So they call a handyman. He replaces a part, tightens a few bolts, and says to call again if there are any more issues. The person pays the man and moves on.
The problem, though, is that the pipes are corroding from deep inside the walls. They’ve been breaking down for years without proper maintenance. But because everyone thinks the leak is the problem, the pipes continue to break down. The leak keeps returning, a little bigger each time. Finally, the pipes explode and flood the house.
Over and over, I watch people go through this same process with their deep self-work. They start by ignoring the emotional leak because it’s not worth bumping it up the priority list. Eventually, though, the leak becomes maddening enough to seek out some sort of quick fix. They read a book, or maybe even hire a therapist. But there is a lack of commitment. Maybe they read the book, but they don’t do the exercises. Or they show up to therapy, but when it doesn’t “work” after three sessions, they decide it’s a waste of time. Or, the therapy helps, but as soon as the leak stops they think they’ve figured it all out and stop showing up. And then the pipes explode and they wonder what went wrong.
Just like cars and houses, our emotional body needs regular maintenance to keep it running smoothly. The time to put in the work is not when you’re in crisis, but when things are steady. Call it “maintaining the pipes.” This maintenance includes everything from creating routines to establishing support networks to continuing self work, even if it seems a little silly since nothing is obviously wrong.
Maintaining the pipes accomplishes three things:
1) You build to yourself a net to catch you when you fall.
When things go stupid, it’s a hell of a lot easier to already have an established therapist than to have to figure out how to find a new one in the middle of a crisis. Look no further than the pandemic for proof of how difficult it is to find therapists with availability. They’re all booked up because every client they’ve ever had is returning to the nest, leaving no room for newbies.
2) You keep the pipes from bursting
Often, it’s not until an emergency has passed that people look back and say, “The signs were there all along.” Maintaining the pipes teaches you to recognize problems before they fester into full-blown crises, which means you never have to experience the catastrophe in the first place.
3) But if the pipes do burst, your training kicks in.
Committing to maintaining the pipes when even when there’s no obvious problem means that you’re well-practiced even if, despite your efforts, the pipes do burst. For example, I meditate for 10-20 minutes
every morning. I’ve been doing it for years and most of the time, it feels like a fruitless practice that does nothing for me.
But twice in the past month, I’ve been through awful, late-night situations that left me pulsing with adrenaline and grief. Both times I’ve crawled into bed and made an active choice to stop the situation from repeating over and over in my mind. Instead, I focused on how grateful I was to have a warm, cozy bed. Finding that gratitude, even in times of sock and sorrow, brought a wave of welcome relief that allowed me to get some sleep. There’s no way that would have happened had I not spent so many mornings actively practicing to quiet my mind.