“Nothing can dim the light which shines from within.” ― Maya Angelou
I’ve been volunteering as a counselor for underprivileged kids for the better part of my adulthood. One of the very first kids I worked with, nearly 17 years ago, was a boy who came to see me on an afternoon when he was extremely upset. After sitting with him and listening to his story, I drew him a sketch of a superhero on the front of an index card and wrote a note beside the sketch about how he is a superhero and that superheroes always rise up and win in the end. Then on the back of the index card, in the simplest words I could think of, I listed seven timeless strategies that would help him regroup and activate his super powers when he needed them most.
I randomly ran into this same boy again this morning as I walked past the local fire station. He’s now a 28-year-old fire fighter. He recognized me and ran up to me to say hello. We chatted for a half hour about everything under the sun, and then before we parted ways he took his wallet out of his pocket and pulled out the superhero index card I made for him when he was a kid. He held it up so I could see it, smiled from ear to ear and said, “Thank you.”
Today, in slightly more mature words, I want to revisit the seven strategies I wrote down on the back of that index card. Because these are healthy reminders, for all of us:
1. Decide to be OK with NOT being OK all the time.
Even though it’s true that life’s challenges make us stronger, and that it will be OK eventually… it’s not always OK right now, and sometimes that’s all we can feel when we’re in the midst of terribly tough times. Sometimes NOT being OK is all we can register inside our tired brains and aching hearts. This feeling is normal. This emotion is human. And accepting this can feel like a small weight lifted.
The truth is, it’s not OK when someone you care about is no longer living and breathing and giving their amazing gifts to the world. It’s not OK when everything falls apart and you’re buried deep in the wreckage of a life you had planned for. It’s not OK when the bank account is nearly at zero, with no clear sign of a promising income opportunity. It’s not OK when someone you trusted betrays you and breaks your heart. It’s not OK when you’re emotionally drained to the point you can’t get yourself out of bed in the morning. It’s not OK when you’re engulfed in failure or shame or a grief like you’ve never known before.
Whatever your tough times consist of, sometimes it’s just NOT OK right now. And that, again, is more than OK.
Yes, I’m suggesting to try your hardest to be perfectly OK with not being perfectly OK all the time. Because those with the strength to succeed in the long run are the ones who lay a firm foundation of growth with the bricks life has thrown at them. Don’t be afraid to fall apart for a little while, because when it happens, the situation will open an opportunity for you to grow and rebuild yourself into the brilliant human being you are capable of being, one brick at a time.
2. Focus only on today.
No matter what’s happening, you can resourcefully fight the battles of just one day. It’s only when you add the battles of those two mind-bending eternities, yesterday and tomorrow, that life gets overwhelmingly intense and complicated.
Accept that it’s not the experience of today that holds you back and drives you mad, but the regret and resentment about something that happened yesterday or the fear and dread of what tomorrow might bring, but probably won’t. It’s necessary, then, to let yourself live just one day at a time – just today – just right here, right now.
And this same strategy applies to your goals too – they don’t need to be so darn grandiose and convoluted that they frighten you. If your goals excite you, and are broken down into manageable chunks, you’ll be compelled to move forward with them. If they are based on what brings meaning into your life, not just what you think you “should” do, working on them will flow easier into each new day.
3. Realize that one tiny step is all you ever need to take.
It really only takes a small shift everyday that over time amounts to enormous change.
People don’t suddenly heal and start living their ideal life overnight – their daily rituals (tiny steps) play a massive role in making it possible for them to create the life they sincerely want to live.
You can choose to develop daily rituals that point you in the direction of creating your ideal life – or rituals that keep you firmly anchored to your present situation. Make the decision. Make the commitment. Then take the next tiniest step forward in the direction you choose to go.
Honestly, that’s all life is – tiny, positive steps that you take moment by moment, and then one day when you look back it all adds up to something worthwhile – something that’s often far better, and different, than what you had imagined when you began your journey.
