A recent SMBC comic discussing how humans tend to revert to emotional baselines got me thinking. Go check it out; it’s humorously astute.
Shortly after the last Game of Thrones episode aired, reports came out that actor Kit Harington checked himself into a wellness centre to work on personal issues. This was later corroborated with behind the scenes footage showing some of his emotional reactions as they filmed the final episodes. Given that the show was one of his first major long-running parts, it’s not unreasonable that he’s experiencing complex thoughts and feelings around the show coming to a close.
Similarly, Olympian Michael Phelps appeared on Tony Robbins’s podcast and discussed his experiences with depression after his achievements in the pool. He notes that after running on an emotional high from training and competing, returning to “normal life” without any substantial goals is a tough adjustment for athletes. They spend long chunks of their lives devoted to a singular aim, and once they close that chapter of their lives, it can be difficult to find meaning in more mundane pursuits. Instead of reverting to a normal baseline, their sense of balance is skewed and their baseline dips emotionally lower.
I’m neither an acclaimed actor nor athlete, but I have experienced similar emotional falloffs that helps me relate to what these two people might be going through. After a summer of outward bound adventure in my army cadet days (we climbed mountains, glaciers, and biked through the Albertan countryside), I returned to my normal high school life and I experienced a week or so of crushing depression. I felt that after climbing a mountain, what else could I possibly experience in life that would top that? Setting aside that I was a teenager and lacked a more global perspective on life, in that moment I felt that I had peaked, and there was nothing left for me to achieve or look forward to.
The so-called “quarter-life crisis,” which for many coincides with graduating from four grueling years of undergraduate study, is a similar experience, where you no longer are striving towards a goal and now have to seek out to find your own meaning in life. The vast, open stretch before you is daunting in its emptiness. But, instead of possibility, you view the void with pessimism – what do I have before me that can possible measure to what has come before?
I don’t have children, but I suspect that the “empty nest” feeling that parents get when their children head out on their own is similar. You’ve spent nearly two decades caring for your children, nurturing and guiding them towards self-sufficiency, and now that they are heading out, your goal is largely fulfilled and you need to redefine your identity and time in a post-dependent world.
When you experience the closing of a long-term goal that has spanned years, there seems to be a harsh recalibration period for your emotions. Not only do you snap back to baseline, but you have to redefine your expectations for the baseline, and re-code that experience with a new sense of purpose and meaning. The longer you stay in this limbo, it seems the harder you languish.
Achievement and success is wonderful, but I think we tend to only tell stories of the climb up the mountain and we tend to forget the back-half of the experience when we carefully climb back down, taking care not to fall back to earth. I think sharing these stories is important because it lets us know we are not alone in the dark.