Let’s face it: life is hard. Much harder than anyone tells you it’s going to be. I remember when I was a teenager rolling my eyes at my mom and thinking about how stupid her rules were. I couldn’t wait to be an adult. I would fantasize about working for a magazine, living in Los Angeles, and coming and going as I pleased. For most of college there was a running countdown in my head towards graduation day, when I would grab my degree, throw off my cap and gown, and finally be able to make my mark on the world.
About a year in, I realized the bitter truth. Real life was a struggle. The world, it seemed, wasn’t interested in me. And how could I even begin to figure out how to “make my mark” when I had to pay so many bills? And go to work. – every day. And face so many daily disappointments and injustices that it was all I could do to get to Friday so I could go out with my girlfriends to look for a him because I was supposed to have a relationship too.
Real life was hard, and here was the other thing: when it wasn’t hard, it was boring. Really boring.
In other words, the idea that I would leave my mark on the world and that it would matter seemed pretty far away.
Later, when I got out of my twenties, had a house, a husband and a baby, I realized my dreams did still matter. I just hadn’t been prepared for the day-to-day of real life, which can hand you so many challenges and problems and distracting goals (“maybe this face cream will solve all my problems!”) that focusing on yourself can take serious effort.
David Foster Wallace talked about this in his essay, “This is Water,” which is actually a speech he gave to the graduating class of Kenyon College in 2005. In it, he spoke about the routine and the boredom and the petty, exhausting struggles of real life. And right in the middle of the speech he delivered some of the best life advice I’ve ever heard. That surviving life, with its crushing injustices and petty disappointments and mind-numbing routine, boils down to how we think. And that exercising some control over how we think and what we think about is the key to staying sane and developing success.
I would add the following: that being a successful, happy adult means learning how to knock down or ignore all the reasons you’re given every single day not to try, not to change, not to take risks, and go for what you want anyway. No matter how out of reach. No matter how naïve. No matter how impossible it may seem. And this is a matter of changing and controlling the way we think.
Some ways we can exercise control over our thoughts are the following:
- Get clear on your thoughts. What exactly do you think about money? Love? Success? Or whatever you truly want? Do you think you can actually have it and still be a good person, or does a part of you deep down inside believe that this is not possible? Do you believe that what you want is truly supposed to be yours? Or that you don’t deserve it?
- Meditate, meditate, meditate. If we want to learn to control our thoughts meditation is the single most important thing we can do. By focusing on our breath and calming the hamster wheel inside our brains, we can see that most of our thoughts are actually a) automatic and b) not that helpful. Taking a few minutes every day to detach from our thoughts and quiet our mind can help us to notice self-defeating, negative patterns in our thinking that we can change. (See next exercise.)
- The next time you are stopped in traffic, or feeling uninspired at work, or have just received some disappointing news, notice where your thoughts go. Probably nowhere good, right? So then reframe the thought. If the thought is, “Ugh, of course that didn’t work. Why did you even try? You’re stupid, naïve….” gently reframe the thought. “Huh. Okay, that didn’t work out. Too bad. Guess I’ll just have to try again. There must be something better for me around the corener.” Period, end. Enough of this over time and you can train your thoughts to be more positive.
- Realize that you’re not alone. Day to day life can be lonely. There’s no getting around that. We can wind up spending long periods of time alone every day without meaning to. When we are in our cars, or at our desks, we listen to a monologue that may be extremely unhelpful. And if we are tired from a long day or week, it may feel easier to isolate than to put ourselves in the way of other people who can give us a feeling of community and support. Don’t do it! Being around others and leaning on others for support teaches us that our negative thinking isn’t special to us. It makes it a little less powerful. We can gain perspective.
Believe that what you want is within your grasp, even if everything in front of you tells you otherwise.
Real life isn’t easy. But it doesn’t have to defeat you.
If you’re in need of some help regarding your negative thinking, contact me now to schedule a free, thirty-minute phone session here.