When There’s No Lesson to be Learned

I think one of the worst experiences is to go through something awful without learning a valuable lesson. One of those experiences where you ask yourself, “What could I have done differently in order to avoid that situation from occurring?“ or “What was I supposed to come away with/ how was I supposed to change after that event?” and nothing comes to mind. Of course, it could be said there is always a lesson to be learned and that’s it’s only a matter of being honest enough with yourself and unbiased enough to accept what the situation is trying to teach you. Granted, there are many lessons I have learned via negative experiences. However, there are many I feel I must have missed. Learning a lesson makes me feel empowered and as though I didn’t go through a tough situation for nothing, that there’s a “silver lining”. Not knowing what to glean from a situation makes me feel like I have zero control over my own life. If I learn a lesson, I can put that lesson into practice to avoid or ameliorate future issues. If not, all I can do is dread the next time it might come up again. Not having learned a lesson makes it very hard to let go of my emotions surrounding it. It feels more like an assault than an opportunity, more like scorched earth than a rebuild. It feels like a bandaid that keeps getting ripped off or a trauma relived. I think in this type of situation the only thing you can do is to position yourself so that it’s less likely to happen again (whether that means moving, changing jobs, etc) and learn to accept what you can’t change or control. Am I the only one who has things happen that are super unpleasant and yet seemingly unavoidable and without any merit or redeeming value? How do you weather that experience in a dignified manner while not coming out on the other side jaded and fearful?

How to Stay Dignified and Cool-Headed Even When You’ve Been Wronged

One of my biggest weaknesses is practicing patience and keeping my composure when I feel I have been wronged. I tend to have a lot of what I consider (rightly or wrongly) to be righteous anger. I feel the same extreme emotions when I see someone else being wronged. I have a strong sense of right and wrong and am careful to treat others the way I want to be treated. When that same care is not shown to me, I tend to react with high emotions. It’s not possible to control other people or their behavior towards you. But it is possible to control your reaction. So how do you refrain from reacting emotionally while also defending yourself?

Let’s say somebody owes you money and has not paid you back. Pursue every reasonable avenue available to you to get the money. This could include asking them for it both verbally and in writing and perhaps even bringing a lawsuit against them. However, do not allow your pursuit to stress you or cause you to get so wrapped up in the future you lose the present. If you are not successful at getting your money back, let it go. Put it out of your mind. As the Buddha said, “The root of suffering is attachment”. Do not attach yourself to the money or to any sense that you need to be vindicated for the wrong done you. The burden does not belong to you to be vindicated. The burden belongs to them to make it right with you.

Practicing non-attachment does not mean you are a doormat or that you show weakness. It takes strength to stand up for what is right while keeping detached enough to retain your mental stability even when a satisfactory outcome does not result, to disallow it from rattling you or reducing you in any way. It’s detaching from the ego, which is a separate entity from yourself. It’s practicing self-care. By remaining detached, you are more powerful than you ever could be. Doing so frees you from the fear and angst you feel when your contentment depends on other people’s actions. Realize that you’re going to be okay, regardless of the outcome. Stay grounded. Realize that pursuing the matter any more will only hurt you. Elkhart Tolle says, “When you want to arrive at your goal more than you want to be doing what you are doing, you become stressed” and “Sometimes letting things go is an act of far greater power than defending or hanging on”. Refrain from dwelling on their motives, the unfairness of the situation, or on what you’ve lost.

Do you also struggle with reacting in a healthful manner when you are wronged? Does anybody else strive to practice detachment in their everyday life?

You’re Not You (and Why This is Freeing)

An important concept to learn, understand, and remember is that you are not you. Knowing this can help you disconnect your self-worth from your thoughts, emotions, and tendencies. Your personality is largely made up of dynamics you don’t control, such as early childhood experiences, family culture, and genetics.

For example, I grew up in a very strict religious family with a diagnosed narcissist for a father. Individualism and critical thinking were not encouraged or tolerated. Religious, mental, and emotional abuse were the hallmarks of my childhood and teenage years. I grew up dreadfully insecure and fearful. As a teenager I developed OCD (never officially diagnosed, as my parents did not seek professional help for me), which included obsessive praying multiple times a day for God to forgive me, obsessive counting, and obsessive hand-washing.

Even at 36, I don’t know to what extent my personality has been shaped by the traumatic experiences of my youth. I very often have identity crises that most people past their teens or early twenties no longer experience. I constantly question what I want and if it’s not actually my trauma talking. I still feel that I don’t know who I am, what I should be doing, what kind of a life I want, or what I believe. It’s even hard to know how I’m feeling sometimes.

