A Simple Tool to Diagnose and Fix Yourself: Introduction to PACE

I’m Shannon Connery and I’ve been a licensed psychologist in Denver for the past 20 years. A few years ago, I decided to branch out and do something bigger than just one-on-one therapy. I love doing therapy, but I think there is a need for reaching a broader audience given the state of anger and depression and obesity and trauma and angst in our culture. I have the firm belief that everyone is responsible for fixing their own problems. Whatever they may be and however long they have gone on, it is in us all to fix our own shit.

What’s even truer is that no one else is going to fix our problems for us. And luckily, once you take ownership of your own problems and take actions to fix them, you can achieve a level of health and wellness that is empowering. And after 20 years in this field, I’ve developed a lot of tools that can help with this process.

Along the way I’m going to use case studies to help clarify this “Fix Your Own Shit” tenet. The first tool really brings home my overarching belief that the crux of happiness and wellbeing is to first and foremost focus on making ourselves whole, as opposed to blaming others.

My personal favorite tool for “fixing yourself” is called PACE™ and it stands for:

  • Pleasure
  • Accomplishment
  • Connection
  • Exercise

I consider these four crucial areas for fulfillment or wellness. Let me take you through each of them:

The Pleasure category is anything you enjoy doing and that brings richness or enjoyment to your life. It’s the stuff you look forward to doing when you aren’t at work. Maybe you like to read, watch movies, do crafts. Maybe you’re into photography, writing, or creativity in any form. Maybe you love theater or live music or dancing. It doesn’t matter what it is, just that you derive pleasure from it. And that you care about yourself enough to realize that you deserve to enjoy your life. That’s the P of PACE™.

Accomplishment is anything you do that gives you a sense that something has been successfully achieved. Within each of these categories, there are different levels. Every day, hopefully, we accomplish low-level things like brushing our teeth, making meals, and doing the dishes. They are technically accomplishments, but don’t leave us feeling any profound sense of having accomplished something major or meaningful. Mid-level accomplishments take more time and effort, like completing a project at work, or planting our summer garden, or finishing an application for a new school or job. High- level accomplishments take both effort and time. Saving for and buying a house, writing a book, finishing a major, time-consuming task at work. These are items that, by definition, create a huge sense of accomplishment. Begin to think of these first two areas in terms of what you do in each category and how many low-level versus medium- or high-level things you do.

The third area of PACE™ stands for Connection. Social connections are well documented in the research to have an effect on happiness and longevity. We are social beings. That said, there is a great deal of variation between people in terms of

how much connection we need. Extroverts, for example, recharge in groups while introverts recharge on their own. Being aware of your optimum level of social interaction is important. If you feel alone a lot, maybe you need to increase this area. If you feel resentful or annoyed when you are out, perhaps you have spread yourself too thin. We also need to think about the quality of connections. A low-level connection should be seen as events where we are technically around people but don’t feel closeness, such as the supermarket, the bank teller, etc. If you think about hosting a birthday party for a 4-year-old, I assure you that even though you have been surrounded by people, you probably won’t feel connected—more like exhausted. Mid- and high-level connections are important. Having a date night with your spouse, for example, or taking a walk or having lunch with a good friend. Maybe you love watching sports with your friends. Talking, laughing, and experiencing things together is one of the things that people have repeatedly told me in my practice that they look forward to. And when people don’t have quality connections, it brings them pain and loneliness.

The fourth area of PACE™ is Exercise. The research on exercise is extensive. We have all heard it nonstop. Exercise helps with just about every area of our health. It helps hearts and brains and waistlines and everything. So exercise is important. It doesn’t have to be structured or at a gym. It is just movement. It can be walking outside or dancing at a club. It can be swimming or hiking or bike riding. Once we title it “exercise,” people sometimes resist. But think about when we were children and got a bicycle, or a sled, or ice skates, or roller stakes, or a football or basketball. We were so excited to use them all. It is a mystery to me why some people stop loving movement. So take a second to assess your own level of exercise. If you don’t exercise at all except to move from point A to B, you are at a very low level. If you exercise sometimes but not consistently, you can improve your routine. If you exercise 4 or 5 times a week for more than half an hour, you are now part of only 20% of people who are getting the CDC recommended amount of exercise.

So, this is PACE™. It’s an easy way of looking at four incredibly important areas of life and diagnosing where we are in each area. The goal, unless you have mastered it all, is to increase the levels or quality of each area. Obviously, I hear lots of pushback from people about how selfish or daunting it sounds to create a life of self-focus, doing lots of pleasurable activities and exercise and hanging with friends. I get that. I’m not saying that we will spend as much time in pleasurable activities as we do in accomplishment during the majority of our adult years. And I know that it might seem overwhelming to think of figuring out how to fit all of this in. But I promise you that it is not only possible, it’s also enjoyable. Once you figure out how to have meaningful connection, an assortment of accomplishments, productive exercise, and activities you enjoy, your quality of life will increase. If you really want to dive in and analyze your levels of PACE™, I have a questionnaire that helps you look at where your life is thriving and where you fall short.

I want to leave you with a story of what PACE™ looks like in action. I saw a woman I will call Emily several years ago. By the way, all my cases are altered to protect the identities of the people I worked with. And, especially with this case, it could be one of a dozen I’ve seen like this in the past several years. Emily was a stay-at-home mother of two daughters, ages 6 and 9. She came in for intense anger at her husband, and was trying to decide whether or not to stay with him. She felt alone. He worked long hours and was passionate about golf. So, even when he had time off, he insisted on using golf to reduce stress and to network with clients. And my client was tired of it. She knew that he would be forced to spend quality time with the kids if they divorced because he would have part-time custody.

So just to be clear, my client blamed her husband for her current angry state. And, we can all relate to how unfair the story sounds; she’s alone raising kids that they both agreed to have. As we moved forward, I got a good history from Emily about her life. Since having her kids, she had put on 25 pounds and didn’t like her body. Because of this, she didn’t like having sex. She sometimes even made up problems to avoid sex. She didn’t see friends as much because of the kids and their after-school activities. She had started drinking more in the evening to relieve stress, but it made her lazy and added to her weight gain.

So, given that I can only treat the person in front of me, I got to work with Emily fixing her problems instead of fixing her husband’s priorities.

I asked her to give up alcohol and sugar, join a gym, go on walks with friends instead of meeting for lunches. She got more organized and intentional in her life. She got a sitter and went out with other moms once or twice a month. She got back into reading, which she had given up when the kids were little. She took a few online cooking classes when the girls were in school so she could develop healthier eating habits. She realized she loved cooking and she was good at it. Little by little, she started losing weight. Once she started feeling better about her body and was more active, she actually wanted sex more. Once the sex got more regular, her sense of intimacy with her husband increased.

You can see where I’m going with this. Emily fixed all the shit in her own life—and then she wasn’t so angry or blame-filled with her husband. Once she liked her own body and was more clear-headed and seeing friends and doing things she enjoyed, she was happier. And, by the way, once she was happier and feeling and looking better, her husband seemed to be around more often. She was the one who actually said to me, “Isn’t it funny that I was so mad at my husband for so long? He works so much to take care of us. And he golfs because he needs something after his long hours in the office. I don’t know why I used to be so mad.” My jaw dropped, as you can imagine. It was one of the first times I got total clarity that what we are all supposed to be doing is fixing the person in the mirror first.

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