Maybe it’s the life lessons I was forced to learn the hard way, or the toll of loss and failure I had recently endured, but fifteen years ago, in the midst of a panic attack on my 27th birthday, I had to admit to myself right then and there that the youthful world of possibility I once felt now seemed dead inside me. I wanted to feel light and free and ambitious and passionate again, but I didn’t know how. Luckily, I had a wise mother nearby who gave me some good advice. She told me that she could still see a positive, passionate young man inside of me, but that I needed to do some soul searching to reconnect myself to him.
As I attempted to follow my mother’s advice, I remembered that I used to have two quotes written on post-it notes hanging on my bedroom wall when I was a kid:
- “Accept what is, let go of what was, and have faith in your journey.”
- “Don’t be scared to walk alone down the path less traveled, and don’t be scared to love every minute of it.”
So I wrote those two quotes down again, just as I remembered them, and posted them up on the wall over my nightstand. I woke up to these quotes every morning for several years thereafter, and they helped keep me centered.
I also took tiny steps, day in and day out, until I knew I was finally moving down the right path again. For anyone else who feels stuck and without a real sense of how to take the next step forward, I offer the following suggestions. They are actionable lessons that kept me moving forward when I decided it was time for a change. And although these strategies are based on my personal experiences, they’ve now also been vetted by their extensive use in hundreds of two-on-one coaching sessions that Angel and I have administered with our course students and coaching clients over the years. Perhaps they will help you too.
1. Practice thinking better about yourself.
You have to admit, you’ve spent a lot of your life subconsciously belittling yourself. Thinking you’re not enough. Trying to be someone else. Someone who fits in. Someone who’s less sensitive. Less needy. Less flawed. Less YOU. Because you felt broken, and you didn’t want to scare people away. You wanted them to like you. You wanted to make a good impression. You wanted to be seen as worthy and lovable. So you could feel healed and whole.
And so for the longest time, behind a facade of fake smiles, you have inadvertently betrayed yourself for the purpose of pleasing everyone else.
And for longest time, your heart has ached.
But you’re at a point now where you’re seeing things differently. The heartache just isn’t worth it anymore. Belittling yourself for one more day just doesn’t make any sense. And more than that, you now realize no matter what you do or how you change, some people will never be pleased anyway.
You now realize you have to start doing things for the right reasons.
Not because it’s what you think everyone else needs, but because you finally know yourself to be worthy of your own love and care.
Not because other people approve of you, but because you are breathing your own air, thinking your own thoughts, and occupying a space no one else ever could.
Yes, you are indeed worthy! Your ideas are worthy. Your feelings are worthy. Your needs are worthy. And without everyone else’s constant validation, you must be who you are and live your truth. Even if it makes people turn their heads. Even if it means walking alone down the path less traveled for awhile.
Even if your own confidence in yourself has been shaken!
The real battle is always in your mind. And your mind is under your control, not the other way around.
You may have been broken down by adversity or rejection or stress, but YOU are not broken. So don’t let others convince you otherwise. And don’t let your mind get the best of you either.
Heal yourself by refusing to belittle yourself.
Choose to take up a lot of positive space in your own life today. Choose to give yourself permission to meet your own needs. Choose to honor your feelings and emotions. Choose to make self-love and self-care a part of your daily rituals…
Choose to think better about yourself, so you can live better in spite of yourself.
2. Consciously embrace the fact that you are more than the one broken piece of you.
When times are tough, and some piece of you is chipped and broken, it’s easy to feel like everything – ALL of you – is broken along with it. But that’s not true.
We all have this picture in our minds of ourselves – this idea of what kind of person we are. When this idea gets even slightly harmed or threatened, we tend to react defensively and irrationally. People may question whether we did a good job, and this threatens our idea of being a competent person, so we become angry or hurt by the criticism. Someone falsely accuses us of something and this damages our idea that we’re a good person, and so we get angry and attack the other person, or we cower and cry. And the list goes on.
But the craziest thing is, oftentimes we are actually the ones harming and threatening ourselves with negativity and false-accusations…
Just this morning I was struggling to motivate myself to work on a new creative project I’ve been procrastinating on, so my identity of myself as someone who’s always productive and motivated and has great ideas suddenly came under attack. When I realized I wasn’t getting things done, it made me feel terribly self-conscious and upset because I began subconsciously worrying that I wasn’t who I thought I was. I felt like a slacker.
