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Sunday, December 30, 2012

A little course on emotional self-defence

Here is the paradox: Life is too short to feel miserable. But life is also full of events that could make you miserable if you let them. How to cope? Simply by making the conscious choice to be happy. After all if we’re alive, we might as well make the most of it!

Unhappiness arises from a mixture of causes; the factors are numerous and often intertwined. The good news is that we do have power over at least some of them.

I strongly believe that it is up to us to fight back the tendency to get caught in a downward spiral – before it’s too late.

(Of course if you’re at the point where you don’t enjoy what you used to, and feel there is no point in living, then please skip this blog and seek help – quick.)

Here’s a few strategies that thirty-something years of life and the shared wisdom of others have taught me.

Regulate your mood via the body

First things first. There are some simple steps you can take to help prevent neurochemical unbalances. To name but a few: Exercise daily. Eat well (less sugar, more vitamins, healthy fats and protein). Sleep enough (too much isn’t better). You need a system in good working order to begin with.

Regulate your mood via cognition

1)      A change (in attitude) will do you good

 
From an intellectual point of view, it is interesting to try and be as lucid as possible. But from an emotional point of view, it is plain dangerous. Once you start to ponder the unfairness or the absurdity of life, it is hard not to reach the conclusion that life is shi**y or not worth living. From a “feel good” point of view, the reality doesn’t matter so much as our interpretation of it. It doesn't matter that you're actually beautiful, talented or rich; as long as you think you are. A little bit of delusion could actually do you good. It doesn’t matter that life is unfair and absurd; as long as you don’t let that thought swallow you whole. It doesn’t matter that you’re going through tough times; as long as you know you’ve had good times in the past, and will have good times in the future.


Unless you’re already profoundly depressed (in which case I will repeat it: seek help), self-regulating your thoughts should bring about positive changes. Shift the focus to concentrate on what is going well. Avoid like the plague thoughts that make you feel down. This does not mean you have to turn into a happy-go-lucky who refuses to acknowledge anything that has the slightest unpleasantness to it. But it is true that a pessimistic approach to life has a tendency to spiral down into dark thoughts. Don’t let that happen.

2)      Be pragmatic, not dramatic

We all know the saying: "Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference." But we often forget to apply it in our lives. If something makes me upset enough and if I think I have the power to do something constructive about it, I do just that. No room for dramatization. I need all my energy for action. If, on the other hand, something makes me upset but I am aware I have neither the power nor the willingness to act to change it, then I forbid myself to give it another minute of "upsetness". 

Sometimes, I realize that I might just not be ready to act. It can be because I have not found the best course of action yet, or because it's still too early to do something, or because I need to prepare myself psychologically first. In those cases, I cease to focus on the problem, but I make sure to revisit it a little bit later. In any case, I try hard to not let any drama grow inside of me.

I used to feel intense stress when I faced a challenge that had no apparent solution. With time I have discovered that things usually turn out much better than the worst case scenario we had imagined. With time I have also discovered that even when there's no solution is in sight, it does not mean no solution exists. We are simply not aware of it yet. Solutions have a funny way of presenting themselves to us when we thought all was lost. Keep hope. Or, as my father, Y, used to say: "Have trust in future's uncertainty".

3)      Lower your expectations

This has nothing to do with accepting everything that happens to us, or settling for less. We all deserve the best, and should definitely strive for it.

Lowering our expectations means being realistic about life. We don't live in a Care Bears world. We know, for example, that if we have children, or a pet, it's just a matter of time before they completely wreck something. Expecting otherwise is just a passport for unhappiness. When it comes to sh** happening, the question is not if it will happen, but when it will happen.

Why are we so surprised when sh** happens? Maybe because, as Candide (Voltaire's character) would say, we like to think that "All is for the best in the best of all possible worlds". When something goes wrong, we are taken aback, shocked, angry. We think it's so unfair.

If reality doesn't match your expectations, and if reality cannot be changed to match your expectations… then change your expectations. Life is too short to feel dissatisfied.

