the ebbs and flows in life

The Ebbs and Flows In Life: Why We Must Understand Them and How They Can Affect Our Mental Health

Originally published on April 9, 2021

Understanding the Ebbs and Flows In Life

When we hear the terms “ebb” and “flow,” most of us, naturally, think of the ocean. This only makes sense, as, from a young age, we learned to associate these words with the tide “going out” and “coming back in,” respectively.

But the tides are not the only things in the natural world that ebb and flow. When you actually stop and think about it, you could make the argument that most things in our lives do. Sure, maybe not as often or consistently as the ocean, but still, they wax and wane fairly regularly, regardless.

Though that might sound like a vague notion at the moment, in this post, I’m going to describe what it is I mean by that and how, by understanding and harnessing the natural ebb and flow of things, we can essentially play defense against some mild forms of mood disorder or mental illness.

So, to start things off: what am I getting at when I say that just about everything in life ebbs and flows? For the purposes of this post, what I mean is that our evaluations of the things in our lives, and our excitement with or interest in them, are in a fairly regular state of flux. To take this out of the abstract, let’s look at an example.

I think we can all relate to that lunch place near work that, initially, we just couldn’t get enough of. And, so, we ate there endlessly, until, one day, we realized we were bored with it or less excited about it, overall. It was at that point that we also started to see some of its flaws — late orders, missing order items, cold soups that should’ve been hot, room temperature soups that should’ve been cold, and so on.

Thus, regardless of how much our excitement flowed when we first discovered this joint, that passion eventually ebbed, and we started frequenting it less often — at least for the time being. Now, of course, not every lunch place will always or necessarily fall from the good graces of our minds. Nor is that what I’m trying to say here. After all, this is not a post about cynicism or the idea that nothing stays gold forever. Far from it, in fact.

Instead, it’s about realizing that our minds are frequently on the lookout for the next exciting thing and that we must understand the nuances of such a quest so that we don’t run ourselves into depression and disillusionment as a result.

This is exactly what the best restaurants are doing when they serve up daily or weekly specials. Sure, they know everyone loves their eggplant, but they also know that if they don’t offer more ways for folks to switch it up, those long waits for orders and tables may become a thing of the past.

Of course, it goes without saying that we have to be careful with how we approach this subject of ebbing and flowing excitement, for, if we aren’t, we can get ourselves and our businesses in a lot of trouble. Moreover, we need to make sure we’re not solely focusing on the ebbs, because it’s not only harrowing to constantly think that our passion for anything eventually fades — it’s also not totally accurate, and it’s very dangerous to think otherwise.

But, like with any subject pertaining to mental health, there are some tricky prerequisites to fully understanding that last statement. Since I’ve been hinting at those details throughout this post thus far, let’s finally jump into them and apply them to the restaurant example we’ve been walking through already.

When Things Ebb, Don’t Forget that They’ll Eventually Flow Again, Too

When our excitement for our once-favorite lunch spot fades, we have two ways to approach the situation, in our minds. We can tell ourselves “it is what it is” (a topic I wrote a post about recently, by the way) and move on, or we can analyze the situation further and, most likely, put ourselves in a rut or funk over it.

That is, we can become more aware of our disappointment with our once beloved lunch spot or even move that disappointment up one level higher by asking ourselves dark questions like, “Does anything really last?” or “Will my excitement fade for everything, in time?”

Of course, it’s certainly not in our best interest to ask ourselves these sorts of questions, but sometimes we still do, and that’s okay. At least at first. Sometimes we have to endure the pain of undisciplined thinking before we can truly understand how much better off we are, in terms of our mental health, when we intentionally avoid such negative questions and ruminations.

When we continually run these patterns, however, we set ourselves up for lives of cynicism and depression. This sort of thing is especially dangerous when it comes to success and social status. For example, let’s say we work super hard, for several decades, to buy our dream house, telling ourselves that when we finally acquire it, it will make us happy, once and for all.

Of course, it’s not hard to see the sort of letdowns we’re setting ourselves up for in such situations, but that doesn’t matter; we still do these sorts of things to ourselves all the time. When our happiness or excitement over our new house eventually fades, even just a little bit, it’s not hard to imagine that we might become quite disillusioned with the ideas of excitement and happiness altogether. Sadly, this can lead us to the sorts of dark mental habits I mentioned just a moment ago.

As hard as it may be to do when such disillusionments arise, that’s the exact moment when understanding the nuances of the ebbs and flows in life becomes so important. As with just about every aspect of our lives, there are always multiple perspectives from which we can look at things.

When it comes to these ebbs and flows, specifically, we can choose the aforementioned dark perspective, or we can decide to better understand these changes and leverage them in a more empowering fashion. Here’s what I mean by that.

First off, we can remember that it’s called “ebbing and flowing” — not “ebbing and never returning;” when the tide goes out, it eventually comes back in. The same goes for many of our interests in life.