In his December 14, 2015 Bustle article entitled 7 Signs You Grew Up With a Toxic Parent and Didn’t Know It, JR Thorpe pulls from Dr. Susan Forward’s book Toxic Parents and says, “Many children of toxic parents find it exceptionally difficult to identify who they are once they grow up. Forward identities three areas in which their self-knowledge falls short: ‘who you are, what you feel, and what you want’…your sense of confusion and distance runs very deep indeed.”

Science tells us that your personality is pretty much set by six years old. It is largely an amalgam of your parents’/early caregivers’ beliefs, attitudes, and actions. Science also tells us that certain mental disorders have strong genetic links and that trauma can be passed down in the genes of families from generation to generation (epigenetics). But does this mean you can’t change? That you are bound by the mistakes of your parents and the generations before them for your emotions, feelings, reactions, and attachment styles? Thankfully, not. Recent science also emphasizes the neuroplasticity shown by the brain and its capability to create new neural pathways. By consciously making better, more self-caring choices, we can create new pathways in the brain and new defaults for our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Eventually, it becomes easier and more natural for us to act and think in ways that benefit us and allow us to take back control of our lives.

I take some comfort in the thought that I am not simply a summation of my personality, interests, and mental issues. My worth does not lie there and cannot be calculated by arbitrary factors such as these. I don’t have to allow these facets of myself to control my decisions, moods, or mindsets. I don’t have to follow my instincts and can instead choose to think and act in ways that are best for me, which will in turn make me feel my best.

First Change Yourself

I’m trying to learn to take more responsibility for my life by changing myself before trying to change my environment. It is easier to change things under your control, such as restructuring your priorities or taking a different perspective on your situation, than to change other people or circumstances that arise outside your control.

In general, I am currently a pretty unhappy, dissatisfied person. There are a lot of things I feel are wrong or unbalanced about my life. But there are several small steps I could take to improve my life. For example, I currently live with my mother. Although we get along well, I feel uncomfortable with living at home at my age. I plan to get my own place. I also want to travel more often, get healthy, exercise regularly, look at screens (phone, laptop) less often, have more hobbies, and become more social. These are all relatively small changes I could make that I know would have a huge positive impact on the quality of my life. Making small changes or focusing on one goal at a time can be less overwhelming and less of a shock to the system than changing everything overnight or making radical changes.

I’ve often heard the expression that “no matter where you go, you bring your problems with you.” This I have found to be true throughout my life. Many of the issues that make us unhappy in life will not be changed just by moving geographic locations except for weather/climate issues; however, even these location-dependent issues are more likely to make us miserable depending upon our attitudes, reactions, and coping skills.

Are you planning on moving to alleviate your woes? Be honest about your motivations for wanting to move. Is your quality of life really going to be improved by your new surroundings? Are the deep issues that plague you going to resolve themselves? Or can you do the important work that needs to be done first, before moving? An unwell mind is not one which should be depended upon to make big decisions like a move.

It is sometimes easier to flee when we feel frozen than to start making less-dramatic, smaller changes. It is tempting to do something big and dramatic in order to force yourself out of your misery, but reacting this way is reacting like a caged animal.

Something I struggle with a good deal is impulsivity. It is a well-researched fact that impulsivity is a common trait of people with mental illness and can be found in the diagnostic criteria of several mental disorders. I find, personally, that while being rash often feels great in the moment and delivers instant gratification, it almost always screws me over in the end. And it’s when I’m feeling my least emotionally-stable that I act impulsively. When I’m feeling depressed and anxious, I don’t have the energy to plan and strategize the best course of action.

It is also a well-researched fact that mental illness and trauma negatively affect the executive functioning of the brain, making thinking and planning harder. However, planning an action before executing it usually ends with more desirable results.

I think we have a lot more control over how happy we are than we imagine. We have the power to enact many of the changes needed to improve our own lives.

Ten Thoughts You Need to Immediately Stop Entertaining

These are ten thoughts you need to immediately stop thinking if you want to feel peace and lightness and be successful in life.

1. Stop assuming you know what other people are thinking. Don’t assume you know or understand what’s in their heads. Ask them. Communicate. Be assertive. Don’t assume you can know what’s in someone else’s head without asking them.

2. Stop assuming things will go wrong. Don’t have a defeatist attitude. Don’t turn your destiny into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Think positively, prepare thoroughly, and don’t make yourself miserable thinking of what could go wrong.

