If 2020 taught us anything, it’s that life happens.
Pandemics. Distance learning. Divorce. Accidents. Job loss. Murder hornets.
How do you deal with life’s inevitable and sometimes unexpected challenges? Get angry? Constantly worry? Assume the worst?
Living this life from chronic stress and anxiety, reacting in anger, fear and frustration at every curveball thrown our way makes this trip around the sun a not-so-fun place to be.
I know. I used to show up to life with the “why is everything happening to me” mindset. Or “I’m just not capable of handling this,” or my favorite, “everyone will think I’m a failure”. A lifetime of anxiety left me always worried what other people thought of me, whether that was a stranger at the grocery store, a friend I’d had for a decade, or even my own parents. It didn’t matter, I always assumed people were judging me—and harshly!
I feared going to work so much that every Sunday night was a torture chamber of anxiety over Monday morning that I just gave up trying to sleep Sunday nights. Because, of course, the next week would bring projects I wasn’t smart enough to execute and everyone was going to figure out that I had no idea what I was doing.
If plans changed at the last minute, I would get irrationally angry at having lost control of things turning out how I imagined they would. Or if someone in the grocery line in front of me was taking too long. Or if someone on the highway cut in front of me. Or if the dogs begged at the kitchen counter while I cooked dinner. Everything made me angry.
If something was going to be hard or stressful or uncomfortable, I avoided it. If I felt bad – I had to numb it with wine or pot or pills. I was so afraid to fail that I gave up trying. I didn’t try to make friends because I was afraid they would think I was a joke. If something wasn’t going to come out perfect or if I wasn’t instantly good at something, I steered clear of it.
Reacting in stress, staying angry, constantly worrying — not only was this a miserable way to think and feel, after a few decades of it, my body was a wreck. I was always either nauseous or bloated. I had daily tension headaches. My brain never shut up long enough for me to fall asleep. I was always uncomfortable.
Over the last decade, I’ve learned the tools needed to be willing to experience discomfort. To allow myself to fail. To laugh and learn when I make a mistake. To not care what other people think of me. To stop assuming the worst.
That’s what I call graceful resilience.
To show up to what life throws at me with my head held high and to gracefully handle any negative outcome or uncomfortable emotion that it elicits.
It didn’t happen overnight. But like anything worthwhile in this world, with a little practice and a little perspective and a little guidance, it gets easier and easier and is so worth the effort.
Here are 5 absolute essentials to transforming stress and anxiety into graceful resilience so you can handle anything life throws at you:
1. Identify your stress triggers and ask, “What am I trying to control that I have no control over”
I define stress as a perceived lack of control.
We really only have control over what we think and what we do. Everything outside of that, we may be able to influence, but we cannot control.
We can’t control the past — it already happened and we don’t own time machines (yet).
We can’t control the future — as much as we try to shape the future, life often doesn’t always meet our expectations.
We can’t control other people (even our kids or partners) — even though we really wish we could sometimes.
Are you stressed about your messy house? Maybe angry that your kids didn’t pick up like they were supposed to? Frustrated that your husband is sitting on the couch goofing off on his phone instead of cleaning?
What don’t you have control over in this moment? You don’t own a magic wand to *poof* make it all go away, or *poof* make your family immediately pitch in more. A new approach is needed.
Because what you really want more than a clean house is to FEEL GOOD. And reacting in anger over everything you can’t control in this situation is making you FEEL BAD.
So what DO you have control over in this situation? Setting or reiterating boundaries and expectations. Cleaning it yourself. Giving the mess permission to be there until it is cleaned.
Are you angry because the house is a mess, or are you angry that other people didn’t clean it? Either way, I assume you’re sick of being angry (just like I was), because it doesn’t seem to be solving anything.
“But I want the house to be clean, and I expect my family to help!!!” I hear ya, I really do! I’m not saying to drop all expectations and live the rest of your life in a messy house.
What I’m saying is your reaction to that mess — and to your family not helping — is anger and frustration ON TOP of the mess. It’s like adding crap croutons on top of a poop salad. It’s not helping, and it makes you feel terrible.
So, ask yourself, “What am I trying to control that I have no control over?” and “What DO I have control over?”
Take back control! Show up to this situation in a way that you choose.
2. Allow your uncomfortable emotions to be present without resistance
I really struggled with this one! It’s only natural though. We naturally avoid discomfort.
Radical acceptance is a foreign concept to a lot of people — it certainly was to me. I didn’t quite see how much I was resisting my own emotions.
When I was dumped a few weeks before my wedding, I struggled for months fighting back tears and numbing the pain. When I finally said enough’s enough and I let myself fully feel the flood of emotion without any resistance, my healing truly began.
We’re afraid to feel our emotions in full. It seems as if tearing down that wall and allowing our emotions to be fully present will be too much for us to handle.
Like I said, it’s only natural to avoid something that feels bad. The truth is, emotions can’t hurt us.
Our emotions are energy in motion — denying them, hiding from them, or numbing them with TV, social media, food, wine, or even sex only prolongs the emotion. It does nothing to help us process and move on.
So my best tip to step into radical acceptance is to put your hand on your chest and give your uncomfortable emotions permission to be present.
“I see you, sadness. I understand why you are sad. This is a moment of suffering just as others have felt too. It will pass, but in the meantime, I give you permission to be here. I’m here for you.”
Recognize what you are feeling. Accept, acknowledge, and allow it to be present. Approach it with an open and curious mind instead of judgement.
3. Motivate yourself with kindness instead of criticism
We are so hard on ourselves! It’s crazy how we are able to support and motivate others but can be so tough on ourselves.
Self-compassion is another mystery to many people.
