“Life is hard,” someone said recently.
I felt triggered by this statement. Perhaps partially because I tend to feel guilt for my privilege–and, despite my shame-spirals, really, really love life–but mostly because “hard” is a relative term, and thus requires some baseline of comparison. For example, a test is only hard because we’re aware of easier tests. A workout class is only hard because we’ve experienced easier workouts.
Yet we don’t have “non-life” to which we can compare life, so how can we call it hard? Yes, life is filled with challenge–that’s a defining quality of life. But life is as easy as it is hard. Life is life. It’s all we know.
That said, we make life hard. Really, we’re just a bunch of beings on a giant rock revolving around the sun, stressing ourselves out unnecessarily until we die. We make it hard by expecting we should look, act, be a certain way. That we should have a degree (or multiple degrees), that we should be married by a certain age (or at all), that we should have kids, a freestanding home, a retirement fund, fashionable clothes, and a size 24 waist; that we should never fail, fall ill, struggle, lose someone, feel pain, feel sad, feel limited, experience conflict, feel cold, or wet, or embarrassed, or inadequate, or heartbroken, or out of control, or uncertain, or scared, or betrayed (you get me?).
IT DOESN’T HAVE TO BE THAT WAY.
Fact: We cannot stop the pain from happening. We’re going to lose people, pets, friends, our youth. We’re going to feel heartbroken, uncertain, out of control, guilty, betrayed, anxious, depressed, lonely, lost, despairing, humiliated, and hurt. But we make life harder by not learning and using the following skills.
These require continued practice, but they’re your recipe for a good life. As you read, consider which skills you’re already using, and which could you stand to develop or hone 🙂 .
1. The skill of finding meaning in everything
Finding meaning in everything can be viewed as rationalizing everything, but there’s a reason rationalizing feels so damn good. Now, this isn’t a license to go rob a bank or quit your job or be a complete asshole. Finding meaning is basically:
- Trusting in the Universe/process/god/determinism etc. that everything is as it should be
- Creatively deconstructing a painful or unwanted event and seeing what you’ve learned/how you’ve grown/why it had to happen
- Trusting that sometimes shitty things happen to us to protect us from worse things or guide us to better things (e.g. not getting a job so you can get a better job; missing the bus so we don’t get hit by a bus)
- Trusting that sometimes shitty things happen as part of the Butterfly Effect, and we’re just bystanders in the ripples
Don’t brush me off, Bra. Try it. Just humor me for a bit and see how you feel if you imagine that you’re exactly where you should be today. Exactly in the right spot on your path. Everything that you’re aware of thus far has come out of your life learnings (or as I like to call it, your PhD in life).
Now, this can be very challenging in the wake of tragedy or loss. It’s one thing to miss the bus. It’s another thing to lose your home, all your possessions, and any semblance of normalcy in a wildfire. Or to lose a child to a tragic accident. In these cases, you are NOT expected to convince yourself “Everything happens for a reason”–at least anytime soon. If possible, try to trust that ONE DAY, you will find meaning in this event. But today is not that day. Today is a day for grief, mourning, honoring, surviving.
2. The skills of compassion & self-compassion
Well, this one’s not a surprise, is it? But seriously, you truly will not be happy in life without compassion. Compassion unites and connects, us, and self-compassion soothes and protects us. Living life without self compassion is like trekking across broken glass barefooted. It’s like walking around with a bully by your side, criticizing your every move, punishing you, abusing you. Self-compassion is a pair of super comfy, super durable shoes (at least after you get past the initial discomfort and break them in), that LET YOU LIVE while protecting you from the wet, cold, sharpness of life.
Self-compassion isn’t just about self-kindness. It’s about mindfulness and responding empathically rather than reacting critically or impuslively. It’s about recognizing we’re all imperfect, and that’s OK. It about recognizing that difficult feelings and experiences are part of the human condition–that you are not alone in what you’re going through. It’s about recognizing that we’re all interconnected. We’re all part of a unified consciousness. We are all in this together.
