You can’t pour from an empty cup

Putting fuel in our tank

Most people seek help through counselling or therapy at a time of difficulty or distress in their lives. However, just as in the realm of physical medicine doctors and researchers now place great emphasis on preventative approaches, the growth of positive psychology has shone light on proactive steps we can take to develop more psychologically healthy lives. There are many useful practices we can adopt with this goal in mind. In this short article, I focus on one which I think – while being extremely important – can also present a major challenge.

If we imagine ourselves as a car and the tasks and responsibilities of our daily life as driving hours, it is clear that before long we will run out of fuel. Sound habits of healthy living, such as eating a varied and balanced diet, getting enough quality sleep, and taking regular exercise, all provide ‘fuel’ by tending to our essential physical needs. However, humans also have minds and emotions and what – for want of a suitable consensus term – we might instead call soul / spirit / heart / core self. This core self also requires ‘fuel’ and when we provide such fuel, feelings of zest, vitality, joy and contentment result.

The author, AS Byatt, who is also a wife, mother, and grandmother, said “I think of my writing simply in terms of pleasure. It’s the most important thing in my life: making things. Much as I love my husband and children, I love them only because I am the person who makes things. Who I am is the person who has the project of making a thing. And because that person does that all the time, that person is able to love all those other people.”

For me, this quote expresses perfectly the primary importance of our need to nourish ourselves – heart and soul – by pursuing the activities that make us feel the greatest joy, fulfilment, peace and pleasure. For AS Byatt, it is writing – for most of us it will be something else (or perhaps more than one thing). What activity makes you feel most deeply at peace or most fully and healthily alive? If you can’t think of something recent, how about in the past, or when you were a child? If nothing comes to mind, what activities have you ever found yourself feeling drawn to, even if you have never acted on that interest – and even if it seems silly, difficult or ‘not something you would do’?

The other important aspect of AS Byatt’s quote is that she says “because that person does that all the time, that person is able to love all those other people”. This can feel unreasonable, radical, selfish, impossible…but deserves to be taken seriously. What if you made the activities that bring you the greatest joy and fulfilment a foundation stone of your everyday life? Take time to imagine what your life would be like if you lived like this and how you would feel. Can you see any ways that living like this would actually benefit the people you love and care for? What practical changes would you need to make for this to happen?    

Written by Laura Timms

MA Counselling and Psychotherapy; Reg. MBACP

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