By Linda Kelly, MSW, RSW, TITC-CT
I wish people knew how much control they have over how they feel. Life is not about what happens to us, but about how we perceive our experiences. Our story is created in the way we define it, and this story is about how to take control of the thoughts that hold us back.
I’ve always wanted to do something important. As a kid, I dreamt of singing in front of thousands of people, writing books, and inspiring and motivating others to create a better world. But I didn’t. At least, I haven’t yet (fingers crossed!). When given opportunities, I let my pounding heart and shortness of breath convince me that it was safer to pass rather than speak up.
I used to tell myself that if I wanted to lead people, I had to be about 50 pounds lighter first, with better hair and clothes. I told myself that I wasn’t good enough or smart enough. I was worried about alienating people who didn’t agree with what I had to say. When it came to the really important moments, there was too much risk, and in the end, I was convinced I wouldn’t make a difference anyway. It sounds cynical, but it was purely a fear of rejection.
Your greatest foe and most powerful advocate is your own mind. I realize now that the greatest obstacle is the battle within. What if that nagging voice had been rooting for me instead of tearing me down? What if I had told myself that the worst-case scenarios weren’t really all that bad? Imagine how many incredible things I could have done if I had been willing to make mistakes. When you are conditioned to criticize yourself, it doesn’t seem possible to change the tone of the conversation. But it is.
Maybe it’s the fleeting nature of life that makes us fear taking risks. A divorce is that much more painful because we can’t get our time back. We only get one childhood, and so many of us suffer intense, debilitating pain because of what happened during those years. We get stuck on the ideals; the “shoulds,” the sometimes unfair expectations we have about how life is supposed to be. A parent is never supposed to lose a child. Car accidents only happen to strangers. People should never come to criticize one another so furiously that they forget the kindnesses that brought them together. It isn’t fair when we do all the right things and still lose.
But it happens, and we do.
Life is independent of expectations. It simply is.
Ups and downs will always occur. Feelings are reactions that inform us without language; they help us to take action. But they can be worsened by negative, self-defeating thoughts that aren’t at all true.
Do you remember what your mind was telling you the last time you were hurting? If criticism of self comes more naturally than praise, you probably know regret like I do.
When negativity gets out of hand, bad feelings intensify. We often don’t know what to do with the sadness that makes us feel empty at the end of the day, so we distract ourselves. We buy something new; we eat something tasty. Sometimes we turn to alcohol or drugs, which only makes things worse.
When anxiety, negative self-talk, and unfair comparisons were wreaking havoc on my ability to function, I had to start talking back. I learned that the first step is figuring out how to manage stress, and the next is learning to be your own biggest fan.
It is unfair to compare yourself to others. Our stories are our own.
You are allowed to feel sad when things aren’t going well. Acknowledge it. Feel it. And then do what you have to do.
If you feel ashamed, step back and ask if you are being fair to yourself. If your friend had done the same thing, would you judge them as harshly?
Finally, try showing faith in yourself and the choices you have made. You did the best you could with the information you had at the time. Knowing better now just means that you are learning and growing, and that’s something to be proud of.
Just imagine how much we could do if we got out of our own way.
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