My solution was to realize that I’m not just one thing. I’m not always productive – sometimes I am, but sometimes I’m unproductive too. I’m not always motivated – sometimes I am, but other times I’m a bit lazy. And obviously I don’t always have great ideas either – because that’s impossible.
The truth is, I can be many things, and remembering this helps me stretch my identity so it’s not so fragile – so it doesn’t completely shatter when a small piece of it gets chipped. Then it doesn’t matter if someone occasionally thinks I didn’t do a good job, or if I sometimes catch myself not doing a good job – because I don’t always do a good job.
I make mistakes.
I am less than perfect.
Just like YOU.
And that’s perfectly OK.
3. Change, evolve, and start over when you must.
“Starting over is not an option!”
Unfortunately, that’s a lie many of us hold on to until the bitter end.
The idea of starting over being a bad thing is baked right into the fabric of our society’s education system. We send our children to a university when they’re 17 or 18, and basically tell them to choose a career path they’ll be happy with for the next 40 years. “But, what if I choose wrong?” I remember thinking to myself. And that’s exactly what I did, in more ways than one.
Over the years, however, through bouts of failure and hardship, I’ve learned the truth through experience: you can change paths anytime you want to, and oftentimes it’s absolutely necessary that you do.
Yes, starting over and making substantial changes in your life is almost always feasible. Of course, it won’t be easy, but neither is being stuck with a lifelong career you naively chose when you were a teenager. And neither is holding on to something that’s not meant to be, or something that’s already gone.
The truth is, no one wins a game of chess by only moving forward; sometimes you have to move backward to put yourself in a position to win. And this is a perfect metaphor for life. Sometimes when it feels like you’re running into one dead end after another, it’s actually a sign that you’re not on the right path. Maybe you were meant to hang a left back when you took a right, and that’s perfectly fine. Life gradually teaches us that U-turns are allowed. So turn around when you must! There’s a big difference between giving up and starting over in the right direction. And there are three little words that can release you from your past mistakes and regrets, and get you back on track. These words are: “From now on…”
So… from now on, what should you do?
Anything. Something small. As long as you don’t just sit in your seat, strapped down to a destiny that isn’t yours. If you mess it up, start over. Try something else.
Let go and grow!
No doubt, one of the absolute hardest lessons in life is letting go – whether it’s guilt, anger, love or loss. Change is never easy – you fight to hold on and you fight to let go. But letting go is generally the healthiest path forward. It clears out toxic thoughts and choices from the past and paves the way to make the most positive use of the present. You’ve got to emotionally free yourself from some of the things that once meant a lot to you, so you can move beyond the past and the pain it brings you. Again, it takes hard work to let go and refocus yourself, but it’s worth every bit of effort you can muster!
And oftentimes letting go is strictly about changing the labels you place on a situation – it’s looking at the same situation with fresh eyes and an open mind, and then making the best of it.
It’s thinking better about the past and present, and then building small, life-changing daily rituals so you can start over again, and live better going forward. (Angel and I build small, life-changing daily rituals with our students in the “Goals and Growth” module of the Getting Back to Happy Course.)
4. Let go of the things you don’t need.
Eventually, most of us end up settling in some part of our life. We let go of certain ideals and dreams, we compromise, and we make trade-offs. We gradually learn that we can’t have everything we want, because not every outcome in life can be perfectly controlled. But if we pay close attention, we also learn that we can make the best of every outcome, and still get a lot of what we want in life, if we manage our time, energy and attitude appropriately.
And these realizations collectively lead to an interesting question:
When should you settle, or compromise, and when should you continue fighting hard for what you ideally want to achieve?
There is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question, but when you encounter a situation that forces you to choose between compromise and fighting forward against the opposition, it might help to also ask yourself:
“Do I really need this, or do I just kinda want it?”
Being able to distinguish needs from wants is essential in every walk of life. Never let go of an outcome you truly need in your life, but be reasonably flexible on the outcomes you want but could live fine without.
In other words, choose your battles wisely, and don’t let “perfect” become the enemy of “great.” Remind yourself that what you pay attention to grows. So focus on what really matters and let go of what does not.
