Like any reasonable human, I enjoy when things go my way. Gliding through life with ease brings me a sense of peace in knowing that it is all comfortable and smooth sailing. It also impacts the way I view myself and my experiences. During easygoing times, the sun feels brighter, I feel lighter, and it seems that no rainclouds could possibly wipe away my shine. Realistically, I know that life does not always go as expected, and I know that obstacles are a painful, necessary, part of life. As Khalil Gibran eloquently said, “If I accept the sunshine and warmth, then I must also accept the thunder and lightning.” If we had no troubles, would we even recognize our successes?
Although we know that setbacks are an expected aspect of life, it can be difficult to leave room for error and allow opportunity for growth. A vivid memory from my childhood involves opening up a McDonald’s Happy Meal to find a small, plush Ernie doll. My 10-year-old self lit up with excitement and immediately decided that Tiny Ernie needed a Tiny House. I set my workshop up at my family’s dining room table and went to work- hot glue gun in one hand, popsicle sticks in the other.
I spent what seemed like forever at the table, piecing together popsicle sticks with layers of hot, sticky glue, occasionally hearing my mother’s redirections each time I burned myself. When Ernie’s house was finally in one piece, I very carefully took it in my hands. As I attempted to stand it up, it crumpled to pieces. I took a deep breath and dived back in with the hot glue, adding more this time, and pressing the popsicle sticks even harder together. Again, as soon as Ernie’s house was standing, it fell to pieces. Time and time again, with each fall my body heated up and tears of frustration rolled down my face.
My mother attempted to console me. “Kelly, take a break. Try again later,” she said. “Just relax, there is no need to get upset over this.” Her words were useless- I was not giving up. This was for Ernie. Tiny Ernie NEEDED a Tiny house, and I had to be the person to build it. I took another deep breath, tears still rolling. I channeled my inner builder. I was a contractor. I was a sculptor. I was Ustad Ahmad Lahouri and Ernie’s house was the Taj Mahal. After even more glue and more popsicle sticks, I stood my project up for the final time. When it tumbled down yet again, I gathered up my popsicle sticks and dumped them in the trash.
When we experience setbacks, it can cause negative thoughts to swirl around in our heads. “You can’t do this,” they might say. “You’re not good enough.” We might sit with feelings of failure or worthlessness, or we might become depressed or anxious. Maybe we think, “I’m just not trying hard enough.”
I still cry when I’m frustrated, but I’ve learned that entertaining unhelpful thoughts is… not helpful. Giving attention to the thoughts that beat us down may even impact the way we view ourselves and our abilities. Instead of being hard on ourselves during times of struggle, what if we accepted our circumstances? After all, Buddha said if there is good, there must also be bad, right? Here are some tips that can help us be a little gentler with ourselves.
Give Yourself Space to Process
Anyone who knows me in real life knows how uncomfortable I am showing heavy emotions. However, I recently experienced a pretty grueling event that led to some dark feelings. I tried to push the memories and emotions away, but the more I tried the more upset I became. I realized that I needed to confront these feelings and allow myself time and space for processing. Instead of judging my emotions, I observed them without judgment and allowed them to serve their purpose. By giving myself time and space to process that event, I gave myself an opportunity to learn and grow from it. I learned that my feelings were not negative at all- They were allowing me to grieve a situation that I needed to grieve.
I am my father’s daughter, which means I am one of the most stubborn people I know. Picture doing a puzzle and trying to jam together mismatched pieces- that’s me sometimes. I try and fail and try again, which is not in itself a bad quality. The problem, though, comes with acting along with Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting a different result.” Perseverance takes flexibility and the courage to adapt. When we face an obstacle, we can’t bulldoze through it- we have to find a creative way around it.
Change Your Words
It took me a long time to realize that our words matter, and the way we describe things directly relates to how we view them. Each moment, we have an opportunity to frame something in a positive manner and to strengthen our nonjudgmental minds. Consider the example of personal characteristics. Most of us can identify something that we would like to change about ourselves. Describing those things as “weaknesses” may suggest that they are bad. Instead, using the phrase “opportunities for growth” suggests a nonjudgmental stance that empowers us to move forward toward change. Alternatively, if “failure” became “opportunity for growth,” would we still view it so negatively?
Be Nice to Yourself
For those that may be unaware, I have struggled with depression for several years now. I noticed that sometimes my mood impacts how I treat myself. During my latest bout of increased depression, I found myself making statements such as, “I am such an idiot,” or “I’m such a crazy person.” I justified that by believing that I was making fun of myself, having a laugh, and keeping my humor. Eventually, I noticed that the comments I said in jest also stemmed from negative beliefs I had about myself. When I felt depressed, I truly did believe that I was an idiot, crazy or a bad person. The biggest lesson I have learned throughout my experience with depression is that how we treat ourselves matters, so let’s treat ourselves kindly.
It is almost human nature to quickly dismiss positive things and hyper-focus on negative things. Even the news focuses heavily on all of the seemingly bad things in the world and quickly gloss over the good news. Focusing intensely on negative things may cause us to view the world itself as negative. For example, I LOVE true crime, and I could listen to true crime podcasts all day every day. However, if I consume enough dark content, I start experiencing anxieties that tell me the world is not safe and that other people are twisted. I start to forget about the things that bring me joy in the world. By creating a gratitude list daily, I have brought more attention to the fact that good things happen in the world and good things happen to me.
Comparing ourselves to others is possibly one of the most unhelpful actions we can do. It places unrealistic expectations on ourselves and creates pressure and discomfort. When we compare our situations to others, we discount our unique personalities and experiences, and it minimizes our strengths and accomplishments. Aside from that, we glorify the lives of others while not recognizing the glories of our own. This may create feelings of anxiety, shame, and guilt. Furthermore, comparing ourselves to others can impact our confidence. Instead, we can recognize that people only let us see what they want us to see. No one is perfect, and we can use that knowledge to focus on growing into our true selves.
Take Your Own Advice
In school, I was taught that therapists do not give advice. Sometimes, though, a client will express their desire for concrete advice or feedback. To them, I say, “Imagine your best friend was going through this situation. What advice would you give to them? Would that advice be helpful to your situation as well?” Alternatively, I might request that the client identify a person whose opinion the hold in high regard, and then I would ask, “What advice do you think they would give you?” Often times we know the answers to our problems, but we feel stuck or discouraged in moving forward. By taking our own advice, we learn to support ourselves with the love and compassion that we do for others.