1. You need to start shifting your focus.
“I’m exhausted and so very tired of all the anxiety, negativity and stress. Too often my mind is consumed with draining thoughts, and every muscle in my body seems tense. It hurts. I don’t want to feel this way anymore. I don’t want to feel like I live in a whirlwind of constant pressure and exhaustion. I don’t want to just ‘get by’ day to day…”
You may not be responsible for everything that happened to you in the past, or everything that’s happening to you right now, but you need to be responsible for undoing the thinking patterns these circumstances create. It’s about thinking better so you can ultimately live better.
The key is to understand that no matter what happens, you can choose your response, which dictates pretty much everything that happens next. Truly, the greatest weapon you have against anxiety, negativity and stress is your ability to choose one present thought over another—to train your mind to make the best of what you’ve got in front of you, even when it’s far less than you expected. Yes, you can change the way you think! And once you do, you can master a new way to be.
2. You need to start questioning the stories you’re telling yourself.
In a very real way, the stories we tell ourselves change what we see in life. When we enter an experience with a story about how life is, that tends to be what we see, even when there’s plenty of evidence to the contrary.
Something similar happens through our wide-ranging, different past experiences. Some of us have been deeply heartbroken. Some of us have lost our parents, siblings or children to accidents and illnesses. Some of us have dealt with infidelity. Some of us have been fired from jobs we relied on. Some of us have been discriminated against because of our gender or race. And, when we enter a new experience that arouses prominent memories of our own painful story from the past, it shifts our perspective in the present—it narrows it.
When a negative past experience narrows our present perspective, it’s mostly just a defense mechanism. Every day of our lives we are presented with some level of uncertainty, and our innate human defense mechanisms don’t like this one bit. So our minds try to compensate by filling in the gaps of information by clinging to the stories we already feel comfortable with. We end up subconsciously trying to make better sense of everything in the present by using old stories and past experiences as filler. And while this approach works sometimes, other times our old stories and past experiences are completely irrelevant to the present moment, so they end up hurting us and those we love far more than they help.
Thus, my challenge for you today is this:
Whenever you feel tension and drama building up inside you, ask yourself…
What is the story I’m telling myself right now?
Can I be absolutely certain this story is accurate?
How do I feel and behave when I tell myself this story?
What else would I see and experience if I removed the story from my mind?
Do your best to consciously detach yourself from the story you’re telling yourself. Go deeper into reality. Don’t just look at the surface. Investigate. Observe without presupposing. Again, it’s about thinking better right now so you can ultimately live better right now.
3. You need to start watching your (very human) tendency to fabricate negative meanings and conclusions.
Replacing your negativity with positivity isn’t about turning off all your negative thoughts and stories; that’s nearly impossible because negative thinking typically arises spontaneously and uncontrollably. It’s also not about turning your false negative thoughts and stories into false positive ones. The goal is to reframe your negative thoughts and stories effectively, so they are based entirely in reality, detached from needless drama, and focused on the next positive step forward that can be taken in the present moment.
One smart place to start is evaluating and eliminating the negative meanings you assign to situations that don’t meet your expectations. For example…
“He was late, so he must not care about me.” – Or, perhaps he just got caught in traffic.
“If I can’t do this correctly, then I must not be smart enough.” – Or, perhaps you just need a little more practice, just like the rest of us.
“I haven’t heard back from the doctor, so the test results must be bad.” – Or, perhaps the lab is just really busy and your results aren’t available yet.
Fabricating negative meanings and conclusions like these, based on your own stubborn expectations, is a great way to keep your mind stuck in the gutter. This isn’t to say that you should never expect anything at all from yourself and others (diligence, honesty, ambition, etc.), but rather that the thought patterns governing your expectations should not automatically steer you toward unreasonable negativity. Remember, negative thinking stops us from seeing and experiencing life’s positive and neutral outcomes, even when they happen often. It’s as if there’s a special mental block filtering out everything except the data that confirms the negative biases we have. So, do your best to catch yourself today.
Being able to distinguish between the negativity you imagine and what is actually happening in your life right now is an important step towards living a happier life.
4. You need to start letting go of what can’t be changed.
One of the most important moments in life is the moment you finally find the courage and determination to let go of what can’t be changed. Because, when you are no longer able to change a situation, you are challenged to change yourself… to grow beyond the unchangeable. And that changes everything.
Of course, when hard times hit there’s a default human tendency to hold on—to extrapolate and assume the future holds more of the same. This doesn’t happen as often when things are going well. A laugh, a smile, and a warm fuzzy feeling are fleeting and we know it. We take the good times at face value in the moment for all they’re worth and then we let them go. But when we’re depressed, struggling, or fearful, it’s easy to heap on more pain by assuming tomorrow will be exactly like today. This is a cyclical, self-fulfilling prophecy. Know this! If you don’t allow yourself to move past what happened, what was said, what was felt, you will look at your present and future through that same dirty lens, and nothing will be able to focus your foggy judgment. You will keep on justifying, reliving, and fueling a perception that is worn out and false.
But be sure, this is more than simply accepting that life will improve as time passes. Yes, “time heals wounds,” but yours is not a passive role in the process of healing and moving past pain. The question is: where are your present steps taking you?
It doesn’t matter what’s been done; what truly matters is what YOU DO from here.
Realize that most people make themselves miserable simply by finding it impossible to accept life just as it is presenting itself right now. Don’t be one of them! Let go of your fantasies. This letting go doesn’t mean you don’t care about something or someone anymore. It’s just realizing that the only thing you really have control over is yourself, in this moment.
5. You need to start being consistent with the right daily rituals.
Far too often we think that inner strength is all about how we respond to extremely hard circumstances. How did she perform on stage during that nationally televised event? Did he bounce back from that heart-wrenching divorce? Can she keep her life together even after suffering from a major, debilitating bodily injury?
There’s no doubt that extremely hard circumstances test our bravery, determination and inner strength, but what about common, daily circumstances? Just like every muscle in the body, the mind needs to be exercised to gain strength. It needs to be worked consistently to grow and develop over time. If you haven’t pushed yourself in hundreds of little ways over time, of course you’ll crumble on that one day that things get really challenging. But it doesn’t have to be that way…
Choose to go to the gym when it would be easier to sleep in. Choose to do the tenth rep when it would be easier to quit at nine. Choose to create something special when it would be easier to consume something mediocre. Choose to raise your hand and ask that extra question when it would be easier to stay silent. Prove to yourself, in dozens of little ways, that you have the guts to get in the ring and wrestle with life on a daily basis.
Inner strength is built through lots of small, daily victories. It’s the individual choices we make day-to-day that build our “inner strength muscles.” We all want this kind of strength, but we can’t simply think our way to it. If you want it, you have to do something about it ritualistically. It’s your positive daily rituals that prove your mental fortitude and move you in the direction of your dreams over the long-term.
The bottom line is that when things get difficult for most people, they find something more comfortable to do. When things get difficult for mentally and emotionally strong people, they find a way to stay on track with their positive daily rituals.