Most people want to change or improve their lives in some way. For most of us, there is probably some aspect of life well within our control that we don’t change, probably due to one of the psychological traps I’ll describe below. We owe it to ourselves to enjoy our lives as fully as possible, which is a far cry from giving into the path of least resistence. They say the road to hell is paved with good intentions, but it would be just as accurate to say we create our own hells right here with our delusions.
Not sure if you have ever seen Lost or Once Upon a Time or any story where the psychology of a villain is explored. Usually it seems to come down to not being able to let go. The Evil Queen Regina in Once started out good and a friend to Snow White, but when her love was killed by her evil mother when Snow White accidently let slip that Regina was planning to run away with him. Regina blamed Snow White and turned bitter, unable to move past the wrong done her and went on to ruin the lives of others as retribution. But no amount of evil could bring her love back to life, and she continued to live miserably ever after.
So, we need to start out with a recognition of what life actually entails. What I have here is loosely inspired by Buddhism and Hinduism but doesn’t really require a belief in those religions or any higher being so far as I can tell.
1. Pain is a part of life- no one can avoid pain.
Accepting that life is sometimes painful does a lot towards mitigating the pain that we feel. As Buddhism points out, suffering is the second arrow we shoot ourselves where there was already an arrow causing pain. Dwelling on what’s painful, refusing to accept the pain we feel, or living in denial of it is only going to cause us more harm. Take a moment to feel fully whatever it is you feel, then let it go.
2. Everything changes, nothing lasts.
You will never be 16 again. Right now you are the oldest you have ever been and the youngest you’ll ever be again. A drop of water goes through a whole cycle from ice to steam. All beings die in some form or another. Nothing, no nothing, is stable. Stability is an illusion. To base your life around something that will ultimately change is just madness.
3. Actions have consequences. We are not in control of everything, but we are in control of ourselves.
If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always got. Whether you believe in karma or not, you can be sure that your actions impact your life. Ben Franklin said luck is when preparation meets opportunity. There’s a lot you can’t control, but there is a heck of a lot that you can. You can’t control whether you lose five pounds this week, or whether you get that job, but you can make sure that you’ve made efforts in the right direction.
Many of the small actions we take every day build consequences we can only see over time. If you ignore a call from your mother today, i’s not necessarily a huge deal. But if you keep ignoring her, it will be. In a similar vein, people don’t suddently wake up morbidly obese. It takes many days of overeating, even years, of going in the same wrong direction. Five pounds gained per year adds up over 20 years.
Thankfully, there’s a few things we can realize that get us going in the right direction. We may mentally acknowledge the existence of these truths, but we get caught in sandtraps, common to the whole human species, that get us mired in bad patterns.
1. A new beginning is as close as your next breath.
You don’t have to wait for next year, next month, tomorrow. You don’t have to let the past dictate any amount of the future. Falling off the wagon doesn’t have to mean failure.
2. All-or-nothing thinking doesn’t get you anywhere. Small steps in the right direction are an effective way of getting to where you want to go.
Taking slow, sustainable steps you know you can manage means a lot more than trying to be perfect overnight. Don’t strive for perfection, strive for excellence. Progress, not perfection. The perfect is the enemy of the good you get the idea.
3. Take responsibility for what is within your control. That includes your environment.
We are all influenced by our environments. Coca cola ads might influence us all, but we can decide not to wach them or call them for the bs they are. Coke won’t make you happy anymore than any other thing will. Let your environment influence you for the good rather than the bad- start hanging out with people you want to be influenced by. If you want to be more positive, subscribe to positive quotes on your facebook or post them throughout your home.
4. Let go of what you can’t control.
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change what I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
This is the AA prayer and it’s been around long before that even. The more we stress about things we can’t change, the more we stress. No amount of fuming or ruminating is going to change what we can’t, whether it’s the past, the state of the world, or other people’s behavior.
5. Practice compassion for yourself and others. But not “idiot” compassion.
If you treat yourself with compassion, you will be able to understand and forgive what you don’t like about yourself. Don’t spend all day kicking yourself, figure out why you messed up and let it go and learn from it. Be your own best friend.
If you treat others with compassion, you will be a positive influence on others. Idiot compassion is another matter. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Giving people second chances when they don’t understand or feel sorry for what they did wrong to start with is only likely to produce similar results. And if you find yourself in a situation that is unhealthy for you and can’t be resolved, LEAVE! That is the compassionate choice for you to avoid being harm and for the other person so they can avoid harming you and thinking it is ok to do so.
A woman under my dad’s command was being sexually harassed and told him about it, but didn’t want to make a big stink about it because she was afraid of the consequences for the guy, who she thought was a lonely old man. Turns out the guy was anything but and sadly was in his sixties, and as expected, without a clear complaint or action on her part, the behavior persisted. What makes me especially sad about this is how this guy had probably abused women for decades and gotten away with it. Who knows how much suffering having one woman stand up to him earlier in his life could have saved. I’m not blaming the victim, obviously the man is at fault, but she could have done more to protect herself from the guy’s actions,a nd in doing so would help protect his next potential target.
The next time you let someone walk all over you because you are afraid of confrontation, don’t call it compassion. Speak up for yourself and you’ll be respecting yourself and respecting the other person enough to let them know they are doing something wrong.
6. Find a healthy way of dealing with stress.
I think about 90% of our stress comes from not dealing with stress well. Whether it’s overspending, overeating, snapping at our friends and loved ones, it probably could have been solved by a little R & R. Pain is part of life, stress is part of life, it’s all how you deal with it. Trying to make changes for the better is stressful. If you can learn to use that stress as fuel, in the literal sense by getting up and moving to meet your goal of exercising more or figuratively, by meditating in order to better understand yourself and treat the people in our life better, you turn a potential downfall into a source of strength. Stress management isn’t something we learn in school but often learn from the people around us. In a culture where people are encouraged to eat comfort food, “treat” themselves to things they can’t afford, and indulge in any other amount of numbing behavior rather than just allowing themselves to confront, accept, and feel what is going on in their lifes, we need to reprogram and find better ways of handling life’s inevitable challenges.
7. Be honest with yourself.
This should really be first, because without it all the rest is a waste. Most of the time, we know in our guts what’s really going on. Couldawouldashudda, if only, and what might have been are silly ways to expend our mental energy. if we regret something, we should do our best to figure out what it is we really want and how to get there from where we are now. The more you make excuses for other people, the more you cheat yourself. The more you “forget” just how many times this week you’ve had a lavish dessert, the more you avoid the scale, the more you say it’s not really a big deal, the farther away you get from your goal. Delusion is the enemy of happiness. Denial is never going to make you happy. You have to deal with what is, whatever it is, first.
8. Listen to your emotions.
We can’t let our momentary impulses rule our lives, but if we don’t listen to how we feel, how can we ever expect to live a life in balance with mind, body, and spirit? Your heart is a good place to start. The mind tells us all kinds of stories, but if you kno whow you really feel, not always an easy feat, you’ll at least know what you are starting from. It is ok to feel sad. it is ok to be disappointed or angry. This is all basically a corollary to #7, since your emotions are a part of your truth, but we have so much trouble with this one it deserves it’s own space. You can’t ever be happy or achieve your goals or set good goals without knowing how you feel. Living a life based off only what you “think” is right or good is setting yourself for failure even when you achieve what seems like success.
Furthermore, how many bad boyfriends would we have broken up with, how many bags of Cheetos would have gone uneaten, how many times would we have said YES to happiness if only we dared to listen to our hearts.
Good luck all!