Don’t give up 50% of your life working 50-hour weeks at a day job that makes you absolutely miserable. Don’t abandon your sanity for the wrong reasons. Don’t neglect lifelong goals and dreams that have withstood the tests of time, and still bring incredible meaning into your life.
If you really need something, fight hard for it!
But for everything else, let go a little. Loosen your grip, compromise… settle.
Settle on less of the unessential, to get more of what you really need and want in life.
5. Accept and embrace daily discomfort, for the right reasons.
Discomfort is a form of pain, but it isn’t a deep pain – it’s a shallow one. It’s the feeling you get when you’ve stepped outside your comfort zone. The idea of exercising in many people’s minds, for example, brings discomfort – so they don’t do it. Eating a spinach and kale salad brings discomfort too. So does meditating, or focusing on a difficult task, or saying “no” to others. Of course, these are just examples, because different people find discomfort in different things, but you get the general idea.
The key thing to understand is that most forms of discomfort actually help us grow into our strongest and smartest selves. However, many of us were raised by loving parents who did so much to make our childhoods comfortable, that we inadvertently grew up to subconsciously believe that we don’t need discomfort in our lives. And now we run from it constantly. The problem with this is that, by running from discomfort, we are constrained to partake in only the activities and opportunities within our comfort zones. And since our comfort zones are relativity small, we miss out on most of life’s greatest and healthiest experiences, and we get stuck in a debilitating cycle.
Let’s use diet and exercise as an example…
- First, we become unhealthy because eating healthy food and exercising feels uncomfortable, so we opt for comfort food and mindless TV watching instead.
- But then, being unhealthy is also uncomfortable, so we seek to distract ourselves from the reality of our unhealthy bodies by eating more unhealthy food and watching more unhealthy entertainment and going to the mall to shop for things we don’t really want or need. And our discomfort just gets worse.
Amazingly, the simple act of accepting a little discomfort every day, and taking it one small step at a time, can solve most of our common problems, and make our minds happier, healthier and stronger in the long run.
But, again, it’s hard – really, really hard sometimes! There is no person in the world capable of flawlessly handling every punch thrown at them. That’s not how we’re made. We’re made to get upset, sad, hurt, stumble and fall sometimes. Because that’s part of living – to face discomfort, learn from it, and adapt over the course of time. This is what ultimately molds us into the person we become.
So when you find yourself cocooned in isolation and cannot find your way out of the darkness, remember that this is similar to the place where caterpillars go to grow their wings. Just because today is uncomfortable and stressful, doesn’t mean tomorrow won’t be wonderful. You just got to get there.
6. Change your mantra from, “I have to be better,” to, “I will do my absolute best today.”
Goals are important. All journeys of change must begin with a goal. And you also must have determination in order to achieve your goals. However, what do you think happens when you are too determined, or too obsessed with a goal? You begin to nurture another belief: who you are right now is not good enough.
Years ago, I had become overly obsessive in my efforts to meditate. As my interest in meditation grew, I began to increasingly say to myself, “I am not good enough,” and, “I have to be better at this.” I began to notice various imperfections within myself that needed to be “fixed.”
My over-the-top efforts to meditate for extensive periods of time had opened the doors to lots of self-criticism and stress. Thankfully, however, I realized that my obsession toward meditation had made me forget one of the basic objectives of meditation – self-acceptance.
So the bottom line is this: you have to accept yourself as you are, and then commit to personal growth. If you think you are absolutely “perfect” already, you will not make any positive efforts to grow. But constantly criticizing yourself is just as counterproductive as doing nothing, because you will never be able to build new positive changes into your life when you’re obsessively focused on your flaws.
The key is to remind yourself that you already are good enough; you just need more practice. Change your mantra from, “I have to be better,” to, “I will do my absolute best today.” The second mantra is far more effective because it actually prompts you to take positive action every day while simultaneously accepting the reality that every effort may not be perfect.
7. Be mindful.
Mindfulness as a daily ritual is the ultimate challenge and practice. It’s a way of living, of being, of seeing, of tapping into the full power of your humanity.
Ready to get started?
It’s simple, but far from easy. Practice…
- Being aware of what’s happening in the present moment without wishing it were different
- Enjoying each pleasant experience without holding on when it changes (which it will)
- Being with each unpleasant experience without fearing it will always be this way (which it won’t)
Ritualize this kind of mindfulness into your daily routines, and you will undoubtedly change the way you spend the rest of your life. (Angel and I discuss this in more detail in the “Happiness” chapter of our “1,000 Little Things…” book.)
