Challenge and Contentment:  Finding the Balance

Deborah Tucker, M.A.

So much of life is about striking a balance.  Work and play, need and want, busyness and rest - so many variables that require us to find a midpoint.
Much of my work as a therapist consists of helping people find a balance between two very important needs.  At one end of the continuum is the need we have for challenge in our lives.  At the other is contentment, by which I mean a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction with our lives.
Many times people will seek therapy because they feel they do not measure up.  They compare themselves to others who have more, have done more, have done it better, and they feel very self-critical.  They may describe themselves as perfectionists, or as someone with high expectations of self and perhaps others.  They are used to setting goals, and setting them high, and frequently they have achieved a great deal.  Yet they are not happy; they feel something is lacking.
As we talk more, what becomes clear is that an ability to be content is what is lacking.  Often, when I first bring this up, the initial reaction is strong disagreement.  Many of these types of people have almost a fear of contentment, a fear that if they acknowledge and take pleasure in what has been accomplished, then there will be no drive to accomplish more.  But to take pleasure in having achieved one level doesn't mean we can't then strive to the next level.  Still, to learn to pause and genuinely feel satisfaction in what has been achieved can measurably change a person's perception of their quality of life.  So, that is a goal of therapy for some.
For others, the goal is different.  They enter therapy because they feel stuck, vaguely dissatisfied, bored for no particular reason.  Or, perhaps they are blaming others for the lack they are beginning to realize is really felt within.  After we talk a bit, what comes to light is that they lack a sense of challenge in their life
Perhaps because of fear, perhaps out of habit or the everyday responsibilities of life, they have ceased to challenge themselves in any meaningful way.  They are going through the motions, but there is no sense of joy or accomplishment.  Here our work together often consists of discovering what is important to this person.  Sometimes there are interests from long ago that are taken up again.  Other times there are new areas of interest that are revealed.  When personal goals can be set, worked toward, and met, then a sense of challenge is added to life, and boredom and dissatisfaction lessen dramatically.
So perhaps the actual dimensions of the continuum are inertia vs. challenge, with contentment in between, in a midpoint of dynamic tension between the two.  At any rate, many of us struggle with both these areas in our lives.  It's probably safe to say that at various points we all need to feel more appreciation for our accomplishments, and at other times need to set new and interesting goals for ourselves.  Like so many other things, it's a balancing act.

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