The human experience is filled with love, passion, creativity, joy, connection, compassion, laughter… and the taste of chocolate. But because we as human beings learn, evolve and grow through life’s ups and downs, our experience also includes plenty of difficult situations that round us out.
The key is to not let life’s difficult situations get the best of you.
Think about the most gut-wrenching situations you’ve endured in your life. Doing so likely brings up some very uncomfortable feelings. And the associated memories may stir anxiety, anger or sadness, and thus, may continue to quietly affect the quality of your life. This is a predicament many of us face.
Now imagine how you would feel if you were able to get over these feelings. By “get over” I mean no longer suffering over something that happened in the distant past. I know this is possible because Angel and I have both personally come to peace with extremely difficult, heartbreaking situations, and we’ve witnessed hundreds of our course students do the same.
So what are the secrets? Here’s what works for us…
1. Practice noticing, and then letting go of, your ideals.
When a difficult situation from your past stirs anxiety, anger, sadness, and so forth, it means there’s some ideal you’re attached to that’s triggering your suffering. It can be tough to notice this ideal at first, but with practice you can see it with ease. If you’re sad, for example, there’s an ideal situation you yearn for, and are holding on to, that doesn’t match reality. Perhaps a family member did something hurtful to you – you are sad because (ideally) this person shouldn’t hurt you. But this ideal – even if it makes sense – is NOT helping you, it’s hurting you. If you want the past to be different than it is, you’ll be sad or angry or anxious for the rest of your life. Noticing what you’re holding on to is the first step.
The second step is letting the ideal go. While it may be impossible to completely relinquish yourself from fantasizing about all your ideals, if you see that a particular ideal is causing you to suffer, you can make a conscious choice to let it go. Sure, in an ideal world your family would never hurt you, but again, that’s not reality. Letting go of this ideal means embracing the reality that every family member you have is a human being, and human beings sometimes make terrible mistakes. There’s nothing ideal about it, but that’s the truth, and it must be accepted.
Peace of mind in the long run is about allowing yourself to be perfectly OK with “what is,” rather than wishing for and worrying about “what is not.” “What is” is what’s real – the rest is just you, arguing with life.
2. Release your judgments.
It’s impossible to get over a difficult situation – to let it go – if you’re still obsessively judging what happened. Let’s revisit one of those gut-wrenching situations from your past again – choose one that still stirs negative emotions. And then ask yourself:
- Do you believe it should not have happened at all?
- Do you believe the outcome should have been different?
- Do you take what happened personally?
- Do you blame someone else for what happened?
- Do you blame yourself?
- Do you believe the situation is impossible to get over?
If you caught yourself thinking “yes” to one or more of those questions, then what’s prolonging your suffering and preventing you from getting over it is judgment. Your judgments about what happened in the past continue to keep the situation present in your mind, and thus, it continues to impact your daily life.
Now you may be thinking, “What happened was unbelievably horrible – I can’t conceive of ever getting over it!” But releasing your judgment does not mean you’re pleased with what happened, or that you support it, but rather that you are eliminating the negative burden you’re carrying by perpetually judging it.
When you let go of your negative judgments, you automatically replace the victim mentality with acceptance and presence. And acceptance and presence together will free your mind. (Angel and I show how in the “Adversity” chapter of 1,000 Little Things Happy, Successful People Do Differently.)
3. 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 Getting Back to Happy.)
4. Do something small for someone else – make them the center of your universe for a little while.
You are not the center of the universe, and yet when you’re overwhelmed with a difficult life situation, it’s easy to feel like you are.
I think we all have the occasional tendency to put ourselves at the center, and see everything from the viewpoint of how it affects us. But 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.
Let me give you a personal example…
This morning I was faced with the reality of rejection – an opportunity I applied for was not decided in my favor. At first I felt terrible – I felt a familiar feeling of not being good enough. But I caught myself and shifted my focus. Instead of ruminating over my disappointment, I thought about other people I might help – I thought about writing a new blog post on marcandangel.com. Finding little ways to help others snaps me out of my self-centered thinking, and then I’m not wallowing in self-pity anymore – I’m starting to think about what others need. I’m not second-guessing myself, because the question of whether I’m good enough or not is no longer the central question. The central question now is about how I can give back. And writing on marcandangel.com is my go-to way of giving back.
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.
So I followed suit again this morning – 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’re reading now. I sincerely hope you benefit from it in some small way.
The Power of Your Response
If there’s one thing the four strategies – or secrets – above have in common, it’s the importance of responding to life’s difficulties more effectively. When you can let go of your ideals, judgments, and self-pity parties, you give yourself the space required to respond to life’s difficult situations more effectively… and that changes everything.
And this applies to everyday difficulties too, not just life’s larger scale catastrophes. For example, when my 2-year-old son, Mac, dumped his dinner plate on the floor last night, I could have gotten upset (“He knows better and he shouldn’t do that!”) and scream (not effective at all), or I could have done exactly what I did and simply let go of that ideal – that judgment – and the resulting tension, and then calmly explain the situation to Mac while helping him clean it up (and yes he actually helped too). My response was indeed the more effective option.
Regardless of the situation at hand, when we respond in emotional haste and angst, we only compound our problems. Taking a deep breath, or ten, and responding calmly means we’re going to be able to better handle any difficult situation, whether it’s an emergency or the unexpected loss of a loved one or a 2-year-old’s belligerent misconducts.
Bottom line: You can’t control everything that happens (or everything that has happened), but you can control the way you respond. And in your response is your greatest power.
Which point above resonated with you the most, and why?
Anything else to share? We would love to hear from YOU.
Leave a comment below and share your thoughts and insights?