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It's been tailing you for years—depression, a hot temper, an irresistible urge for cupcakes—appearing here and there, with no rhyme or reason. Or so it seems. Martha Beck calls this a bête noire, and she's developed an easy way you can track it, tame it, and vanquish it forever.
Right now I have two cliché pains: one in my neck and one in my butt. Both are the result of my learning to ride—and I use that term loosely—a horse. The butt pain is no big deal; just chafed skin. I'm told it can be avoided by wearing a padded undergarment, brand-named Comfy Rump, which I'm sure they carry at Victoria's Extremely Dark Secret. My neck pain, on the other hand, could mean trouble. It started when my horse jumped a little, causing my head to lash around on my vertebral column like a bowling ball on a Slinky. Though this was a new experience, the afterpain is all too familiar. You see, I have fibromyalgia, a chronic pain syndrome no one really understands. My neck may heal normally, or "fibro" may be triggered by the bruised tissue, making the injury debilitating.
Fibromyalgia is my bête noire, a French term for "black beast" that has come to mean something to be avoided because it frightens us or can cause us harm. Many of us have bêtes noires: dark moods (Winston Churchill called depression his "black dog"), addiction, self-loathing, a tendency to lurk in the shrubbery near former lovers' homes holding a machete in one hand and The Complete Works of Keats in the other. Whatever your bête noire might be, you may think it will ruin your life. I beg to differ. Like other wild animals, your bête can be studied, understood—even tamed. If you want to be the handler of your beast, instead of its prey, grab a pencil and prepare to learn a bête noire tracking exercise that I call the Lifeline.
- Learn to call your bête noire by its real name.
Many magical traditions hold that you control a monster by speaking its name. My whole world changed the day a doctor flipped through his medical school textbook and found the label for my illness, which had been misdiagnosed for years. Knowing my condition's name allowed me to track, understand, and manage it. The power of naming is why so many lives have changed with the first utterance of words like "I'm an alcoholic" or "I'm over my head in debt" or, simply, "I'm unhappy."
One of my clients, a diabetic, told me, "If I talk about diabetes, I'll attract it. If I never say it, it isn't real and it can't hurt me." Actually, avoiding a scary topic means your subconscious mind is riveted on it. To let go of something, you first have to admit you're holding it. True freedom starts with absolute honesty. So be brave: Say the words. "I'm lonely." "I have an eating disorder." "My marriage isn't working." The moment you call the problem by its real name, you're already learning how to make it less harmful.
- Start filling in your lifeline by rating your bête noire at this moment.
On the Lifeline graph you downloaded, the numbers across the bottom reflect your age. The numbers on the left axis indicate the intensity of your problem. Begin filling in the Lifeline by answering this question: On a scale of 0 to 10, with 0 indicating "no problem at all" and 10 "the worst I've ever experienced," how bad is your problem today? Put an X in the column above your current age, at whatever level feels appropriate (if your suffering is at 10, mark the topmost box; if it rates a 9, the second-to-the-top, and so on).
- Remember (and record) the worst of times.
Now recall when your bête noire was its very worst—the time you were fattest, most nicotine-addicted, most socially incompetent, or whatever. If you don't remember your age back then, think of other things that happened around the same time: "Oh, yes, that was the year I [got pregnant/bought a Yugo/tried to learn pole-vaulting]." These events will help you place your worst bête noire periods in the correct year on your Lifeline. Mark the "level 10" box above each of the years when your problem hit its maximum. For example, my pain rated a 10 when I first developed symptoms, at age 18. It came on strong again during each of my pregnancies, and stayed at maximum force when all three of my kids were tiny. That means that on my Lifeline, fibromyalgia pain scored a 10 at ages 18, 23, 25, and 27 through 30. Mark your Lifeline to represent your personal Dark Ages.
- Fill in the gaps.
Once you've marked the best and worst of times, fill in the gaps, scoring your bête noire levels at every age. You won't have total recall. The numbers will be too fuzzy for physics. But social scientists know that charts like the Lifeline can be extremely useful—and as you fill in the boxes, you'll automatically start thinking like a social scientist. Which brings us to the most powerful Lifeline step.
- Take note of correlations and casual links.
You describe correlations and causalities every time you observe, "I eat more when I'm tired" or "I feel wonderful near the ocean." Many of the causal links in your life are obvious to you, but others are invisible. The Lifeline exercise helps you see these. To begin noticing connections between your bête noire and other life experiences, answer the questions below on another sheet of paper.
A. When your bête noire was at its worst...
1. Where were you living?
2. Where were you working? (Note: Raising kids at home is work.)
3. What did you do on a typical day?
4. With whom did you spend time?
5. What did you believe?
B. Now answer the five questions above in regard to the times your bête noire was least bothersome.
C. What did your worst times have in common?
D. What did your best times have in common? E. Other than the bête noire itself, were there any factors that were present at the worst times but not at the best times?
- This exercise has sparked thousands of lightbulb moments for me and my clients. I spent years trying to figure out what triggered my fibromyalgia pain, always focusing on things like diet or medication. But creating a Lifeline revealed something surprising: Each and every time my pain flared, I was doing something that I later realized was steering me away from my life's purpose. The pain attacked when I tried to write academic journal articles, receded when I wrote books for a popular audience; worsened when I tried to be my idea of a "perfect mother," lessened when I was simply myself around my children; spiked when I taught college, vanished when I started life-coaching.
If you mull over your Lifeline, you, too, will find unexpected correlations and causalities. My client Janice realized that her beast—alcoholism—was less severe when she spent lots of time knitting. (Yes! Knitting!) Benjamin realized that he made disastrous business decisions around intellectual snobs. Colleen's self-esteem dropped like an anvil whenever she stopped doing yoga. These clients couldn't believe such factors were really aggravating their bêtes noires —until we tested them. Which brings us to...
- Test your discoveries.
If you think you've spotted a causal link in your Lifeline, experiment. Create the life conditions that correlate with a calm bête noire —and see if that's what happens. This may seem strange, but the proof of the pudding is in the eating: When Janice hauled out her yarn and started clicking needles, her whiskey-thirst actually did diminish. Benjamin spent less time with intellectuals and more with his blue-collar employees, and sure enough, his business sense surged. Colleen found that down dog really did make her buck up.
- Tame the beast.
Though I still have fibromyalgia, I rarely have symptoms. That's because, using a Lifeline, I realized that my body uses "fibro" to send messages from my soul to my brain. "Your destiny's not here!" the pain tells me. "Look over there!" It used to take incapacitating agony to make me pay attention. But as I kept studying the correlations in my life, I learned to change course when I felt the first twinge. As a result, my pain has diminished, not advanced, as time passes.
I've seen this exercise work with all kinds of black beasts. I now believe that bêtes noires usually attack because we're thwarting our own destinies. Calming the beast turns us toward our best lives. So, when Janice replaced whiskey with yarn handicrafts, she realized that what she really wanted was to use her innate creativity. The more she created beautiful things, the less compelled she was to drink. Benjamin became so comfortable working with blue-collar employees that he outperformed the MBAs at his company. Colleen made time for yoga every day, and her self-esteem blossomed, improving every relationship in her life.
If you begin using Lifeline exercises to track your various bêtes noires, you will discover what aggravates them and how to quiet them. I've learned from hundreds of clients that your very worst issues can be tamed into helpful friends. One day your bête noire will be just a frisky dog or a flighty horse, an enjoyable and loyal companion, only occasionally causing a slight pain in the neck.
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Illustration from Clyde Mendes column at MetroSexual LA