A Life Of Arbitrary Numbers

As a recent training I was on wrapped up, my small group had our last call together and our group leader asked us to do an exercise where we had to share a word that described our experience of each member of the group.

The person being described had to show up on the web-cam then one by one we would share our cameras and tell the person what we had seen in them over the past few months.

Setting aside the total “Didn’t you realise I’m British and we don’t do that kind of thing’ uncomfortableness of the whole thing, it ended up being a beautiful and touching exercise.

But what surprised me when we finished was the feeling that, actually, having spent nine months working alongside these people, I hadn’t actually got to know any of them except one very well at all.

Later that evening, I resolved I ‘really needed to take some time out to cultivate more and deeper friendships with people’.

And the person I shared this with said one very simple statement and I suddenly saw something new.

He said ‘I don’t have many friends, and I don’t consider that to be a problem at all’.


Again that realization that comes across me more and more on this journey of simplicity:

“I didn’t realise that was even an option.”

That settled in overnight and this morning I realised just how much of my life (and I’m guessing I’m not alone here) is ruled by arbitrary numbers.

“I should have x number of y, otherwise I’m not living the way I should/doing what I need to be happy.”

Just take a moment to reflect and you’ll start to notice….

And sometimes we’re not even aware exactly what x is, we just get a feeling when we’ve dipped below/above that number.

I should have (a certain number but it’s definitely greater than four) really great friends who know me inside out and I can call on at any time. Less than four means I’m a loser.

This number on the scales is OK, but this number means I’m an undisciplined fat cow with no will power.

My husband should tell me he loves me at least once a week. Less than that means he doesn’t love me.

I must have 8 hours of sleep a night and 6 hours means I can’t possibly function at my best.

I should spend three hours of quality time with my kids each day. Thirty minutes means ‘I am a bad mother’.

If I look at a particular bank account and there’s £5000 in there that’s OK. If there’s £4,999 I should start to worry

I can charge £12,000 for my coaching program but £15,000 is out of my comfort zone.

My daughter has to get 85% on her tests at school. If she gets 84% she won’t get the school she wants and her whole life will be ruined.

I can be five minutes late, but if I’m ten it’s rude.

I can drive 24 minutes away from my house but 25 is ‘too far to get back if I get a migraine’.

The ratio of how often I mop the kitchen floor to how often my husband mops the kitchen floor must be 3:1. 4:1 is definitely not on.

I should have to tell my kids to pick up their socks no more than twice each time. Three times means ‘my kids are rude, I’m a crap parent, no-one appreciates me’.

Driving at 60 miles an hour is OK, but 65 scares the crap out of me.

I could go on.

If I felt there was a number of examples I ‘should’ give you.

I saw there were literally hundreds of place I make up a number that ‘should’ happen and throw my toys out of the pram/ feel bad about myself/ blame others when it doesn’t.

I was reminded of the totally arbitrary nature of the numbers we choose when one person in a group I was in last week shared that she was terrified of public speaking. She didn’t mind sharing in the group we were in because ‘there were only ten of us’. Her friend pointed out there were actually thirteen in the room and that totally freaked her out.

It’s not that we have certain numbers and need to adjust them up or down.

I remember doing an exercise back in my NLP-loving days to ‘turn up my money thermostat’.

My income had been hovering around a certain point for a while and I realised that I had a certain number I wasn’t comfortable to go above – so any time I went near this number, I would pull back on business, or spend a load of money to bring me back to a place where I felt comfortable again.

So we did a visualization exercise and I mentally cranked up my money thermostat – and it kind of worked.

If you notice somedays the number of friends we ‘need’ is ten. Somedays we don’t care at all.

Somedays £5000 looks like it’s more than enough. Sometimes it looks like we need to do something to get more.

Sometimes four hours of sleep seems un-live-able-on. Back when my babies were small my mantra was ‘give me four hours and I’ll be fine’.

I have a client who (sometimes) believes his well-being varies in direct relationship to the number of facebook likes he’s had that week.

What I saw this morning was how totally arbitrary our numbers are, and the meanings we give them.

It’s ALL made up.

It’s not that I need to ‘increase the number of friends I have’.

It’s not realizing ‘I don’t need any friends and I’m still OK’.

It’s not about changing the limits.

It’s seeing that we made up a number at all.

Oh. I didn’t know we did that.

Everywhere I looked I started to see the numbers I had made up and as I saw each one they started to vanish.

We create our own suffering though thought.

And when we see that those numbers are illusory, the suffering just goes ‘poof” and vanishes.

Leaving us limitless and able to go weigh what we weigh, have the friends that we have and mop the floor as many times as it needs to be mopped.


There goes another whole chunk of ‘working on myself’ that just disappeared 🙂

2 thoughts on “A Life Of Arbitrary Numbers”

  1. Great post! How fascinating and how lovely that you have brought in so many ideas of how it applies in daily life. too many crumbs on the floor means I’m a failure, etc. And so what does one do to cover up, to protect from that “Failure” feeling, when one doesn’t have an easy solution? Bash someone else’s boundaries? Panic? Feel like a nothing? All because of one crumb too many, one dish unwashed too soon, one job not yet found? or we hold back from being mean but exhaust ourselves in the effort. “What if it doesn’t mean that”.

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