happy is not a choice: the difference between happiness + positivity

Positivity
 

 

You've probably heard quotes like "happiness is a choice" or "if you want to be happy, be" or "people are as happy as they make up their minds to be." (I'm probably guilty of using these words. Scroll through my Instagram feed and I bet you'll find "choose happy" or something along those lines amidst my many quote-themed photos.) In theory, these quotes come from a good place. They're meant to highlight the notion that, though you don't always have control of your circumstances, you have control over how you feel. 

Except... that's not true.  

Quotes like "choose happiness" or "think happy thoughts" aim to convey the idea that, no matter what happens, you have control over what you think, but what they actually convey is that you have control over what you feel. But there's a big difference between what you think and how you feel, and the idea that thoughts and feelings are interchangeable is potentially very damaging because, much as you might want to, you can't control how you feel. And you can't control happiness because happiness is a feeling. You can't just choose to be happy when your dog just died or your wife just left or you're suffering from depression. You can't choose to be happy when you just found out your child has cancer or your parents are abusive or your doctor just diagnosed you with a chronic illness. 

If you've ever experienced any of these things (or any other heart-breaking, painful, or sad situation), you know this is the truth. No matter how much you want to be happy, sometimes you just cannot be. This is normal and to be expected because happiness is a way of feeling, not a way of thinking.  

While feeling isn't something you can control, thinking is. The literal definition of to feel is "to experience an emotion." To think is defined as "to direct one's mind toward someone or something." Experiencing an emotion just happens. You feel sad when something saddens you. You feel happy when something (or someone!) makes you happy. You can (sometimes) decide whether or not you get carried away with your emotions, but you can't control whether you have them in the first place.  

You feel how you feel when you feel it, and feelings can't be changed by words like "be happy!" or "think happy thoughts!" As anyone who's faced serious trauma or heartbreak knows, in the midst of true pain and loss, happy thoughts are not an option. But what is an option is thinking positively. Happiness is not always an option, but positive thinking always is. Let's take a closer look at how they're different... 

 

THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN POSITIVITY + HAPPINESS 

You might be saying to yourself right about now, Aren't positivity and happiness basically the same thing? Aren't "positive thoughts" and "happy thoughts" the same?  No, they are not the same, and the difference between them is very, very important (especially for anyone striving to live a positively present life!). 

Fleeting Emotion vs. Logical Choice

As I said before, happiness is an emotion. Emotions, as a rule, are fleeting. Some last longer than others, but there are very rarely entire days when you are happy. Even when things are going incredibly well and you're having an amazing day, you're not actually experiencing true happiness and joy that entire day. (Same goes for negative emotions too — no matter how difficult the situation, you usually experience a range of emotions, not just "sad," and even in the most challenging of times, positive feelings like hope and even happiness can be experienced.) 

On the other hand, positive thinking is an active choice — the decision to focus on the possibility of good results or seek out the goodness in any situation or person (good or bad). Positive thinking is logical, not emotional. It's more about using your head than it is about using your heart. It's about taking whatever you experience (and feel) and trying your best to make the most of the situation (even if the situation is terrible). 

Experiencing vs. Learning

Happiness must be experienced. Positivity, on the other hand, is something that can be learned and practiced by everyone. No matter what's going on in your life, you can strive for a positive attitude. You can also practice it (and get better at it!), which is something you can't do with happiness. You can fake happiness, but that's not the same as practicing it. You're either happy or you're not. You can't learn to be happier, and you certainly can't force yourself to feel (truly) happy when you just don't feel that way.

A lot of people struggle because of the notion that you can somehow become happier overall by doing something external (getting a better job, falling in love, buying the newest gadget) but those kinds of things only provide a burst of happiness that will eventually fade until we find that next "happiness high." Happiness can be gained from external things, but it won't last because it's merely an emotion. Instead of focusing on experiences, it's much more useful to spend time and energy learning how to find the good in any situation (rather that striving for short bursts of happiness). 

Unique Feeling vs. Similar Thinking

Another major difference between happiness and positivity is this: happiness is incredibly unique. (This is why it's such a hard topic to study and deeply comprehend.) What fills your heart with joy might not even register on my happiness radar. It's kind of like love in a way (except it usually doesn't last as long): it's something we all experience at some point, but it's hard to put it into words because we all experience it so differently and for such different reasons.

