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.
Also, if you haven’t done so already, be sure to sign-up for our free newsletter to receive new articles like this in your inbox each week.
The first two points of this post really rocked my world today. I know you’ve mentioned these points in previous posts and emails, but today they really hit me hard. Maybe it’s because I started your Getting Happy course a couple weeks ago, and after our coaching call I’ve been truly hooked on the daily ritual of challenging my negative biases and self-judgments. The battle is absolutely in my mind, and I’m already learning to ease the tension. I’ve been able to catch myself in the act of victimizing myself as a broken person, as you’ve said, and then change my focus to recent examples from my life where that’s absolutely not been true. In a nutshell, I’ve already found a decent level of success with leveraging some of the tools you’ve taught me shift my focus to the opposite of the negative thought I’m stuck on, and then finding a least some truth in that opposite. Doing so brings healthy perspective to my otherwise unhealthy, momentary mind-funk.
Jason Daily says
I always say it, but your emails just seem to arrive in my gmail at the right time. The link to this post is one I’ve already Evernote queue to re-read and reference. I feel like it’s a great highlight of some of the key concepts I’ve learned form you and grown to appreciate. The daily practice of number 8 is what I’ve found most valuable in recent times. Just taken my present circumstances for what they are–accepting them fully–so I can then make the very best of them.
Wendy M. says
I can relate to every point in this article, and the two comments already left above. Your point #6 about shifting “I have to be better,” to, “I will do my absolute best today” is a variation of something I picked up from your book a couple years ago. Doing this has been a game-changer for me in many ways. It’s helped me stop fighting against the things I can’t control, and start make the things I can control count.
Thank you for another solid read.
Margaret Holland says
Thank you Marc and Angel. These blogs are helping me to control my need for everything to be perfect in my house renovation. It’s been going on for 5 months and there has been a lot of delays and mistakes made. I am throwing blame around like confetti and pointing out everyone’s mistakes. Reading your blog reminds me to be kind to people who make mistakes as I make them too!!
#7 really hit home for me, be mindful of what’s going on be it conversation, location or situation . It became clear to me recently while on vacation. Instead of enjoying a quiet moment and relishing in the beauty of where I was I focused on thoughts, actions, a to do list, hardships on and on and on. The trip was over, certain memories remain, but most were regrets from not having allowed the experiences to take hold.
Thank you very much for this post today. One step at a time is good enough for me today.
This is absolutely brilliant advice !
I have the same sentiment as Jason Daily – your thoughtful articles seem to arrive in my inbox at the exact time I need to absorb these gems of wisdom + positivity the most. Thank you so much for what you do, so articulately. This is my favorite article so far. I will be sharing this with friends + family + referring to it often.
At the most difficult crossroad I’ve encountered in my life (points 3 and 6 are most resonant), you’re helping me find the will + strength to move forward with light + love + confidence.
Thank you !!! Keep up the meaningful work !
Tasnima Rahman says
Thank you for this inspirational post! It’s exactly what I need right now. I have recently slipped into a dark place and feel like I am drowning in negativity and self-loathing. It has left me stagnated and I am struggling to motivate myself though there are specific things I want to achieve. Your post has given me some focus and reminded me that I can at least take baby steps, just as long as I keep moving forward, otherwise I will be submerged in the darkness. I need to push my way out of this slump. Every gulp of air helps. Thanks again for your post.
James Doolin says
You both inspire me and give me strength to be the man I want to be.
For me was to ‘let go’ I have been struggling and having the hardest time in life to let go of a very abusive relationship. I have allowed myself to be severely abused and used and I have been so miserable because of it. I need to break free from this abuvise toxic relationship. I need to accept how it turned out to be, how is healthy to let go and how I can only do the best I can by taking one tiny step at a time
A simple thank you so much Marc and Angel for the real life testimonies I always benefit from every time read one of your emails or linked posts.
This is so helpful for me, accountability, reflection, taking chances, feeling love and appreciation toward yourself….
