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This 15-minute stick figure exercise can help you find your purpose

When I was in my late 20s, I was burnt out. I had a full-time journalism job in public radio — something I'd always wanted. But I spent my days filing endless news stories, waking up early to work the morning shift and chugging Pepto Bismol on deadline to manage the symptoms of my stress.


I wanted to travel more. Move my body regularly. Spend my days outdoors. But that would probably mean quitting my job.

What I was experiencing, says psychotherapist Satya Doyle Byock, was a tug-of-war between two conflicting desires — meaning and stability — in my "quarterlife," a term used to describe the developmental stage between adolescence and midlife. And that feeling is completely normal for individuals in this age group, she writes in her new book, Quarterlife: The Search for Self in Early Adulthood, which offers guidance on how people can navigate this phase of uncertainty.


"A person might both want to live the single life and also long to be married with children," Byock says. "When you're feeling pulled apart by two opposing desires, it's confusing to know how to step forward."


To help people find balance, she developed a drawing exercise she calls "My Two Conflicting Selves." It asks people to draw stick figures of their competing sides, list out their wants and needs, then figure out how to bring those worlds together.

"If we can find these points of conflict to better understand the tension, a great deal can be revealed," she wrote in an email to NPR.

The exercise isn't just for people in their quarterlife. It's for anyone who feels torn between two paths in their lives, says Byock, who runs a private therapy practice in Portland, Oreg. If you'd like to give it a try, follow the steps below. It should take about 15 minutes, and all you need is a piece of paper and a pen or pencil.


Stick Figure Exercise for Therapy

Take a sheet of paper and fold it in half. Then draw a stick figure on each side. One figure should represent your "stability" side, the part of you that wants to feel safe and grounded. And the other side should represent your "meaning" side, the part of you that longs for adventure and freedom.

Stick Figure Exercise for Therapy

Create a name for each stick figure. Maybe you pull names from movies or TV. Maybe you use your own name and a nickname. For example, I used the name "Daphne" to represent my meaning side, which was my on-air alter ego when I did entertainment news at my college radio station. I was inspired by Daphne from Scooby Doo because she seemed very cool and well-dressed. I used my own name, "Marielle" for my stability side because I have traditionally been a rule follower who does all the things that are supposed to set you up in life (like get a job and contribute to your retirement plan).

These names, says Byock, allow the "the invisible parts of ourselves to be real and allow us to talk about them" in our own lives or in sessions with a therapist.

Stick Figure for Therapy

Explore each stick figure's personality traits in order to reveal your internal tensions, says Byock. This will help you "get to know each human in this partnership and what their needs are."

To get you started, here are some questions to consider. Answer them using bullet points or doodles. You may find that some responses reflect the reality you're living today, while others feel more aspirational — things you wish you could do. You may also find that you have the same response for both versions of you, or something radically different, and that's OK.

Either way, she says, answer as honestly as possible with the true desires of each side of your personality in mind.

  • What job do you have?
  • What's your relationship status?
  • What kind of clothes do you wear?
  • Do you have a pet?
  • Do you have a religion or a spiritual practice?
  • Where do you live?
  • What do you do for fun?
  • What are your hobbies?
  • What's your dream vacation?
  • Do you have kids? Do you want them?

Feel free to add any more attributes that flesh out each side's desires.

Take a look at your responses for each stick figure. How are they different? How are they similar?

After doing the exercise, I realized that Daphne and Marielle diverge when it comes to lifestyle. Marielle is more buttoned-up. She has a stable schedule, she cooks a lot and she always makes her bed. Daphne is more of a free spirit. She travels and works remotely for half the year. She goes where the wind takes her.

But there are some things they have in common. They both want a dog, but for varying reasons. Daphne wants one because caring for another creature adds meaning to her life. Marielle wants one for the steady companionship and routine that comes with having a pet. Because those two sides want the same thing, it makes me think I might be ready to get a dog — after I get allergy shots!

Look at your stick figures again. How much is each side dominating your life right now? Express that in terms of percentages, says Byock, so you can see your reality reflected in numbers and begin to find some balance.

For example, right now, I feel that Marielle has 60% of the power, while Daphne has 40%.

Reflect on whether you are happy with that breakdown. Do you want it to be more of a 50/50 split? Or do you want a lot more Daphne and a lot less Marielle? Why or why not? (As for me: I'm not sure exactly what my ideal breakdown is yet, but I'm figuring it out.)

Then figure out how to achieve that balance of desires in your life, says Byock. For example, to add more Daphne in my life, I might take a spontaneous weekend trip. Or I might decorate my apartment with objects and art from my travels to remind me of Daphne's adventurous side.

Once you're done with the stick figure exercise, hang it up. Gaze at it as a reminder of your two selves and your aspirations to bring both of them into your life — and that their needs and desires both exist inside you.

Author - Marielle Segarra


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