Also, because happiness is a feeling, it's experienced in unique ways too. If you and I were both to think of a time when we were incredibly happy, we might have very different reactions to that memory even if we both labeled it as a "happy" time. From a mental and a physical standpoint, we all experience happiness differently. However, when it comes to positive thinking, we can all practice similar techniques. We all know what it means to try to find the good in a situation (even if we find different kinds of goodness). Positive thinking is a logical, thought-driven experience. It's something we can all understand and, most of the time, experience in a similar way. For this reason, it's much easier to share and teach to others. (And, as an added bonus, the more someone practices positive thinking, the more happiness s/he is likely to experience.) 

Big Picture vs. Present Moment

Whatever you experience (good and bad) can impact your happiness levels. It's hard to be happy if aspects of your life (some of which might be out of your control) aren't going well. For example, let's say you're having a really great day at work and you receive an unexpected promotion. This should make you really happy, right? It might — but it might not make you happy for very long if something really unhappy is happening in another area of life. You can't experience true happiness when certain areas of your life are negative, uncertain, or unhappy. Happiness focuses on the big picture. This isn't a bad thing, but it's an important difference from positivity, which isn't at all concerned with (or impacted by) the big picture.

Positive thinking focuses on the current moment and determining what you can gain from that experience or interaction. It's about making the most of whatever is happening to you right now. It should not tainted by what has already happened or what could happen (unless you're recalling a time in which you struggled with a difficult situation and overcame it, reminding yourself that you're strong enough to survive whatever you're currently going through). Positivity is about taking whatever's happening and trying to make it as good as it can possibly be, regardless of what's going on in other areas of your life or what might happen in the future. 

There are some major differences between happiness and positivity, but making the differentiation between happiness and positivity isn't meant to make "positive" seem better than "happy," or to put down happiness in anyway. It's only meant to show that there is a big difference. Here's why this difference matters...

 

WHY THE DIFFERENCE MATTERS

After reading about the differences between happiness and positivity you might be thinking, So what? Why does this matter? It matters because so many people use these very different terms as if they are interchangeable, and this can lead to damaging beliefs in those who read/hear phrases like "if you want to be happy, be happy!" or "choose to be happy!" 

Because happiness is not a choice, when people are told to be happy and they're unable to achieve a happy state (because they're in a bad situation, because they have a chemical imbalance that doesn't allow them to be happy often, or for any other reason), they feel like failures. If happiness is promoted as something that can just be chosen, like pulling an item off a store's shelf, those who cannot seem to "choose" it feel as though there is something wrong with them. On the other hand, if you were to suggest to someone who is struggling that s/he "think positively" (accompanied by suggestions for how to actually do it), those words might actually be useful and encouraging. Happiness is not an action that can simply be chosen, and suggesting it is can actually cause feelings of frustration, confusion, and even self-loathing. 

And speaking of self-loathing, one of the other reasons using happiness and positive thinking are used interchangeably is: it causes a lot of people (most of us, in fact!) to strive for something that is unattainable: a lasting, permanent state of happiness. Due to many popular culture messages about happiness, many of us believe we should strive for happiness most of the time, even when we're sad or struggling, even when we're stressed or heartbroken. 

As Dan Harris writes in 10% Happier, the “pursuit of happiness becomes the source of our unhappiness.” If you're striving for a constant state of happiness — a fleeting emotion that rarely lasts for an extended period of time and that sometimes comes from negative sources, like abused substances, the approval of negative people, unhealthy activities, etc. — you're bound to be, at the very least, disappointed a good deal of the time. You might feel guilty when you don't feel happy when everything is going well or confused when you experience happiness during difficult times.

Making an emotion (happiness) a life-long goal is a pretty great way to set yourself up for a lot of disappointment and stress. While there will (hopefully!) be many, many moments of happiness in your life, no one is happy every single moment of every single day, and striving for that is like spending your life hoping to find an actual pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. This isn't meant to leave you feeling as if happiness is some crazy dream that'll never be made real; it's only meant to show how the pursuit of happiness isn't what leads to true fulfillment. Happiness comes in amazing, fleeting moments that we're all lucky to experience from time to time. And the best way to keep an eye out for these moments (and make the most of them when they happen!) is to focus on positive thinking, on seeking out the good in your life, no matter where you find yourself. 

Rather that focusing on choosing happiness, what we should be focusing on is thinking positively. Remember: we can't choose how we feel, but we can choose how we think about those feelings (and whatever it was that caused us to feel that way). Instead of focusing so much being happy, what we should be focusing on is how we can make the most of our lives (both the happy and the sad parts). 