8. Find something to be grateful for in the present moment, despite the situation.
Happiness doesn’t always make us grateful, but gratitude always helps us smile. Some may say that’s a cliché, but it’s not. Gratitude is the foundation. And happiness is simply the sacred experience of living with a genuinely grateful heart.
Expressing gratitude is so simple though, right? How could it possibly make that big of a difference?
Yes, being grateful seems simple enough, but a grateful state of mind is unbelievably hard to maintain when life disappoints us. And that’s the kicker – when we’re feeling down and disappointed, that’s exactly when a dose of gratitude is most powerful.
So what’s the best approach?
Being grateful starts with being present. You can’t appreciate your life when you’re not paying attention to it. And the truth is, we make our present situations much worse when we replay difficult past situations in our heads (“How could she possibly have done that to me?”), or when we ruminate over all the situations that might be problematic in the future (“What if he cheats on me?”). In the present moment, our real situation is rarely as convoluted as we make it out to be. And we can meet this moment with grace and gratitude, if we can truly stay in the present.
When our mind drifts into the past or speculates about the future, we must do our best to catch ourselves, and then refocus mindfully back on the present. Once we’re back, the key is to accept the moment as it is. Our reality can ruin us if we deny it and fight it … or we can accept it for what it is, be grateful for it, and gradually make the best of it. This takes practice, of course, because gratitude tends to escape us when we feel let down. But this is the real world, not an ideal world. And your reality always contains a silver lining of beauty, if you choose to see it.
For Angel and me, working through life’s difficulties has grown significantly easier for us in recent times. Instead of focusing on how arduous everything is, we have ritualized the practice of gratitude into our lives, and we use our gratitude rituals to find glimmers of hope and joy in the small steps of progress we make every day. (Angel and I build small, life-changing daily rituals like this with our students in the “Goals and Growth” module of the Getting Back to Happy Course.)
9. Do something small for someone else – make them the center of your universe for a little while.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, sometimes we all have the tendency to put ourselves at the center of the universe, and see everything from the viewpoint of how it affects us. And this can have all kinds of adverse effects, from feeling sorry for ourselves when things aren’t going exactly as planned, to doubting ourselves when we aren’t perfect, to feeling lost and alone with our issues when we’re having a bad day or going through hard times.
So whenever I catch myself lingering at the center in an adverse state of mind, I do my best to briefly shift my focus, away from my own issues, and onto other people around me that I might be able to help. Finding little ways to help others gets me out of my self-centered thinking, and then I’m not wallowing alone in self-pity anymore – I’m starting to think about what others need. I’m not doubting myself, because the question of whether I’m good enough or not is no longer the central question. The central question now is about what others need.
Thus, thinking about others instead of oneself helps solve feelings self-consciousness and inadequacy, which in turn makes you feel a lot less broken and alone when you’re struggling to move your life forward.
It’s one of life’s great paradoxes: when we serve others we end up benefiting as much if not more than those we serve. So whenever you feel a bit lost or stuck with your own issues, try to shift your focus from your circumstances to the circumstances of those around you. Instead of asking, “What’s wrong with me?” ask, “How can I help you?” Find someone who could use an extra hand and make a small, reasonable offer they can’t refuse. The perspective you gain from doing so will guide you forward.
Angel and I initially developed this strategy in our lives over a decade ago as we were struggling with the near simultaneous loss of two loved ones. It was really hard to find motivation when we didn’t think we had the strength to push forward – when we felt downright horrible and sorry for ourselves. But we took one small step every day – oftentimes just writing a short blog post to share some lessons learned with others who might find our stories and insights helpful – and it felt good, and we gradually got stronger.
This morning, as I caught myself struggling with some inner conflicts, I followed suit again – I took a small step forward… just turning on my laptop, opening up a new document, and writing a single sentence. Such an action is so small as to seem insignificant, and yet so easy as to be possible when I was feeling down. And it showed me the next step was possible, and the next. And the end result is this blog post you’ve just finished reading. I sincerely hope you’ve benefited from it in some small way.
What else would you add to the list? What’s one hard thing you do that has helped you move your life forward? Leave a comment below and share your thoughts.
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