3. The skill of healthy perspective-taking & gratitude
Practicing gratitude and gaining perspective in a healthy way is an art, but luckily it’s a pretty primary art. It’s like finger painting. You just have to learn the basic formula, then you’re not going to fuck up. Rather than shaming yourself into being grateful by saying something like, “There are starving children in Africa” or “Those are privileged person problems,” follow these steps:
First, empathize with what you’re feeling (e.g. “It’s understandable that you’re feeling frustrated you’ve been unemployed for X months–you didn’t expect it would take this long to find a job and you’re starting to feel anxious about your finances, lacking a sense of purpose, and are losing your confidence.”); then, take a step back and find gratitude somewhere (e.g. “It’s incredible that you have the opportunity to look for a job. Not long ago, most women couldn’t work and barely had access to education, let alone the respected positions you’re applying for. Isn’t it wonderful that you’re cognitive and physically able enough to have the freedom to work?”)
A few more examples, to really hammer this one home:
- Isn’t it a gift that you were able to experience such deep love and connection that it’s caused this heartbreak?
- Isn’t it incredible that you’re alive to feel these feelings?
- Isn’t it amazing that you’re healthy and safe enough to give a shit about those 10lbs you put on?
It’s a two-step process. Dip your fingers in the paint, then put them on the page. Empathize with what you’re feeling, then recognize how there’s actually privilege and potential for gratitude in your suffering.
4. The skill of acknowledge of our finite existence/impermanence
I was in a spin class recently, trying to focus on anything other than how much I dislike spinning. My attention fell on the wheel of a spin bike across from me. Although it was moving rapidly due to it’s far-more-invested-than-me rider, the wheel appeared as though it was unmoving. Solid. Fixed. All of reality is this way. Like lights flickering so quickly that they appear solid, but they are not. Modulations of consciousness. Vibrating atoms that appear to take form, but are actually formless.
This illusion of permanence contributes significantly to our pain. Everything is impermanent, from our perception of the present moment to the relationships we have to our mood, thoughts, bodies, appearance, material items, and ultimately–our life. Awareness of impermanence helps us detach from clinging or aversion, recognizing that everything will come and go, and is to be experienced rather than held onto or pushed away. Of course, humans default to the illusion of permanence, so it’s important to be reminded of impermanence constantly (because the thought, “Everything is impermanent” is also impermanent!). Remind yourself that YOU ARE GOING TO DIE.
STAY WITH ME! Yes, it’s uncomfortable. Sit with that. It will guide you closer to your purpose. You are going to die. In acknowledging the impermanence of everything, we can be mindful and find the beauty in the process.
5. The skills of being vulnerable, connecting, and asking for help
Humans are social beings. We’re not meant to be in isolation, living in studio apartments and spending days at a time without interacting with a real human being. This is why loneliness is such a painful feeling. Loneliness is evolution’s way of saying, “Connect! Seek safety in the pack! Procreate! Go! Alleviate this feeling!” Isolation breeds depression and addiction. Connection lends to happiness and calm.
Somewhere along the way, some of us got the memo that wearing a veneer of perfection is the way to be liked and accepted. Look perfect. Act perfectly. Present yourself. Be poised, together, infallible. Be independent. Do it all on your own.
Au contraire, mes amis! That veneer actually disconnects us. It is in vulnerability that we build deep trust and connection. When we can say, “I’m human, will you still accept me?” and whomever we’re admitting our humanness to says, “Yes! I’m human, too!” we feel seen–still worthy amidst our imperfections. That’s authentic connection. That’s the really good stuff.
And, we’re not supposed to do it alone. We’re not supposed to grieve alone, or deal with our emotional pain alone, or move apartments on our own. Asking for help is a sign of strength and courage–whether it’s asking for a listening ear or to borrow a sum of money, this does not make you weak. This makes you self-aware and resourceful.
