Is Your Life Stuck in First Gear?

Is Your Mental Health Stuck in First Gear? 

Struggling with life’s emotional challenges requires us to shift gears when faced with unfamiliar terrain, but sometimes we get stuck, feeling shame, loss, anxiety, depression, or a sense that our life and our relationships are unsatisfying. Just as a mountain biking mentor can help you improve by showing you how to shift gears at the right moment, a therapist can give you the tools to help build resilience, strength, and healthy behaviors so you can live your best life. 

A few months ago, I had the privilege of going to New Zealand to speak at a Pastor's retreat.  During one of our breaks, my host took me out to a beautiful mountain biking trail.  The good news about this story is that the scenery was absolutely breathtaking.  The bad news is that the sheer difficulty of the mountain biking trail was absolutely breathtaking as well.  Meaning I could barely complete the trail and almost passed out a couple of times.  My host, who, keep in mind, is probably about 10 years my senior, looked like he barely broke a sweat.  It was a humbling experience, to say the least.  Now that I think about it, I do wonder if all the majesty and beauty that I saw on the mountain that day was just me going into hallucinogenic oxygen deprivation.  I’ll never know.  

Now if you’ve ever been mountain biking or even any kind of bicycling for that matter, then you know a lot of it is about knowing what gears you have, how to use them, and when to use them.  A skilled mountain biker, like my host in New Zealand, knows what gear to shift into and when to shift gears.  A lot of times, once you realize you need to shift gears on your bike while going up a hill, it’s already too late and you’ve lost almost all your momentum and power.  My host knew what to expect, when to expect it, and how to manage his energy to make sure he could handle the ride.  While I was huffing and puffing up the mountain, he was able to look around and enjoy the ride because he had the tools and knew how and when to use them. 

At the top of the mountain, while I was sucking in wind and water, and seeing stars, I thought this was a perfect metaphor for how we approach the terrain of life.  As a professional counselor, I deal in the world of emotions and mental health.  And while there are so many facets of what that involves when I work with my clients, so much of it starts with the basics of helping people to know how to acquire better gears for life and when to use them effectively.  While my clients are mentally exhausted trying to tackle life’s issues, I would say by and large I’m able to enjoy the scenery around me in life because I know my gears, how to use them, and when to use them.  My job is to help teach them how to acquire those gears for themselves.  Allow me to summarize the most important gears you need to tackle life’s most difficult mountains.  

Gear 1: The Fixed Gear

When it comes to bikes, fixies are the best.  The first and only gear is all about instant results.  In mental health terms, this is the “fix it” or "solutions” gear.  I like to think of this one as the gear we all have and start with.  It allows us to solve problems immediately and helps us to focus our energy on the task at hand.  Got a problem in life or a relationship?  People's first and base instinct is to solve it.  The way I see it, you can’t get very far in life without this first and primary gear.  

The problem with most people’s “gears” is that they usually stop at gear #1. If your life resembles that of a metaphorical downhill slope, or at the very least flat surface, then you’re good as gold.  

Live long enough and eventually, you’ll start hitting some uphill resistance and that fixed gear will only get you so far before you burn out.  The result for most people is anxiety, depression, and broken relationships.  To tackle life’s bigger challenges you need more gears.  

Gear 2: The Shame Gear

The shame gear is perhaps the hardest one to acquire yet is quite possibly the most essential in my experience as a counselor. It gives people the ability to identify feelings of shame, inadequacy, and failure. But more than that, it empowers people to know how to resolve those feelings in healthy ways. The bottom line here is that people that have this gear know when they’re feeling shame, know how to embrace the feeling instead of pushing it away, and how to normalize it and learn to accept themselves despite their failures. 

People who have and use their shame gear are capable of doing so much more in life and relationships because they’re simply less afraid of failure.  Conversely, people without this gear tend to live afraid of fully trying in life or worse, can’t love fully in relationships because they have to defend themselves against disappointing others.  I just said a mouthful and six sessions worth of therapy right there, but trust me when I say that the inability to cope with feelings of shame is absolutely debilitating for most people and they don’t even realize they’re not living their best life because of it.  

Gear 3: The Loss Gear

Life’s too short to be afraid of losing. People who acquire this gear, usually after having to go through painful loss, understand that loss is part of life. This gear allows people to know when they’re experiencing loss and more importantly, know how to deal with it in healthy ways.  The result is accepting when things don’t go the way we hope and learning how to move forward well rather than allowing the fear of loss to be the thing that holds us back in life.  This gear is difficult to acquire because our society just doesn’t do a good job of teaching us how to deal with grief and loss. The American motto is to pull yourself up by your bootstraps and keep pushing forward.  As a counselor, I find that people don’t move forward as aggressively as they could because they just don’t know how to lose well. 

Gear 4: The Conflict Gear

This last gear is about how well people deal with conflict.  Those who haven’t yet acquired this essential gear for life tend to either avoid conflict or be so aggressive in conflict that relationships either tend to end or become dysfunctional or even toxic.  Most of my work as a counselor is in working with couples and an essential part of that work is teaching them how to fight fairly and in healthy ways.  Conflict is essential in life because none of us are exactly the same and none of us are perfect.  Conflict is a natural way for us to resolve our differences and imperfections so that we can live at peace with one another.  People who have this gear not only know when it’s important to engage in conflict but have confidence that engaging conflict will lead to a better outcome for everyone involved.  

As a clinically trained therapist, I can suggest to you an expensive and fancy 20-speed bike for those interested in geeking out on all the possibilities.  However, for most people, these four gears will allow you to tackle most things in life well and get you where you need to go.  And I’m not looking to make things more complicated than they need to be.  Whether your particular mountain involves depression, anxiety, a broken marriage, trauma, loss of a loved one, or an addiction, having these gears usually helps my clients deal with their issues head-on.  It’s just a matter of knowing about them and learning how to use them well. 

Are you ready to get your life in gear? Learn more about our creative and collaborative counselors at Lifeologie Counseling Houston Uptown.

About Ly Tran

Ly Tran, D.Min, LPC, LPC-S is a Lifeologie owner and therapist and serves part-time as a counseling pastor at Chase Oaks Church. He is a Licensed Professional Counselor-Supervisor (LPC-S) with a BS from Trinity University and a MA in Biblical Counseling from Dallas Theological Seminary, where he also completed a Doctorate of Ministry (DMin) in Marriage & Family for the purpose of educating and teaching future therapists. He specializes in Christian counseling, premarital and couples counseling, codependency, and divorce. He is the proud owner of Lifeologie Counseling Richardson/Plano, Frisco, Houston, Sugar Land, and Austin locations in Texas and Washington Township New Jersey.

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