Three Simple Steps to Take When Life Doesn’t Go Your Way.
When was the last time something didn’t go your way? You didn’t get something pleasant – an acknowledgment, a promotion, ease – that you were expecting. Or something unpleasant – a rude remark, a delay, a cut-off in traffic – happened. Whether it was small or large, it caused you some pain.
Pain is an inevitable part of life. It results from injury – physical or mental, real or perceived. Suffering, though (as the saying goes) is optional: extra pain that we create for ourselves in how we think about our injury – the thinking is usually some variation of, “This shouldn’t be happening; it should have gone some other way.”
I’ve been suffering lately. My mother-in-law had a fall, and we were thrust into caregiving, long doctor’s appointments, tours of assisted living facilities. . . time I had mentally allotted to other pursuits was now taken up wholly by this unpleasant, but necessary, care.
It took me some time to realize that I was breathless, irritable, and in pain in my neck and shoulders. These are my tell-tale signs of holding tension. Once I noticed them, I knew I was adding suffering to my pain, and could take these simple steps to stop it.
Step One: Breathe deeply, making your exhale longer than your inhale.
Why? A state of high stress causes your body to breathe quickly and shallowly, preparing you to react quickly, in an anaerobic burst. To move your body out of high stress and into calm, take control of your breathing.
How? When you notice yourself breathing shallowly or notice some other evidence of tension:
Ground your feet securely under you.
Relax your face and shoulders.
Breathe in to a slow count of ten, inflating your belly like a balloon, in all directions – front, back, up, down, side to side.
Exhale to a slow count of ten, but – here’s the important part – at the bottom of the exhale, when you think you have no more breath left, push out the exhale so that you are emptier than empty of breath! This little push makes your exhale longer than your inhale and signals to your body that it’s safe to move you into a physiologic state of calm.
You’re basically forcing a sigh. Sighing is the body’s signal to release endorphins, which move you into a state of physiologic calm – of “rest, digest, and connect.”
Breathe this way in moments of high stress until you feel the tension release you, until you start to feel okay and present in the moment.
If you are in a period of high stress in your life (as I am), make this a daily practice: ten minutes in the morning, before you start your day, and ten minutes at the end of the day, before bed. Think of it as hygiene for your mind and body, as important as brushing your teeth and washing your hands.
If you want to learn more about the different states of activation of the central nervous system and the power of breath to calm it, watch this video.
Once your body is calm, your presence of mind will increase, and you can begin to pull the threads of your suffering with the next steps.
Step Two: Ask yourself, “What’s going on?”
This question, asked gently, will get immediately to the heart of your suffering.
Your mind’s first answer may be, “I don’t know.” But you do know. Just wait for it. The answer is usually right behind “I don’t know.”
If you find your thoughts stampeding, overwhelming you with answers, grab some paper and write them down. Write until they stop coming. Writing slows down your thinking and makes it more manageable.
This is what happened to me when I asked myself that question, about what my mother-in-law’s fall meant for my life: “Just when I thought I was free from caregiving, I’m stuck again! My career still must come second. I’ll never be able to grow my business now. What a terrible person I am. What kind of person resents a frail elderly family member? It’s my own mother [who recently died 1000 miles away] I should have cared for, not her. Why am I so mean?”
Whether one answer arises or a dozen, you’re ready for Step Three.
Step Three: Ask of each answer, “Can I be absolutely certain this is true?”
The question, “Is it true?” is the first question of The Work of Byron Katie, my favorite process for unraveling painful thoughts. I recommend it to everyone and regularly facilitate my coaching clients in The Work. (If you want to see what that’s like, watch this video.
But you don’t have to do the entire process of The Work to begin to get relief from the thoughts that cause your suffering. Simply asking the question, “Can I be absolutely certain this is true?” is enough to begin to free you, because it shows you there is probably another way to think about your pain and what it means for your life.
Asking “Can you be absolutely certain this is true?” of each of those thoughts allowed me to see other possibilities, to discover agency I didn’t know I had. “Maybe I’m not stuck. I have extra, unanticipated duties right now, but they won’t go on forever. We’ll get her into a retirement community, and she’ll be so much better off, and they’ll take a lot of the responsibilities off our shoulders. And I’m not alone. Guy [my husband] and the kids are all here, willing and able to participate in her care. I don’t need to take over and be a martyr! A terrible person? Hardly! I’m just a person whose expectations did not line up with reality, and it’s taken me some time to adjust, but I am adjusting. It’s okay. Maybe it’s even perfect. I also struggled with new motherhood, and it emerged as one of the richest, most growth-full periods of my life. Maybe this will be similar. Maybe it, too, will become something I can help my clients navigate and it will enrich my coaching.”
Ahh! This simple, three-step process, diligently applied, results in a calm nervous system, which enables a presence of mind and clarity of thinking that is simply not possible when you’re in a state of high stress. It enables you to respond creatively, instead of reactively and with suffering, to the present moment.