It’s a new year, and you’ve probably already been bombarded with information about how to envision your ideal decade, create goals, stick to resolutions, lose weight, be happier, and <insert self-improvement trend of the day>.
It gets overwhelming, right?
This overload of information can paralyze you instead of motivating you. Where on earth do you begin?
One starting point is taught by inspirational speaker Danielle LaPorte. As you plan your day, year, or decade, shift out of the mindset of figuring out what you want to accomplish. Instead, imagine what you want to feel like. Once you pinpoint the feelings you desire, you can work backward to create goals that help you achieve those feelings.
What happens when you have these feelings-inspired goals and intentions, but you get stuck? Perhaps you were on a roll for the first few weeks, but now you feel unmotivated? Maybe instead of achieving that feeling you desire, you’re feeling inadequate, disappointed, or discouraged. Or you might be feeling sadness or grief, and that’s keeping you from moving forward with your intentions.
When you notice that your mental and emotional state is derailing you from your desired course, you can use the following tools to get back on track.
1. Be Present with Your Suffering
This seems counterintuitive. If you’re trying to shift out of your mental state, why would you stay present with it? It’s human nature to try to avoid pain. You wouldn’t grab a burning log out of your fireplace, pound your thumb with a hammer (on purpose!), or walk around barefoot in the snow. If you did, you would experience intense pain.
But that pain serves a valuable purpose; it keeps you safe. In the above examples, you’d lose your skin, smash your thumb, or get frostbite if you didn’t feel pain.
What about mental pain, though? What do you do when you’re feeling the pain of loneliness, grief, inadequacy, or heartache? Do you avoid it at all costs like you would avoid touching a hot pan? Perhaps you numb yourself by mindlessly scrolling through social media or drinking a large glass of wine.
Or you might lean on a common method of dealing with emotional pain—stuffing it away as if you’re stuffing a pillow inside your chest. You keep adding the stuffing of suffering, and you zip it up inside. Although that pillow keeps growing inside, you pretend it has disappeared. That strong zipper holds it in, and you plaster a smile on your face.
If this sounds like you, you’re not alone. Society does a great job of teaching us all how to mask internal suffering. There are even filters for photos that help you look wrinkle-free and doe-eyed to make sure you’re as perfect as possible in your pictures.
Instead of trying to get rid of your suffering or cover it with a mask, being present with it can be a helpful and transformative practice. Consider this quote attributed to psychologist Carl Jung: “What you resist not only persists but grows in size.” If you’re resisting suffering, you won’t be able to work through it and get to the other side.
What does it mean to be present with your suffering? When you feel that grief, sadness, anxiety, pain, or fear, see if you can apply mindfulness. What does that mean? Try to observe those feelings with curiosity and without judgment. Notice where in your body you feel the pain and what it feels like. Notice the thoughts and emotions that accompany the pain, too.
Can you observe the sensation, your thoughts, and your emotions as if you’re a scientist observing a subject? If you can be present with your suffering, you’ll be able to tend to it with the love and compassion it needs and deserves.
2. Befriend Your Inner Critic
Speaking of mindfulness, have you ever paid attention to the voice inside your head? Chances are, it’s not very kind (it’s referred to as the “inner critic” and not the “inner cheerleader” for a reason).
Similar to staying present with your suffering, what happens if you bring awareness to that critical voice instead of silencing it? Chances are, that inner critic is doing its best to help you build self-esteem.
Psychologist and author of Be Mighty: A Woman’s Guide to Liberation from Anxiety, Worry, & Stress Using Mindfulness & Acceptance, Jill Stoddard, Ph.D., suggests that you treat your inner critic as if it were your friend. “If you look closely at the thoughts your inner critic generates, they are telling you everything you need to know about what matters most to you,” she writes.
Stoddard suggests that instead of shunning that voice, you give your inner critic a name and invite them to grab a seat at the table. In her book, Stoddard shares that she has named her inner critic Sheila. “[Sheila] tells me that I’m average and ordinary. That I’m ‘fine’ or ‘okay’ but certainly nothing special. She compares me to other people and points out how much better and smarter they are.”
Stoddard points out that Sheila doesn’t criticize her cooking or driving ability, because those things don’t matter to her. Instead, Sheila focuses on what Stoddard values most—her family, creative work, and career—because she wants to make sure she doesn’t let them slide.
