Napkin sketch

Once in a while, drawings on napkins can uncover the most profound life lessons. I’ve had a few game-changing napkin drawings in my day, and a particularly transformative one at Schlotzky’s Deli in Rogers, Arkansas.

2013 was an interesting year in my life. I was in the early stages of coming out, in a period of rapid growth at work, and I had an incredibly busy social life. But something wasn’t quite right – I felt restless, unsettled, and couldn’t put my finger on why.

I called my good friend and mentor, Stacey. Stacey had a long career in corporate America but became burned out on the rat race. She started her own leadership development and improvisational comedy practice, and helped people discover deeper meaning in life, and in themselves. I worked with Stacey for a few years, and we forged a deep and lasting friendship. Over time, she became the person I called on for advice, perspective, and guidance.

As I spilled my discontent and uneasiness over deli food, she began drawing a grid on a napkin. As I finished my tale of woe, she asked me if I had ever heard of the PEMS grid. I hadn’t.

Stacey explained to me that PEMS stands for Physical, Emotional, Mental and Spiritual – the four key dimensions of life. Most people feel at their best when they achieve a healthy balance of activity and stimulation in each dimension. She had me draw my own grid, and fill in the things I was doing in each category. My first PEMS grid looked something like this:

PEMS table

Seeing this meager PEMS grid on a napkin had a profound effect on me. I had neglected my physical dimension, and as a result I suffered from fatigue and sluggishness. My acuity stagnated without mental challenges, such as developing new skills and hobbies, solving complex problems, or actively pursuing growth. In my spiritual dimension, I attended church, but did so out of a desire to change my sexuality. Church became a place of spiritual death, rather than invigoration and clarity. I lacked joy, purpose, and meaning.

Understanding the PEMS grid helped me rethink how I spent my time and became a catalyst for change. I analyzed how I could build more activities and people into my life who develop and strengthen me, and made different choices about what I ate, what books I read, with whom I pursued relationships, and in what activities I participated.

Today, my PEMS grid has grown full and diverse, and I’m a much happier person. Here’s some of what my PEMS grid looks like today:

PEMS Grid The PEMS grid can be a valuable mental exercise to analyze how you spend your time. But it serves a deeper purpose: self-reflection. The most holistically healthy people constantly take the time to reflectively self-evaluate. Namely, they reflect on their thoughts, motivations, actions, outcomes, and emotions throughout the day, evaluate the kind of person they want to be, and modify their course if they feel they’ve strayed too far from their ideal self. According to research in psychological literature, awareness of the discrepancy between our current state and our ideal state is key to self-improvement. Without that awareness, we cannot clearly see the path to achieve our goals because we lack perspective about where we are.

If you see value in the PEMS grid, consider going through the practice of analyzing the fullness of each dimension in your life. Do you find balance, diversity, and holistic growth in your life? If something is off, might it indicate a gap in one of the dimensions? What can you do to better care for that part of you?

Take a napkin and draw out your own PEMS grid. Ask yourself tough questions about the gaps you see. Celebrate the vibrant dimensions. Reflect on where you want to focus your growth. Open yourself up to opportunity.

Self-reflection using the PEMS grid as a framework can help you cultivate health and holistic wellness in all areas of your life. Development in one dimension can and will impact the others – give it a try and see where it leads you!

Gay personal trainer