4. Remind yourself that few things in life are as personal as they seem.
After a couple decades of intentional soul searching, I finally figured out that there’s absolutely no benefit to holding on to anger, resentment or any of their close cousins. Truthfully, I would not be the human being I am today if it weren’t for each and every life experience I’ve had. And the same is true for you.
Screwing up, making mistakes, and letting people down occasionally isn’t wrong – it’s being human.
When I realized this truth, and accepted it, I opened my awareness to the fact that not everything, or perhaps even anything, that anyone else ever does is about me.
Think about the last time you were unkind to someone. Was it because of them, or because of you? Perhaps you were just having a bad day at the time, right?
Truth be told, if someone hurts you, chances are they have been hurt themselves. So do your very best to never take anything too personally. Don’t let vain insults get to your heart. Most human beings can only give others what they have received themselves. All of your actions and intentions should come from a place of love, but not everyone will be loving in return, and that’s perfectly OK.
As Miguel Ruiz explained in his book The Four Agreements, when you do not take anything personally, you liberate yourself. You can open yourself to the world, freely, and not have to worry about the judgments of others.
5. Create healthy space for yourself away from external negativity.
It doesn’t matter if it’s your dad, sister, cousin, friend or coworker that’s spewing negativity at you, if they are bringing you down on a daily basis, you need to spend less time with them. No, this doesn’t mean you have to exile them from your life – it simply means you can choose to carve out time away from them, to reclaim some positivity and sanity.
There’s a big difference between accepting that someone’s negative actions or behavior is born from a place of anxiety or insecurity versus excusing their behavior and therefore enabling it to continue relentlessly in your life.
We don’t have to condone a person’s negative behavior toward us, even though we may be compassionate, loving and understanding of its origins.
At some point we all have to be accountable for our own wellbeing. And quite honestly, if someone decides to lash out at you again and again, you’re not obligated to be a punching bag.
Also, keep in mind that differing opinions are a part of life and relationships. But when we come across people who are intent on delivering harsh criticism from the sidelines, sometimes we just have to tell ourselves that we may not be doing it perfectly in their eyes, but hey, at least we’re stepping up and doing it. At least we’re getting up, showing up, walking into that darn arena every day and turning to face the crowd, shouting: “Here I am, trying my best! I’m a work in progress and I’m OK with it!”
6. Make sure you’re only seeking support from the right sources.
Think for a moment… If you were craving pizza, would you go to a Japanese sushi bar? No! Because you know they don’t serve pizza at a Japanese sushi bar. In fact, they wouldn’t even have the right ingredients to make a pizza even if they were willing to customize a special order for you. If you really wanted pizza, you would simply go to an Italian restaurant that serves it, right?
Now think about the people you go to when you’re craving support, reassurance, guidance, healthy feedback, or simply a loving, listening ear. Do you go to people who are consistently able to dish out what you are hungry for? Or do you go to people who don’t have what you need on their menu, and thus find yourself endlessly discouraged and disappointed?
Bottom line: It’s time to align your hunger with where you dine.
7. Choose an attitude that moves you forward.
The Greek philosopher Epictetus said it perfectly more than 2,000 years ago: “People are disturbed, not by things (that happen to them), but by the principles and opinions which they form concerning (those) things. When we are hindered, or disturbed, or grieved, let us never attribute it to others, but to ourselves; that is, to our own principles and opinions.”
In other words, a peaceful, mentally strong person is not a person who’s always in a good situation, but rather a person who always has a good attitude in every situation.
Regardless of what you’re going though, it’s about choosing: Will I allow this to upset me? Will I choose to make this bad or good? Will I choose to stay or walk away? Will I choose to yell or whisper? Will I choose to react or take the time to mindfully respond?
When our course students come to us feeling down about a life situation they can’t control, we typically start by reinforcing the hard truth: sometimes changing your situation isn’t possible – or simply not possible soon enough. You can’t get to a new job in an instant. You can’t make someone else change against his or her will. And you certainly can’t erase the past. But…
You CAN always choose an attitude that moves you forward. And doing so will help you change things from the inside out, and ultimately allow you to grow beyond the struggles you can’t control.