4)   Optimize the pressure you put on yourself

In our culture, we are constantly stressed, in levels that cannot be explained by any threat to our basic needs' fulfillment. How can we be so stressed when most of us live a comfortable life, with access to everything that our bodies and minds need? The answer lies in the pressure we put on ourselves. We want to do too much, too fast, too perfectly. No wonder we end up exhausted, overwhelmed, and dissatisfied. Save your sanity: cut down on the pressure. Pick a few time-consuming (and unpleasant) activities that you can realistically spend less time on, and do just that. Spend less time on them. 

Now you don't want to be under stimulated, either. Are there any areas where you might not be putting enough pressure on yourself? Have you been denying yourself the opportunity to develop your talents and pursue higher accomplishments? This is where you should put your energies. Clean your house a little bit less, and write on your blog a little bit more, for example. (Or any other example that personally suits you.)

5)      Be mentally flexible

Life excels at throwing us off balance. At taking us out of our comfort zone. Sooner or later there will be disappointments, disillusion, loss. What a better way to deal with it than be flexible? To embrace change, and even vulnerability? Adaptation is key. Old age is a good example of the need for flexibility. There is no escaping it: unless we die early (which is not more rejoicing), we will get older, and gradually lose our youthful looks, our mobility, our independence. Sooner or later we will have to deal with pains and aches. We will be forced to slow down. Whether we like it or not. How we deal with this, however, belongs entirely to us.

I am lucky enough to have a few examples of resilient and adaptable elders in my family, namely my two grandmothers, their siblings and some of their friends. I learn a lot by looking at how they deal with aging.

My paternal grandmother, G, has told me many times that she doesn’t understand why a lot of her peers complain of being bored. She says she is not bored at all. Her activities are limited, but she still enjoys life. G was a very active woman who had her own career (in the medical field) despite being born in 1917. She also traveled extensively. One would expect that she would feel down about the fact that she can now barely walk (although she still rode her stationary bike on a regular basis well into her eighties!) But down she is not. She has let go of the activities that were not anymore possible, adapted others, and found new ones that are more suitable to her capacities. She seems happy, and one can always have fascinating conversations with her.

As for my maternal grandmother, S (born in 1918), one of her favorite hobbies of all time was to knit. It has become increasingly difficult for her because of her declining eye sight. Not one to easily be defeated, though, she simply started knitting paler shades of wool, in which the details are easier to see. Like G, S remained pretty active until just a few years ago, cultivating an impressive garden and knitting like a machine; she also volunteered with other elders (who needed more help for various health reasons). At the ripe age of 83, she traveled to Europe for the first time, and there I am told she climbed mountains without ever complaining. Now 94 years of age, S still retains a healthy dose of humor and wit and liveliness. She is fun to be around.

Finally, I have to mention L, G’s sister-in-law. L has always painted. She especially excelled at landscapes. Tragic as it can be, aging confronted her with a very significant loss of vision. Did she stop painting? Absolutely not! She simply switched from representative art to abstract painting. What she paints these days is absolutely stunning; her use of color and texture testify to the fact that she is an experienced (and talented) painter. She still sells her art for big bucks. She just turned 94.

(As for R, L's husband and G's older brother - he is 96, he still plays pool, and never wants us to help him with anything, including getting extra chairs from a distant room, for the guests!) 

Aging will not spare any of us, but it is up to us to use it to our advantage.

6)      Cultivate detachment

We become unhappy when we feel we cannot live without something or someone. What used to be (or could become) a source of happiness becomes a source of unhappiness because of its absence. You had that summer fling. Now it’s over. What do you do? You can mope about. Or you can feel grateful. It could have never happened. Appreciate it fully for what it was, instead of expecting more. This applies to all life’s good things. To borrow from my friend S’s wisdom, “extras are bonuses”. What does that mean? It means that everything that adds to your baseline happiness should be considered like a bonus, and you should appreciate it instead of hoping for more.

7)      Be grateful

Speaking of gratefulness. Catherine DeVrye’s book, Hot Lemon & Honey, contains a quote that encompasses the idea of gratefulness very well I think. It goes like this: “Everyday above the ground is a good one”. It pays to stop thinking about what we don’t have (a sure way to become unhappy), and instead focus on what we are grateful about. Why don’t we immerse ourselves in the simple joy of being above the ground, alive and breathing? 

