“You can only coast in one direction.”
In case the meaning of this statement doesn’t sink in right away, take a moment and think about it. Imagine you’re on a bicycle. You’ve stopped pedaling. You’re coasting. This won’t last long unless you are going down, only down. Going straight or uphill, you’ll stop coasting pretty quickly. Sometimes, you can coast and coast and not realize you’re coasting at all, not realize that the slope of your direction is down. You seem to be just taking it easy, relaxing, not having to put much effort into your ride. Meanwhile, you have lost elevation, you have been going down the whole time, without realizing it. When I am on a bike and realize I’ve been coasting for a long while, I start to think, “somewhere along the way I am going to have to pay for all this easiness with a part of the ride that will require me to pedal back up a big hill.” I only hope the hill back up isn’t too steep. Coasting on a bike is meant as a way of describing complacency and its price.
Microsoft Word defines “complacency” simply as “satisfaction.” If that’s true, there isn’t any problem with complacency or coasting. Satisfaction is good, where it is appropriate. But what if you are satisfied when you shouldn’t be, when your satisfaction is based more on lack of effort or interest, or because you aren’t paying attention, and you should be paying attention because all is not well, at least not anymore. A more robust and meaningful definition of complacency is provided by Merriam-Webster online. There, complacency is defined as: “1 : self-satisfaction especially when accompanied by unawareness of actual dangers or deficiencies. 2 : an instance of usually unaware or uninformed self-satisfaction.” Now we’re getting somewhere.
So, the problem with complacency, and coasting, is that you might think everything is just fine, when it actually isn’t, but you aren’t doing anything about it. You are fine with how things are because what you’re doing is easy, effortless, and you think that must mean things are good, or at least okay. This is human nature. We all do it. But it’s not good, for two reasons. First, the longer you coast (stay in your complacency), the more difficult it will be to change direction (you have to go up that big hill). Second, while coasting, you could be moving in different, more interesting or worthwhile directions, but you aren’t because the direction you’re heading in is easy. You are taking the path of least resistance, which over time is almost never a good idea because you end up settling for much less than you might otherwise have had if you’d been more proactive, more strategic, taken more risks, used more effort.
This idea of coasting first came up in therapy with a guy who was trying to figure out if he wanted to stay in a marriage he’d been in for many years. During one of our first sessions, after describing the parts of the marriage he found most troubling, I asked (something along the lines of) “how did things get this bad for you?” He said, “Well, you know, you can only coast in one direction, downhill.” He then went on to explain the incremental and insidious downward trend of his marriage. He explained how a marriage which at first had so much potential, with someone he respected so much, had evolved over years into one in which he dreaded coming home, avoided all unnecessary communication with his wife, and was seriously entertaining infidelity or divorce. He told me he’d been coasting in his marriage for years, just going to work, coming home, not paying much attention to how things were going, and then recently realized he no longer wanted to speak with the person he had previously loved more than anyone.
I guess I am in a definitions mood. So, let’s define the word “insidious.” Google defines insidious as “proceeding in a gradual, subtle way, but with harmful effects.” That about captures my use of the word. Merriam-Webster adds this to the definition of insidious: “developing so gradually as to be well established before becoming apparent.”
As an aside, I tend to look up the definitions of words frequently. Its an old habit from when I went to college after having missed much of high school due to my “extra-curricular” activities (drugs, etc.), so I had a lot of catching up to do. I am glad I developed the habit of looking words up, first out of necessity, and now because I don’t want to be afraid of any word I don’t understand or am not sure I am using correctly, and it is so easy now, just hit the “Google” button, type in “define (insert word)” and BOOM, there you are, word defined!
Okay, back to the topic of coasting. Now that we’ve defined “insidious,” see how coasting, complacency and insidious tie together? We think we are doing well, things are going fine, we are moving along, lots to see and think about, and all with very little effort on our part. We might even believe that coasting is a good thing. And to be sure, sometimes it is, for a short period of time, when we need a break, when we deserve to “sit back and enjoy the ride.” After a while though, coasting downhill becomes treacherous, and lures us into complacency, into thinking everything is fine, when things are not fine, and maybe haven’t been fine for a long, long time. At some point, we’ve gone down far enough that it can be difficult to remember what it was like when we started to coast.