6. The skill of giving yourself emotional permission
Although we’re making strides, there’s still a belief that there are “good” feelings and “bad” feelings. There are no bad feelings. I repeat: THERE ARE NO BAD FEELINGS. There are certainly unhelpful reactions to feelings, but those feelings are not inherently bad. There are uncomfortable feelings, such as many of the feelings I listed earlier, but they are not bad. Again, loneliness tells us to connect. Anxiety tells us to prepare. Grief highlights the loss of something or someone we’ve cared about and attached to deeply. Uncertainty tells us to plan. Anger tells us we’ve been mistreated, or an injustice of sorts has occurred. Depression tells us we’re not living the life we want to live. And so on, and so on.
Giving yourself permission to feel your emotions is one of the most liberating and self-compassionate things you can do in life. When we judge, suppress, numb, and avoid our feelings, we create another layer of feelings (secondary emotions)--generally in the form of anger, anxiety, or shame.
7. The skill of recognizing what we see is not reality
Fairytales, movies, stories, billboards, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, models, royalty, celebrities–what we see is not representative of reality. The dominant narratives that pervade our society are not “truths.” They are avenues to feeling inadequate and incomplete. They cause us to have a skewed and unrealistic expectation for how life should play out; and when our experienced narrative isn’t in line with the ones we’re surrounded by, media tells us, “You are not happy enough.” “You are not pretty enough; you are not thin enough. you are not muscular enough. you are not tall enough. you are not married enough; your relationship isn’t happy enough; you are not cool enough; you are not funny enough; you are not sane enough; you are not wealthy enough; you are not healthy enough; you are not senior enough; you are not mature enough; you are not responsible enough; you are not likable enough; you are not successful enough; you are not authentic enough; you are not vulnerable enough; you are not professional enough; you are not caucasian enough; you are not assertive enough; you are not feminine enough; YOU ARE NOT ENOUGH.“
And so you know what we do? We buy things. We buy clothes, and makeup, and cars, and bags, and Apple devices, and detoxes, and supplements, and psychopharmaceuticals. We try to make ourselves more desirable, more acceptable, more enviable. We try to turn ourselves into something people will want to be around, when the whole time we’re missing the point (and suffering the whole time).
There’s nothing wrong with appreciating nice things, or wanting to look a certain way, but you’ve lost the plot if you’re doing it to connect. Be good. Be kind. Be vulnerable. Be mindful. Be compassionate. Listen. that’s how you’ll connect.
8. The skills of mindfulness–acceptance & nonjudgment in the current moment
Rejecting ourselves and our realities is one of the easiest ways to make life hard. It’s like throwing a tantrum over the fact that you were born human, not a tiger. “BUT I WANT TO BE A TIGER!” Maybe in the next life, but right now, you’re a human. Rejecting ourselves and our current realities doesn’t evoke change, it only makes us feel shame, frustration, and anxiety.
Remember that accepting doesn’t necessarily mean “liking” or “wanting.” Accepting is surrendering to what is in this moment, rather than vainly fighting to change what cannot be changed. It doesn’t mean you can’t change in the future. It doesn’t mean you have to love whatever has happened, or the depression or weight gain or heartbreak. But give yourself permission to be exactly where you are today, and to accept that what is, is.
Similarly, judgment toward ourselves, life, and others causes a great deal of pain. Language is generally at the root of our judgment, so consider replacing judgment-laden and emotionally evocative qualifiers like “good/bad/right/wrong/ugly/beautiful/smart/stupid/etc.” with gentler qualifiers like “serving/unserving/helpful/unhelpful.” Also, where you might describe something or an experience as _____, try instead to describe it as “is as it is.” For example, instead of “My body is fat” or “That guy is an asshole,” try “My body is as it is” or “That guy is as he is.” The nuances are subtle, but the shifts are powerful.
So consider which of these skills you might already be putting into practice, and which you’re willing to play with. If you’re hesitant, remember that these are skills, and if they don’t serve you, you can always decide to stop using them :). xx