Pillars: The Behaviors That Lead to Stability

Everyone has behaviors that contribute to stability and happiness in their life.

Posted Oct 16, 2020

Artwork by Alexi Berry. Used with permission
Source: Artwork by Alexi Berry. Used with permission

This post marks 10 years writing for Psychology Today. I find it difficult to fathom that in those 10 years, I have never talked about “the pillars.” I have talked about this idea to dozens of clients in my career. I first learned about this idea from a therapist I was seeing around 20 years ago. She suggested I had to figure out what my pillars are; what are the activities that support and stabilize my life? 

Everyone has pillars. Some people have not discovered them yet; others know them but have not identified them as necessary to their lives. They are the things that keep one happy, and in hard times, stable. Pillars are not the same for everyone. What works for one may not work for others.

When I work with clients, there are times when the idea of the pillars is helpful to them. It is usually used when the client would benefit from more stability, and perhaps more structure, in their lives. I have often found them helpful with clients suffering from depression, or who just generally lack enjoyment in their lives. In positive psychology and other types of therapy, there is a focus on what works for the client. This is very similar to the idea of pillars. 

For example, I often ask clients about previous times of happiness, and what was different then. Sometimes what is different is the activities they included in their life. But as life became more hectic, he or she began to push these activities to the side, and eventually, these activities were rarely if ever engaged in. The enjoyment one once experienced dwindles, life becomes a series of tasks and “honey-do lists.” Part of the issue is the lack of pillars. 

Pillars are not only used when times are tough or when one is experiencing instability. The goal of pillars is to make them (and keep them) as a regular part of life. But first, one has to discover what her pillars are. 

Common pillars include:

  • Exercise
  • Reading (especially topics that help one change for the better or are intellectually stimulating)
  • Journaling
  • Meditation
  • Eating healthy
  • Connecting with a partner
  • Getaways
  • Manicures/pedicures
  • Massage
  • Time in nature
  • Just about anything labeled self-care

Self-care is a trendy topic but has been a part of psychology for as long as I have been working in the field (over 25 years). But self-care and pillars are different in that pillars support the structure of one’s life. Self-care may be done for oneself once in a while, but pillars are central and need to be more integrated into daily routine. This doesn’t mean every pillar needs to be utilized daily, just that they are a regular part of one’s week. 

Most people have an idea of what their pillars are. When this is explored in therapy, clients seem to identify readily the things they enjoy in their life, the things that help nourish them and reduce their stress. Yet the issue becomes the reasons they are not doing the things that seem to work. As I wrote in “Why Don’t You Want to Feel Better,” many do not do what works for a multitude of reasons. The most common excuse I hear is a lack of time. But this is exactly the point of the post: These things are one’s pillars, one’s structural support. One will only remain stable and enjoy life more if these pillars are prioritized. 

Not all pillars have to be time-consuming. Many of the workouts I do are less than 25 minutes, and some are only 10 minutes (exercise is one of my pillars, and I get exercise nearly daily). Meditation needn’t be long, 10 minutes is a good amount of time, and there is evidence even just a couple of minutes a day is beneficial. Most smartwatches now even have a breathe function, that guides breathing for anywhere from a minute upward. Connecting with a partner does not have to be time-consuming either. John Gottman, in his research, has found that couples “bid” for connection (Esfahani-Smith), often multiple times a day. These bids are opportunities to connect. Too often couples fall into rote exchanges and do not take the time to really talk or otherwise connect. It can be a simple way to enrich one’s life and relationship. 

People sometimes comment that I read a great deal, as I often quote or reference things I have read to a class or client. Yet I read only a few minutes a night before bed. People are often surprised that such a small amount of time can add up, but it does. Another common pillar, spending time in nature, can be less time consuming than many think. For example, going for a run at a nearby park (if you live in a city) can be two pillars at once. Again, many pillars can be fit into any schedule. Small pillars, done regularly, with more involved and time-consuming pillars done occasionally, can easily make one feel more stable and content in one’s life. 

Copyright William Berry, 2020

References

Esfahani-Smith, E., 2014. Masters of Love. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/06/happily-ever-after/372573/