Evolution of the Self

On the paradoxes of personality

How to Discover Your Sweet Spot

Everyone has their own golden mean—do you know yours?

Your "sweet spot" is something like your very own golden mean. It's about doing, or not doing, that which in any particular situation is optimal for you. And knowing what's, personally, "just right" isn't a trait you're born with. Nor is it a matter of intuition. Such knowledge can be gained only through experience, and carefully analyzing the meaning of your experience. If you don't acquire such learning—gained from systematically scrutinizing your behaviors, especially your mistakes—the absence of such experiential wisdom will hinder you in all sorts of ways.

To compare your situation to Goldilocks and her pilfered porridge, if you locate your sweet spot it won't be too hot, or too cold. Or (depending on the context) too light or too heavy, too easy or too hard, too mild or too harsh, too early or too late, or—perhaps most commonly—too little or too much.

Let me provide a few examples:

If you don't exercise enough, you'll never derive the full benefits of physical exertion. But if you over-exercise, you won't add to your energy (one of exercise's many benefits) but instead deplete it, drain it away. And rather than help decrease your stress, which the right amount of exercise can do, you'll actually end up adding to it. For doing anything to excess either propels your organism into a stressful state, or exacerbates it.

It's the same with eating. If you consume fewer calories than you require, you'll rob yourself of the nutrients necessary to function at your mental and physical best. If, however, you eat indulgently, taking in far more calories than your body wants or needs, you'll feel bloated, dull, lethargic—unable to function at your highest level. And if you overeat regularly, you'll end up carrying a lot more weight than you'd prefer, or that's good for your health. In other words, you'll go past your sweet spot to your self-thwarting "sour spot" (diabetes, anyone?).

Same thing when you're trying to do your very best, but your strenuous efforts exceed your here-and-now capabilities. Ever try to do more reading, or studying, than your brain could handle—because it was "full up?" If so, the result is that, unable to take in any more information, your brain began to "stall out." And it's actually fairly easy to calculate this point of diminishing returns. For this is when you suddenly realize that you've been reading by rote, that absolutely nothing has been going into your mental tank--which (unbeknownst to you) is already saturated.

Or you find yourself re-reading the same sentence over and over, trying somehow to force-feed yourself into digesting what keeps "repeating" on you. In such circumstances, it should be obvious that, for the time being at least, your brain (or the part of your brain dealing with this particular subject) is already filled to the brim.

Such a situation reminds me of the Gary Larson cartoon in which a student raises his hand and requests that he be excused. For, in his own words, "My brain [vs. bladder] is full (!)." Very funny... but in a sense not so funny in its different ramifications That is, it's all too easy for every one of us to get into the habit of driving ourselves to the point that we're overloading our system, neglecting—and even disrespecting—our inherent limits.

There's a point of diminishing returns for just about everything. And it's crucial to learn when you're reached the extent of your capacity. This is especially true because what's not enough, or too much, for you (i.e., deviates from your personal sweet spot) may vary considerably from the norms of another. The perfect temperature for your particular porridge is largely an individual matter. So it's therefore your own responsibility to determine what—in a broad variety of contexts—finally characterizes your golden mean.

So how do you go about discovering what's uniquely right for you? The answer to this pivotal question is fairly straightforward. Pay attention! The way to become increasingly sensitive to what constitutes your sweet spot is through scrupulous self-monitoring. And this is about getting into the habit of retrospectively assessing the "fit" or "suitability" of your behavior to your environment, both internal and external (what, scientifically, is called "post hoc [after the fact] analysis").

Ask yourself: what worked for me, and what didn't—and for what reason(s)? If you're to best understand why your thoughts, speech, or actions succeeded or failed, you need routinely to eavesdrop on—or pry into—them. Only through regularly performing such inward "wiretapping" can you determine what in the future deserves to be replicated, toned down, ramped up, or dropped altogether. And like almost everything else, "practice makes perfect." So as long as you continue this act of personal oversight, the beneficial behaviors you wish to install and abide by will eventually become habitual.

Again, keep questioning yourself about what failed, what was counter-productive or self-defeating—as well as what got you back on track, was self-enhancing, or significantly contributed to your success. If you persist in looking at what helped you and what (immediately or in the longer term) was hurtful, you'll get better and better at identifying the exact location of your sweet spot.

Not to say that this special spot can't change over time. True, in some realms it's more or less innate, and so fixed or unalterable. Say, like the capacity to fully grasp the intricacies of quantum physics. But in other areas your spot can shift, or be dynamic. Like learning the skills, or developing the resources, to confront what earlier you may have needed to avoid. Or getting into good enough shape that your exercise regimen can be much more rigorous, yet not deplete you. So coming almost to "reside" in this place of maximum advantage doesn't necessarily imply stasis or stagnation.

Becoming evermore accomplished in determining what—at any given time or place—best represents that which is "just right" for you virtually assures you a life of contentment and joy. For what, ultimately, could be more satisfying—or "sweeter"—than perfecting your knowledge of your very own, custom-tailored, sweet spot?

© 2012 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D.  All Rights Reserved.

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Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D., who holds doctorates in English and Psychology, is a clinical psychologist and author of Paradoxical Strategies in Psychotherapy.

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