3. Stop worrying about pleasing other people. Be respectful and courteous, but follow your own bliss. Live for yourself. Those who are meant to be in your life will not expect you to be miserable for them.

4. Stop focusing on the negative instead of the positive. A lot of things in life suck, but life is also beautiful! Pursue the beautiful and minimize or ignore the “suck” where and when you can.

5. Stop believing your thoughts and emotions reflect the truth. Your thoughts and emotions can change by the second and are impermanent. They’re not reliable. Don’t dwell on them.

6. Stop taking things personally. Most people aren’t trying to hurt you. Many people don’t even think about you at all. And most of the time it simply doesn’t matter what they think, anyway. There’s probably not a massive conspiracy against you.

7. Stop trying to control everything. Life comes at you fast. It can be unpredictable and shocking. Hang on for the ride and be flexible. It’ll hurt less every time it crashes. And those who adapt are those who persevere.

8. Stop thinking you’re always right. You’ll be surprised how much you don’t know, how many other perspectives there are, how many illegitimate thoughts you allowed to sway your emotions and your actions.

9. Stop comparing your situation to other people’s. Other people have different upbringings, histories, frames of reference, and circumstances. No two people have the exact same advantages and disadvantages in life. Do the best you can with the cards you’re dealt.

10. Stop being hard on yourself. Talk to yourself kindly. Encourage yourself. Uplift yourself. Never stop trying to do good for yourself every day. If you screw up, start over.

I try to apply these tips every day to my thought life. I fail often; however, I do believe following them will lead to a happy, less stressful life.

Anger is Deceptive

What makes you angry? Have you ever considered what makes that feeling arise? Any qualified therapist will tell you that anger is typically a secondary emotion that hides another more primary emotion. It is often easier to deal with anger than with admitting to suffering from low self-esteem, grief, guilt, etc., and our mind protects us from processing those other more poignant emotions by using anger as a haze.

I have identified the situations that inspire anger to arise in me. I am a creature of habit and do not handle disruptions in my daily schedule (especially at work) well at all. My anxiety immediately kicks in, my chest gets tight, breathing gets rapid, and I can’t think clearly. I begin to panic. Feeling out of control and unsure of the future is awful.

People not responding or acting the way I think they should makes me feel disrespected or taken advantage of. It lowers my self-esteem and compromises my sense of worth. It makes me question our relationship, what I think I know about them, and, consequently, what I think I know about myself.

Feeling impotent is another of my triggers. Often when I’m in an argument I will get so frustrated and emotional that I cannot gather my thoughts and form responses. As a result, my frustration greatly intensifies my anger and overdramatizes the situation. I then make myself even more miserable by later imagining conversations with those people and things I should have said or done differently.

Anger disguises deeper, more specific, less comfortable emotions. Anger is usually directed outward and so allows the angry person to avoid self-reflection and the processing of trauma, confronting of unhealthful coping mechanisms, and acknowledgement of personal weaknesses.

Ultimately, anger isn’t the problem. Nor is it organic or healthy, the way primary emotions are at pinpointing what is wrong and what we need to focus on fixing to live a happy, healthy existence. It’s an unhealthful coping mechanism used as a way of avoiding acknowledging what actually is the problem — in my case, my lack of self-love, my need to always be in control, and my fear of making mistakes. Anger, when handled correctly, is a catalyst for introspection. The most enlightened and brave of us are those people who are able to use the anger, look past it, and ask of ourselves the honesty, effort, and vulnerability that is required for transformative inner work.

Perspective = Reality

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how our perspective becomes our reality. The way we see situations and events determines how those things will affect us. Even the words we use shape our worldview, which in turn shapes our stances and emotions.

For example, I often hear the term “failed marriage”. But why do we conclude a marriage has failed just because it has ended? Perhaps it is the traditional “’til death do we part” part. Can a marriage be called a failure if the members of that marriage were happy for at least part of it and learned something from the experience? Is a marriage seen as “failed” because of the implied religious mandates that the couple never sever the relationship? Perhaps your parents, pastor, or society itself has taught you that marriage should be life-long, even if the situation becomes untenable for one or both spouse(s). Perhaps you’ve internalized that belief and therefore convinced yourself that you’re a “quitter” or that you didn’t try “hard enough”.

