When I need to learn something (or maybe when I’m ready to learn a lesson), clients show up who also need to learn the same thing. I can see, so clearly, what they need to learn, and then—thwak!—the fact that I also need to learn the same lesson hits me in the face.

I’ve talked before about Rat Park. It’s a concept that Martha Beck talks about in her book The 4 Day Win. Briefly, she talks about a study by Bruce Alexander that showed the following result: If you offer a lab rat in a cage either plain water or water laced with morphine, they will go for the morphine-laced water every time. They will starve themselves, losing interest in anything but the morphine.

If, however, you offer a rat who lives in Rat Park—a place with tunnels, burrows, room to roam around, and friends to hang out with—they will not drink the morphine-laced water, even though they also add sugar to the water, which rats love. Even rats who were previously addicted to morphine (and living in a regular cage) will decrease their consumption of the morphine once they are living in Rat Park, despite the onset of withdrawal symptoms.

What I take away from this study is that I need to live in my own version of Rat Park in order to not only avoid crappy addictions, but also to be my best self and live my purpose (and by that I mean—get the work done in the world that means so much to me.)

Deprivation and will-power do not lead to a life of joy.

Starting this fall I had two mornings to myself each week while my son attends a preschool. It’s been great! Except—I started getting headaches because I didn’t take time to eat, I refused all of  my husband’s invitations to go running with him in the park, and I didn’t give myself permission to do anything that looked like playing or relaxing.

What the heck was going on?

I made my life into the opposite of Rat Park. Some part of me felt that I needed to earn those hours that I took for myself. I couldn’t be frivolous with them, waste them, or in any other way look like I was having fun while my son was away from me.

A couple of clients helped me out by bringing up the same issue:

One client cut out her beloved early morning kayaking until she finished her book—or winter started, whichever came first.

Another client told me she couldn’t go back to her women’s group—which she had been meeting with for years—until she finished her dissertation. That one evening a month she spent with the people she felt knew her best just had to go.

I gave my clients the same advice I’ve been taking lately: Create your own Rat Park. Mine includes running in the park, regular meals, and occasional lunch dates with friends.

What does yours look like?