I, like many, have struggled through my life, some may say I’m young, but the tests, trials, obsticles, set backs, I’ve faced in my life make me feel old… I felt broken, insecure, lost, abandoned, alone, scared, angry. Then I did some reflecting, focused on what I felt my accomplishments were, asked friends and family what they valued in me as a person. I saw that what I felt might be failures or weakness, to some saw them as strengths. I found help by seeing a counselor who helped me further change my perspective. She helped me get closure with issues I’d been carrying around for far too long. Now I feel reborn. Ready to explore my found energy and confidence. I’m ready to be the best, constantly improving person I can be for me, my family, my friends, and complete strangers! This information just confirmed that I’m on the correct path to do just that. Thank you!
Jason Alvernaz says
This post is great and I think it can be applicable to a lot of different areas of life. I am currently going back to school as a non traditional student and the stress of the situation can sometimes be overwhelming. The mantra change that you mention is great. “I will do my absolute best today.” I find myself saying similar things to myself whenever I feel like everything is getting too much. I just tell myself to do the best that I can and the rest will fall in place. I think the information in this post is very helpful and useful for anyone struggling with stress from a variety of different life situations. Keep up the good writing.
Alain Portmann says
Marc, thank you very much for the insight and perspective in your article. Much appreciated. In my experience, all emotions are born from two sponsoring drivers – love or fear. Regret is an example of an emotion sponsored by fear. One of own moto’s in life around regret. “Regret is as useful and masturbating for chastity. Never regret anything because at one time it was exactly what you wanted. Instead, understand why you wanted it then and more importantly, understand if it makes you happy now. That self-knowledge is wisdom”
There was so much in this piece. I think the first major thought was to accept that I have taken the road less traveled and some times that makes you feel lonely and not good enough. i now that in may ways the way that I think, feel and act is so different form others and being different in this world is truly hard. walking alone and being yourself is not easy and being divorced makes it especially lonely. What I loved in the article is the power in the One Tiny Step that we need to take to go FORWARD. I start each day with a list of 10 gratitudes. Not always easy to think up new ones, but it forces me to be mindful and its a positive beginning. Then at other times of the day I ask Alexa to give me 15 minutes of time. This is my real challenge since I am practicing Hebrew and I really struggle to start. it. With a 15 minute window, I can begin and now that it’s only a short moment, that tiny step that says move forward. Once I can do 15 minutes I frequently can do another 15. I guess what I am really finding is that one tiny step pushes you forward when your mind, or body says no. It’s easy to stay put.
My other real challenge is in my inability to lose weight. Like the article states finding my discomfort is really a state of mind and I need always remind myself, how much do I really want to lose the weight? I’m comfortable where I am, I like who I am, and is the real reason I want to lose weight is because I think that someone will find me more appealing? It’s a tough questions for me, because I think that would be more attractive if I were thin, yet, the challenge at times seems useless at 66.
Personal battles that make us think, shape how we are and the need to move forward. Each day is a mere 15 minute positive start!!!
Great piece with lots of thank about.
Rachael Buchinsky says
All of those points apply to human living …the older you get, the more wise one can become….
I wasn’t expecting tears to start falling from eyes while reading this blog. Especially #1.
But it made me realize soooo much about life in general. Really appreciate you guys! Thank You!
Lana Jackson says
Marc and Angel, thank you so much for your blog, I always get so much from it.I am in a rough spot right now, Having to sell the house that we thought we would be in for the rest of our lives, that we have extensively renovated, to pay debts which we incurred, with nobody to blame but ourselves. I am also not well, suffering from ulcerative colitis which has been in a flare for almost 2 years, so I can’t leave the house (bathroom) unless absolutely necessary. These issues have caused me a lot of stress and heartache. I read your blog and it gives me new hope, and coping mechanisms, to continue on. I have also been practicing being grateful for what I do have, and the opportunities ahead of me, as well as thinking of ways that I can help others, or do something nice for those who have been there for me.
Seadimo Puna Gasennelwe-Gabakgore says
The negative self talk is exhausting and draining. Positive affirmations based on what you have been able to achieve in the past and reaching out to what the future holds…the potential for growth and change can keep one motivated and charged to so do and achieve far more than ever imagined….
WOW this was so helpful and delightful!!!!!!!!!!!! I really needed to hear this today. I will refer it every day. Best article ever!!!!!!!
Charlie Seymour Jr says
As always, your thoughts and insights are very helpful. Thank you!
overwhelming , mind blowing, confirmation !!! Thank you for existing. Would to interview you.