For example, when we take an extended vacation, we may eventually get bored with it or decide that we want to go home. And while that’s obviously quite a first-world problem to have, that doesn’t mean it’s always a cinch to comprehend and navigate. Nor does it mean we’re ungrateful, that there’s anything wrong with the place to which we vacationed, or that we’re done with that place forever. In all likelihood, we’ve just already gotten our fill of it.

Months or years down the road, we may grow nostalgic and decide that we want to return to that same place and relive some of the fun adventures we once had. This is what it means for the tide to come back in on our interests.

The same goes for our favorite lunch spots, movies, video games, hobbies, and the like. Our brains crave novelty; we sometimes have to give them that variety in order to stay sane. That leads me into the second important nuance to the ebbs and flows in life.

That nuance is the notion that we can avoid some of the pains associated with the waxings and wanings of our interests by actively feeding our desires for novelty. Though it’s obviously not a radical concept, yes, we absolutely should eat at different lunch spots or even (gasp) bring a less satisfying meal from home every once in a while.

When they say that distance makes the heart grow fonder, this is what they mean: We sometimes get bored of the things that are readily available to us. In order to rekindle our excitement and interests, sometimes we need to restrict ourselves from eating at the same places every day or going to the same destination for every vacation.

Where the Laws of Ebb and Flow Don’t Apply

As with all guidelines, however, the ideas I just walked through don’t apply to all situations. For example, when I say we should feed our needs for variety, I’m definitely NOT talking about doing so when it comes to your job or your significant other. At least not in the more obvious sense.

Not showing up to your company’s office for the day because you want to see what it would be like to be a gardener is a great way to get yourself in big trouble. So is sleeping with another person just because you want some relationship variety.

I say that kind of jokingly, but you might be surprised — some people still haven’t quite mastered when and how to apply this sort of thinking. After all, if they did, maybe I wouldn’t be writing a blog post about it. But, I digress; I’ll get off my high horse now.

Thus, it seems we need to separate our interests and experiences into two camps. I’d argue that these two buckets could simply be called “commitments” and “non-commitments.” The former involves situations and experiences in which we have made promises to other people. These are your full-time jobs, relationships, and communities. The latter, however, consists of situations that we can move into and out of fairly easily. These are the places you eat lunch during the week, the clothing brands you buy, the gym you go to, and so on.

When it comes to the “commitment” camp, if we try to find variety outside of our commitments, we get met with resistance, at best, and severe consequences, at worst. Thus, when it comes to these sorts of scenarios in our lives, we can’t simply look for another outlet when our interests start to wane. No, instead, we have to look for ways to inject some variety into such commitments.

This could take a multitude of different forms. For example, with our significant other, we could plan more adventurous dates each week or explore ways to safely spice things up in the bedroom. Exploring ways to spice things up in someone else’s bedroom, however, is a great way to put your relationship in serious jeopardy and risk bringing yourself even more despair than you may currently be feeling as a result of your interest in your own relationship ebbing just a bit.

As it pertains to the “non-commitment” camp, however, we’re free to pursue interests outside of the one in front of us. This means that if we’re currently a bit sick of the lunch place we go to all the time, we can, and should, switch things up for a while. This will likely not only get us excited for lunch once more, but it will probably also make us appreciate our go-to spot again, in time.

Remember, the tide ebbs and flows. Sometimes, we just need to help it do so.

Tying It All Together

So, to sum up here, let’s start by reminding ourselves of the sentiment behind the title of this post: All of our interests in life ebb and flow. There will be days when we’re excited to listen to a specific album and other days when we have no interest in it.

But just because we don’t want to listen to it today doesn’t mean we’ll never have an interest in it again. Nor does it mean that we should get in our heads over our lack of excitement, regardless of how tempting that sometimes sounds. As we’ve seen, doing so is a great way to create more pain (in the form of depression and disillusionment) than we may currently be experiencing as a result of our ebbed interest.

And, finally, when our interests do ebb, we must have the awareness to seek out other forms of excitement so that we don’t give ourselves a chance to engage in such negative forms of thinking. Counterintuitively, this often gives us the break we need from the things we’ve detached from and allows us to recapture the interest and excitement we once had for them.

The only catch there, however, is that we must be careful with what forms of excitement we’re seeking so that we don’t risk losing our friendships, intimate relationships, and jobs in the process.

If we apply all of these rules judiciously, then I think that we stand a decent chance of turning the tides and preventing ourselves from getting dragged out to sea. Though it may not always be easy to do so, it still seems like the optimal strategy and a formidable opponent against the despair and disillusionment that sometimes emerge as a natural result of the ebbs and flows in life.

Thanks for reading. Want to pick up some other helpful mental health strategies today? Then check out some of our other posts.

Here’s that “it is what it is” piece I mentioned above:

Why “It Is What It Is” Actually Isn’t a Passive Mental Health Strategy

And here’s a fun one about our brand and what it means for you and your mental health:

The Snake Brain: The Meaning Behind Our New Branding

**Photo by Alin Meceanu on Unsplash

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