She writes that, “Giving (your inner critic) a name is a form of diffusion that will create some separation between you and the insults (your inner critic) hurls. Your critic can have a human name like mine, or you can call her ‘The Mouthy Teen,’ ‘Megaphone,’ ‘The Corrupt Judge,’ or ‘Roger Ebert’ (the former movie critic, for those of you too young to remember). Be creative, have fun!”
3. Give Yourself a (Self-Compassion) Break
Society does a pretty decent job of teaching you to be kind to others, but you’re often not taught to be kind to yourself.
When you’re feeling heartbroken, angry, or irritated, a solid go-to practice is a meditation by self-compassion researcher Kristin Neff, Ph.D. She developed the self-compassion break.
- Bring awareness and mindfulness to your mental state and what you are feeling. Notice, without judgment, where you feel the emotion in the body, what if feels like, and what kind of thoughts your mind is thinking about it.
- Bring to mind the fact that you’re not alone. Many other people on this planet feel what you’re feeling. This idea, known as common humanity, helps you realize that your suffering doesn’t isolate you from others but instead makes you part of the human team.
- Bring some kindness to yourself. You can give yourself the type of encouragement you would offer a dear friend, like “It will be okay,” or “You’ve got this.” You can also try to soothe yourself by holding your own hand, giving yourself a hug, or gently cupping your face in your hands.
When you take even a brief moment to tend to what’s bothering you with kindness and encouragement, you’ll be able to more swiftly carry on and shift your mindset.
4. Move It
What happens when your favorite upbeat song plays, and you can’t help but tap your foot? Maybe you feel the urge to stand up and dance, and the next thing you know, you’re boogying in the kitchen. Does your mood change?
Social psychologist and author Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D., addresses this in her book The Joy of Movement: How Exercise Helps Us Find Happiness, Hope, Connection, and Courage. She describes research showing that moving your body can give you the boost you need to lead a healthier and more connected life.
She explains that humans are wired to move their bodies, and you get rewarded when you do. “At the most fundamental level, rewarding movement is how your brain and body encourage you to participate in life. If you are willing to move, your muscles will give you hope. Your brain will orchestrate pleasure. And your entire physiology will adjust to help you find the energy, purpose, and courage you need to keep going.”
While moving your body offers tremendous benefits that make you feel better, you may overlook another valuable aspect of exercise: community. McGonigal explains that if you’re a part of a group that moves in unison—like dancing, running, yoga, or tai chi—you benefit from the collective effervescence, a termed coined in 1912 by French sociologist Emile Durkheim. McGonigal writes that according to Durkheim, there’s a “euphoric self-transcendence individuals feel when they move together in ritual, prayer, or work.” Synchronized movement creates a powerful feeling of connection, and that’s a feeling that humans crave.
An exercise class might not be possible when you’re at the office and facing a deadline, and you probably can’t blast some upbeat tunes and start a dance party at your cubicle. But when you’re noticing that your mind can’t get out of its loop, try going for a brief walk. Sometimes a simple walk around the block can help you shift out of an undesirable state. Focus on seeking out some form of physical activity you enjoy and begin taking care of your emotional well-being.
5. Reach Out
Although self-compassion can help you move out of a funk, you shouldn’t keep yourself isolated. Try reaching out to your friends, colleagues, family members, and neighbors. Maintaining positive social connections is in improving your mental health.
Have you tried to cultivate relationships with the people who live near you? Neighbors can be an important source of comfort and fun.
Of course, you don’t have to rely solely on neighbors to help you shift your mental state. You’re able to connect to your friends and family pretty easily thanks to your mobile devices. Unfortunately, you may often feel connected through social media but you aren’t connecting with others in meaningful ways. When you need a mental state shift, resist the urge to scroll through social media. Instead, give someone a call. Couple that phone call with a walk around the block, and notice what happens to your state of mind.
If you try the above tips and nothing seems to help you shift your mental state, remember the old adage, “This, too, shall pass.” That brief and wise statement may help you through challenging experiences and moments, and can provide a perspective shift when you’re feeling stuck.
May your 2020 be everything you want it to be, and may the above ideas help you achieve those feelings you desire.
*Editor’s Note: The information in this article is intended for your educational use only; it does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Chopra Center's Mind-Body Medical Group; and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and before undertaking any diet, supplement, fitness, or other health programs.
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