Gratefulness is something you get better at with practice. So practice, practice, and practice more. Every night, before falling asleep, list a few reasons why you’re grateful for this day. Then extend your gratefulness to all moments. This morning, when I looked outside and saw we were snowed in, instead of feeling frustrated (I wouldn’t be able to go for a run) I decided to focus on the fact that it was beautiful, and that I was lucky to live in a well-insulated house that remains warm and dry despite the wind and cold outside.

Regulate your mood via some simple actions

1)      Don’t put all your eggs in the same basket

One thing or one person cannot have monopoly over our happiness. Work should be balanced with hobbies; both should be stimulating and pleasurable. Love (for a significant other) should be balanced with other family ties and friendship; both should provide with a sense of connection. A little bit of each of many things will ensure that if one area collapses, you can still rely on other areas to make you happy.

2)      Have projects

Don’t get stuck in a rut. Life is dynamic. We thrive on novelty, stimulation, and new experiences. What’s more exciting than something (or someone) new in your life? Find ways to nurture a youthful enthusiasm about life. Keep learning. (We all have something we want to know more about.) Try new things. (Even if it’s scary at first.) Meet and connect with new people. (Even if you’re shy.) Visit new places. (Doesn’t have to be far away.) Move around the furniture if need be! Get a puppy! (Only if you’re ready to take care of him/her properly, of course.)

3)      Ditch the material stuff

As my beloved aunt M would say, materialism is a dead end. It’s nice to be comfortable (for eg. to wear good shoes), to be surrounded by beauty and to indulge in luxurious pleasures once in a while. But life cannot revolve around that. Also, your self-worth cannot be based on impressing other people with what you own or what you do (as tempting as it may be!) Who cares what brand those clothes are, if this jewelry is genuine, or how much a certain object is worth. If you like them, you like them. If others don’t, too bad for them.

4)      Relationships are everything

Think about the times in your life when you’ve felt the most despair. Chances are it was in times when you felt isolated, lonely, rejected (family conflict, bullying and heart breaks are good examples). We are a gregarious species that thrives on a sense of belonging (even the most introverts among us!) Cultivating our social network is nothing less than vital.

Then there are the toxic relationships we sometimes find ourselves stuck with. Our first reaction should be to protect ourselves. The best way to do this is simply to refuse to play the role the other person is trying to assign us. A relationship is dynamic, it is a dance where each person plays a role. If you modify the role you play, the other person doesn't have any other choice but to change their own behavior too. If, for example, you refuse to play the role of the dominated and controlled, the dominant/controlling person will soon have to abandon (not without a certain amount of turmoil, but hold on tight – it will get better). In some cases, you may have to take your distances… and that is fine too.

In relationships, giving is as important as receiving, and feels as good (oftentimes it even feels better). You know the difference between a crush and real love: in a crush you focus on how you feel. In the case of true love, the other person’s well-being becomes as important as your own. In general I have found that helping others and focusing on their needs is a good way to distract myself from my own dissatisfactions. I will still address my own needs, but regularly switching the focus from “me, myself and I” onto someone else does work wonders.

5)      Indulge in simple pleasures

They abound. They don’t necessarily cost much. Nature and music, for example, can put you in a trance if you fully immerse yourself in them. Other ideas: Any creative activity that you enjoy (mine is writing, but everyone can find their own). Reading. Playing. Dancing. Exercising. Laughing. Chatting with friends or family.

The pleasures of Winter, by Daniel van Heil


Food and wine can do the trick too, but they can become addictive, and then show unwanted side effects. 

One activity that fits the requirements of being both free, healthy, and intensely pleasurable is…

…well… sex, of course!

So go ahead and indulge! Long winter nights are ahead… take advantage! Time to reconnect with your sensual self! ;-) 

1 comment:

  1. This is beautiful!

    I like to say life is too long to live it unhappy! No question, if you want time to last forever, just be depressed, lol!

    As for gratitude, my daily mantra is:

    Thank you for the gifts I have been given, and for those which I am about to receive.

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