The analogy of coasting is useful for understanding and working through many different kinds of life experiences. The most obvious place, like I explained above, is in relationships. But think about your job, right now. If you’ve had your job for a long time, how has it changed, become better, more engaging, more satisfying? Or, is it possible that the job has instead been just enough, that it has been relatively secure, where your main goal is not necessarily change, promotion, greater responsibility, but job security, risk avoidance, staying low on the radar to avoid being the target of a layoff during yet another reorganization. Even if this isn’t true for you, there’s pretty clear evidence it is true for most people. Aren’t you stunned a bit when you hear on the news that the average wage of Americans has actually stayed the same or fallen in buying power over the past twenty, thirty years? How can this be? I can’t say. I am not an economist or a politician. The point here is that maybe complacency has its dangers for our whole society, that we’ve all been coasting together, downhill.
Coasting can also be a problem with things we want to do with our lives aside from relationships and jobs. We might have projects we want to complete, but never get around to starting, or finishing. We might have self-improvement goals that we give up on, whether it is our education, our physical fitness, travel, or some other achievement. If we look back and ask, “why haven’t I done that (insert thing you didn’t do) yet?” The answer usually includes something like, “it was just easier every time I thought about it not to do it, to just keep doing what I was doing, to coast.” If you wanted to lose weight and become more fit, every time you woke up and thought, “after work, I am going to the gym, if even just for an hour.” Then when you got home from work, fed the dog, let him out, started to make yourself something to eat, you nestled into your home life, didn’t want to go out, easier to just stay home and go to the gym tomorrow. Not a problem. Really. Not a problem on this day or that day. It is a problem, possibly a huge problem, when it is nearly everyday, for weeks, months, years on end. The problem is the slow process of gaining weight, of losing our initiative, interest, direction, until it can feel like its just too much to deal with, becoming overwhelming, and then worst of all, you resign yourself to your situation, to continuing to coast, indefinitely. The longer you coast, the more difficult it becomes to change direction, to take a left, and another left, and go back up hill to get to where you were, to improve, to gain ground on whatever your goal.
Whether its in a relationship, at the job, with our personal selves, the way out of coasting must include first recognition that you are actually coasting, and you don’t want to continue coasting. This is where people usually come to therapy, when they have gone down the slow road long enough to realize they are not where they want to be, and now they don’t know what to do to stop coasting. Good, so far. Now, for hope. When we’ve coasted long enough to realize it isn’t good, when the insidiousness of it is no longer subtle, but obvious, clearly troubling, it can be difficult to have hope of change. I try to encourage people to do two things in this situation, just to get things moving in a better direction. First, I ask them to remember when things were better, when they weren’t coasting, but challenging themselves, when they were pedaling their bikes, putting effort into getting to where they wanted to be. They always can do this, but might need help with some encouragement and direction. Second, I help them chart a course to where they’d rather be. I ask them to describe this to me, to imagine again being where they want to be. We then set up milestones to measure the progress. We don’t try to charge straight uphill. That’s too much, and not at all necessary. Think of a hiking trail with switchbacks to get you gradually up to the ridge. We measure each turn to help see progress, which provides further encouragement.
I guess there is probably a third ingredient to making these kinds of changes in therapy, in a client’s life, and to sustain the change. Moving away from coasting to an energetically lived life, also requires a fairly significant change in attitude about struggle. To move away from coasting to a more self-directed pursuit of the kind of life that we can enjoy with meaning, we have to give up on the easy road and we have to embrace struggle as a necessary component of a life truly lived, a life we want to have, rather than the life we happen to have. Let me say that again because it is just that important: we have to embrace struggle as an unavoidable part of having what we want in life.
Life requires energy. We cannot live without food, fuel. Relationships, including friendships, a marriage, jobs, goals of any and all kinds also require energy—they all require effort, work, struggle at times. We might wish they didn’t, but to function well over the long haul, they do. If we truly want to have what we value, we have to put effort into it. Coasting in life will never get us there. It is certainly okay to coast for a while sometimes, when you’ve earned it or when you’re worn out from struggle and effort. Then, for a time, enjoy the break. But pay attention, because if it lasts too long, you are likely no longer taking a break, but avoiding the effort of making the kinds of changes and challenges and risks that will bring you the rewards of a truly satisfying life, instead of one which has the appearance but not the reality of satisfaction, which is complacency. So, notice when you are coasting, give yourself permission to coast, for a while, but only a while, and then start putting energy back into the things that are important to you, so you can have what you really want and not merely have what happens to be there.
Copyright, Michael Kinzer. Blog entries and other materials available on Jupiter Center’s website are only intended to stimulate thoughts and conversations and to supplement therapy work with Jupiter Center clients already in therapy. If you or someone you know suffers from a mental illness, you are strongly encouraged to seek help from a mental health professional. For further information about this blog, or Jupiter Center, contact Michael Kinzer at 612-701-0064 or michael(at)jupitercenter.com.