…or, What to Do When Your Response to Events is “Something’s WRONG With This Picture!”
It’s only natural: we will from time to time catch ourselves saying, thinking or at least feeling something like:
“This is not how life is supposed to be!”
or, more specifically (since we relate everything back to ourselves):
“This is not how my life was supposed to go.”
We usually don’t see the pointlessness of our resistance to how things are in a given moment. For example, when everything is ok one moment then suddenly a storm comes and a tree branch breaks off and falls on our car roof, we don’t think, “Darn it! Gravity should NOT occur in my neighborhood during lightning storms!”
That would be silly, right? Yet being upset that “Darn it! My car should NOT have been damaged by that branch!” is actually just as irrational. It happened. The damage exists. The moment when it happened is already in the past and you cannot change it.
Underneath our upset about the damage to our vehicle, and the arrival of this unexpected complication in our life, we are arguing for a different version of reality than the one that is occurring. We feel emphatically, “This should NOT be happening! Give me back my stable, predictable, under-control life!”
Sometimes we add insult to injury by criticizing ourselves for being upset. We may think we’re supposed to be able to handle anything and still keep our cool, so we get upset not only about the situation but about our own reaction. That just deepens the sense of betrayal of our “how life is supposed to be” contract. That’s just resistance piled on top of resistance!
Why Do We Put So Much Energy Into Resisting Undesirable Events?
As we grow up we develop a set of ideals about what’s “good” and should be embraced, and what’s “bad” and should be avoided. Whatever power we think we have to manifest our own destiny is usually directed at pursuing the “good” things and steering clear of or eliminating the “bad” things.
We even make “bargains” with life, such as “If I make sure to be a good person then people are supposed to be nice back to me.” But when that bargain is not upheld by the other guy, or the universe (for example: unexpected tragedies that break our hearts), we feel shocked, betrayed and victimized.
We have a vision of how our world should be. When it seems like already is that way we think it should stay that way, with no unwelcome surprises. But even if life seems perfect for a time, as the saying by Heraclitus goes, “there’s nothing permanent except change.”
As each day dawns, no matter what happened yesterday to disprove the validity of our “ideal world” vision of how life is supposed to be, we go right back to expecting the bargains to be upheld. We usually don’t even consider the equally valid alternative view that life includes a certain number of random events, some of which hurt, some of which feel great, and everywhere in between – and we just happen to be here when they occur.
This alternative view doesn’t suggest that we are powerless to influence all outcomes, and should give up trying to accomplish anything! It just offers us the possibility that when we have that jolt of “Hey! This is WRONG! This isn’t fair! I don’t want this to be happening!” we can catch ourselves and shift our thinking as soon as we are able to.
We can realize we’ve just been given an opportunity to find our power to respond in a way that nurtures and supports us rather than magnify the upset by resisting what has happened.
And I’m not saying it’s always easy to make these shifts, or quick to acquire as a new habit! But it’s like a muscle: it becomes stronger the more we exercise and use it.
So What’s the Alternative to Getting Upset?
- Embrace the situation by simply stating to yourself what has happened – in factual terms, without adding any emotional content or added interpretation about how awful, wrong or upsetting it is.
- Acknowledge exactly how you feel about it. Whatever your initial reaction was, identify the feelings, thoughts, and internal dialogue you have had about it. Complain that it’s unfair, curse your terrible streak of bad luck…no holds barred, be as emphatic as you like, since no one else is listening!
- When you’ve said everything there is to say about how you feel and the intensity is starting to diminish, take 3 slow, deep breaths. Tell yourself you have a right to your feelings, and it’s just part of being human to have them. Know that they may come up again later, or from time to time, and that there’s nothing wrong with that.
- Now shift your conscious thoughts to the most helpful actions you can take next. Start with self-care, since that is what will sustain and fortify you to do everything else that follows. Whatever you need most, give yourself that – what can calm you, cheer you up, and/or give you something else to work on or think about until you’re ready to take action? If you can’t afford pampering at a spa, be creative and think of other ways to restore your spirit and remember the things you’re most grateful for.
- Finally, start taking the first step. If it’s something that can only be done during the workday and you’re doing this on a weekend, then put things in place so you can hit the ground running Monday morning (gathering phone numbers, doing internet research, enlisting the help of knowledgeable friends and family, etc.). The more forward momentum you can establish early on, the more you will be encouraged to stay in action rather than lapse into feeling bad, demoralized or stuck.
Most important: Your highest priority actions, and the ones that will make the most difference in defusing your upset feelings and giving you back your sense of control, will always be those practical steps you can take that also provide more predictability and flexibility in similar situations in the future. Need better insurance? Time to have that wellness checkup with your doctor? Are you dying to volunteer to help others in need? Want to finally get that master’s degree you’ve been thinking about? Take those goals to heart and make them happen!
Even as you swing into action and feel more empowered, know that some things won’t ever be within your power to control. That’s all right – focus on the outcomes you CAN achieve!