We have this misconception that if we would be letting ourselves off the hook by being “soft” on ourselves. That we need to be hard on ourselves in order to reach our goals or do better. Or that we don’t deserve to be kind to ourselves.
On the contrary, the exact opposite is true. Love is a better motivator than fear.
If a friend of yours was trying to lose weight and she feels terrible that she ate a pint of ice cream yesterday, you would NOT say to her, “You might as well get used to being fat because you don’t have the willpower to eat right. You keep messing up, what is wrong with you? You’re disgusting.”
Not only is it mean, but you wouldn’t say that to her because it would almost definitely become a self-fulfilling prophecy. She would feel bad as a result and probably reach for comfort food. Or she would give up, feeling worthless and seeing failure as inevitable.
You would likely say to her instead, “So you slipped, I get it, you had a stressful day and didn’t have something easy and healthy to grab when you got home from work. I’ve done that too. Just take this one day at a time, one meal at a time. How can I help support you? You got this, keep going!”
Which one sounds more motivating? The criticism or the kindness?
When it’s you that slips up, How do you talk to yourself? It’s obvious what to say when we are trying to support other people, but when it comes to ourselves, we don’t even notice how unkind and even hurtful we are being.
It makes sense, though. We are a mimicking species and we’re used to seeing examples of people being hard on themselves in our “win at all costs, failure isn’t an option” culture. We aren’t used to seeing great examples of people motivating themselves with kindness.
So recognize the negative self talk you are using, and instead, talk to yourself just as you would a good friend.
Pro Tip: This will feel weird at first if you’re not used to talking to yourself like this. That is normal. Don’t let this make you think it isn’t working.
Just like when you hear your voice played back to you on a video, you think, “Is that my voice? That sounds weird!”
It IS you, just not the YOU you’re used to hearing. As those of us who do a lot of recordings will tell you that over time, your voice no longer sounds weird when you hear it played back. It’s just your voice. The same is true with talking to yourself with self-compassion. It just sounds weird at first because you aren’t used to it.
Just try it. And until it starts to feel natural, you’ll at least be spending that much more time on positive self-talk and that much less time listening to the negative self-talk, as well as creating a new, kinder habit of reacting to challenges with positivity.
4. You are not your thoughts, so stop letting them control you
When I first heard the phrase “you are not your thoughts,” I did a cartoon-like double take. I didn’t get it. “What do you mean I’m not my thoughts?? If I’m not my thoughts, what am I?”
But this was a HUGE game changer for me.
Learning how to stop identifying with the thoughts in my head was the ultimate freedom. I love the meditation metaphor of the sky to help illustrate this.
Imagine you are the sky. The clouds passing by represent your thoughts. They come, they go, they change shape. You can choose which one to look at. Sometimes there are so many clouds in the sky it’s so easy to forget that there is a clear blue sky beyond.
Your thoughts are opinions. Judgements. Ideas — one of many possibilities. They are sentences constructed by the mind to describe a situation from a single perspective.
Being able to shine a light on what you are really thinking is the key to real self awareness. Because you can’t change anything unless you recognize what you are really thinking.
If someone is afraid to speak in front of a crowd, I ask, “What are you really afraid of?” And the response is always, “Hm, I’m not sure” until they dig into it further.
“People might not like me.”
“Okay, what are you thinking is so bad about that?”
Do you know?
Keep asking yourself questions to figure out what you are really thinking. Because very often, once you figure that out, the answer sounds pretty ridiculous and maybe even funny and can be enough to shake you out of whatever negative thought spiral you are stuck in.
One of my favorite questions to ask is, “What is the story I’m telling myself?” For one thing, the word “story” sends a signal to our brain that this is just an idea, not ME. It allows you to step back and look at what is going on in your head.
For another thing, it helps you identify the subconscious thoughts that have been mulling around in the back of your mind, bringing them to the foreground where you can actually do something about it.
5. Step into a growth mindset to find opportunities in life’s challenges
You may have noticed a theme so far is that in order to stop being so stressed, anxious, and angry, you have to bring mindful awareness to what you are really thinking and feeling and how you are talking to yourself.
This last step takes you from that state of awareness and opens your perspective to new ideas.
We humans have a natural negativity bias. That is, our ancestors who were on the lookout for danger lived longer than those who did not.
But in today’s world, we don’t need to be constantly on the lookout for mountain lions who are going to eat us.
When you’re dealing with stress and anxiety, your natural negativity bias is on HIGH alert. Always on the lookout for what might go wrong, leading you to assume that everything will go wrong.
We call this a fixed or limiting mindset. It’s tunnel vision. It’s one singular perspective of the world.
If you truly want to start facing life’s challenges head on without fear, without anger, with your expectations in check — so that you are in control, in the driver’s seat regardless of what happens — you need to adopt a growth mindset.
In other words, you need to start asking, “What is another way of looking at this?” or “What could go right?”
I love the story shared through social media of the woman dealing with so much anxiety she couldn’t bring herself to tackle the big pile of dishes because of how much work it would be to scrub them all before putting them in the dishwasher.
Her therapist suggested “run the dishwasher twice”. She, like most of us, was falling victim to a fixed mindset, believing the “rule” that you need to scrub the dishes then run the dishwasher once.
It hadn’t dawned on her to just put them all in the dishwasher and run it a few times until they were clean. It’s not the most efficient way, but it does get the job done.
And that is the goal: getting the job done. After she started noticing all the “rules” she was following from her fixed mindset, she started gaining more control and making more progress. That progress led to feeling motivated and less stressed. Which led to eventually scrubbing the dishes and running the dishwasher once.
Step back to objectively see the other possibilities.
You’ll gain control, open to curiosity over judgement, and handle what life throws at you with grace and resilience.