But this post really isn’t about marriage. It’s about perspective becoming reality. We have to be so careful to only humor the thoughts we think about ourselves that uplift us, not those that tear us down. Because ultimately, our thoughts become our own personal reality. I am trying to remember this daily by not dwelling on what I consider to be negative and constantly either reframing stressors in my life or concentrating on more important, pleasant things. I also definitely notice that it’s easier not to obsess over an issue or think of it it in a negative light if my life is otherwise full of positivity. Adopting positive perspectives can be a struggle, but it gets easier with practice and is always worth the work.

Gaining Closure on Closure

The desire to “gain closure” is a common one, experienced by people who have extended feelings of hurt and loss that ensue following a negative event, such as the breakup of a relationship, death of someone close, or not getting a promotion at work. Pursuing closure is usually thought of as a healthful, positive way of dealing with hurt. However, what happens if closure never happens? If it’s never offered to you? It’s understandable to feel the need to know why things happened the way they did. However, one thing I have had to learn is that many times in life, you never get answers.

Dwelling on gaining closure can act as a defense mechanism that lets us indulge in self-pity rather than making necessary changes, letting go, and moving on. For example, it can be easier to obsess over why your partner broke up with you than to stop thinking about them at all. At least in the first scenario they are not out of your life totally, because they’re still on your mind. Meanwhile, you’re living in the past, convincing yourself it’s the present, and robbing yourself of a future.

Other less-serious incidents than your partner breaking up with you, such as day-to-day interactions out in the world with strangers, can also be hurtful. Examples are not getting a call for a second interview or a stranger in the grocery store sneering at you. These can be smaller in impact but can still add up to a pretty large pain body over time if the right perspective is not taken. What should that perspective be? That we have the power to improve our lives by not dwelling on situations and circumstances, but instead moving past the hurt and confusion, regardless of whether we got the explanation, apology, or atonement “due” us.

Did something happen in the past that isn’t relevant today, but still plagues your mind? Is the presence of this hurt impeding you from living your fullest life? Let go of what you have no control over and empower yourself by making the decisions today that will allow you to grow, overcome, and thrive.

Applying Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy in Every Day Life

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is a popular short-term, evidence-based modality used by many mental health practitioners for the treatment of an assortment of mental disorders that teaches applicable skills for everyday life. The theory behind it goes something like this: Our thoughts affect our emotions, which in turn, affect our actions. So if we ruminate over negative thoughts that enter our minds, those thoughts will make us feel like crap. Feeling like crap will incite us to make unwise, rash, myopic decisions.

Controlling our thoughts is often easier said than done. I struggle with obsessive, negative, sometimes paranoid thoughts constantly and often am controlled by my thoughts instead of my thoughts being controlled by me. So what are some ways of controlling thoughts researchers and mental health practitioners advise? One is meditation. This practice involves emptying the mind and welcoming whatever thoughts want to flow through, regardless of content, and without judgment. To quote Buddhist monk and teacher Sunryu Suzuki: “Leave your front door and your back door open. Let thoughts come and go. Just don’t serve them tea.” This encourages desensitization to negative thoughts and surrender to the inevitability that they will come up at least every once in a while.

Journaling is another way to handle negative thoughts in a healthful manner. Writing them down, with or without showing them to anybody, can be a healthful way to feel that you’ve gotten them out of your system and can now move on — that you’ve “handled” them instead of bottling them up inside and avoiding acknowledging their existence. Writing them down can also make possible solutions to a problem clearer.

Reframing thoughts is another helpful strategy. Reframing thoughts involves seeing the positive even in negative situations, much like the titular character in the movie Pollyanna. For example, not getting hired could mean you get an even better job.

Breathing exercises can also aid in controlling the negative emotions that arise when we have a negative thought by slowing, deepening, and evening out our breathing pattern and relaxing our neck, back, and shoulders. The medical and mental health communities now realize how deep the connection is between physical and mental health, and this is a perfect example.

Engaging in pleasurable activities, such as hobbies, is another way to deal with negative thoughts and emotions, because they are less likely to pop up while you are doing something you enjoy. These activities result in feel-good chemicals like dopamine and serotonin that naturally put you in a good mood.

These are just some of the techniques that could be helpful in dealing with negative, controlling thoughts and allowing you to take back your life. Negative thoughts are a natural part of life and will never entirely go away. However, it is possible to decrease their intrusion into your life, as well as the intensity of their effect when they do appear. And due to the neuroplasticity of the brain, after a while of dealing with negative thoughts and emotions in appropriate ways, it will become second-nature to do so. Does anyone else find themselves dealing with negative thoughts, and what practices have you found useful in managing them?