When we see something that tells us to simply "be happy," we should question that request and think about how the notion of happiness-as-a-choice is actually impacting our lives. Of course, there's absolutely nothing wrong with thinking happy thoughts or gravitating toward things that make you happy, but it's important to keep in mind that happiness (no matter how great!) is fleeting. If you're looking for lasting contentment, learning the art of positive thinking is the best place to put your time and energy. 

 

 

Loving-Your-Self

Positive thinking can be tough when it comes to self-contemplation, which is why it's so important to focus on self-love. Want to empower yourself with some serious self-love and acceptance? Start loving yourself (or increase the love you already have for yourself!) with the inspiration and motivation found in Loving Your Self: An Empowering Workbook for Increasing Self-LoveFilled with uplifting encouragement, thought-provoking questions, and engaging exercises, Loving Your Self is an essential tool for mastering the art of self-love. Learn more about the workbook here and purchase your own copy here.


a christmas carol starring... you!

Christmas

 

One of my favorite Christmas tales is Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. It's such a thought-provoking story, filled with concepts like forgiveness and compassion and taking control of the present that we should try to apply to our lives all year long. (If you haven't read the story before, I highly recommend it. You can read the full text here for free. Or watch this version that I used to watch as a kid!) For those of you who haven't read it / watched a film version / don't remember it, here's the gist: 

A mean, miserly, lonely old man called Ebenezer Scrooge is visited by three ghosts on Christmas Eve -- the Ghost of Christmas Past, the Ghost of Christmas Present, and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. Each ghost shows him what his life was / is / will be. The Past ghost reminds him of how he's changed (and not necessarily for the better). The Present ghost shows Scrooge how the current Christmas Day will play out, particularly for those who has treated poorly. And the Yet to Come ghost shows Scrooge mysterious scenes leading up to a man's death -- a man that Scrooge soon releases is him. After the third ghost's visit, Scrooge begs for a chance to go back to the present and right his wrongs, to embrace Christmas in his heart. Scrooge suddenly wakes in his bed and is thrilled with the chance to transform Christmas Present. He shares his newfound Christmas spirit with those he's treated badly and continues to act with kindness and generosity for the rest of his life. 

I've always felt I could relate with A Christmas Carol, probably because it's a tale of transformation, a story of how someone who is "bad" can become "good." We all can probably relate in some way to being flawed, to finding flaws we want to (or do!) change. As someone who often defaults to negative thinking and who must strive again and again to master the arts of staying positive and present, I relate, in some ways, to the character of Scrooge. I know what it's like to not always have been the most positive person, to have a wake-up call (though mine wasn't in the form of three ghosts!), and to want to make the present as positive as possible because I've envisioned what the future would be like if I didn't choose to walk down a positive path. 

Whether or not you've ever had some sort of Scrooge-like, a-ha moment in which your flaws were made clear, I don't think we have to wait for some big moment to think about how we're living our lives. We don't need three ghosts to come to us (or to have some sort of mind-shattering breakthrough or breakdown). In fact, I think we could learn a lot from simply pausing to ponder the question: 

What if YOU were starring in A Christmas Carol

This question popped into my head the other day and I couldn't shake it. It's one of those great questions that prompts you to ask more questions, like:  

What would the Ghost of Christmas Past show me if I were to be visited by such a spirit? What would I see if I were led around by the Ghost of Christmas Present? And what would I see if I were to travel with the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come into the future? 

Plus, it's always kind of fun to imagine yourself starring in a familiar story! Of course, I'm sure this was the whole point of Dickens' book -- to inspire people to think about the past / present / future and consider how the past and the present will impact the future. I'm sure Dickens would love it if every reader put him or herself in Scrooge's shoes. But most people just read the book or watch the film, view Scrooge objectively, and feel happy when he learns his lesson. But what about our own lessons? 

This time of year is often a time of reflection. As the year draws to a close, we recall what's happened over the past twelve months and think about what we want to happen in the year ahead. But I suggest taking it a little bit further and ask yourself the following questions: 

  1. What would the Ghost of Christmas Past show you? 
  2. Who would the main characters in your past be? 
  3. What are the important moments / transitions in your past? 
  4. How did the past (good and bad) impact today? 
  5. What would the Ghost of Christmas Present show you? 
  6. Who would the main characters in your life be now? 
  7. How would you interact with these characters? 
  8. What's happening in the present that might change the future? 
  9. What would the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come show you? 
  10. Who from your present will be in your future? 
  11. What will your future self be doing / feeling / thinking?
  12. How did the past / present influence future Christmases?
  13. What might you want to change to create a future you want? 

I don't know about you, but reflecting on these really made me think! These question made me question what I'm doing now, recall what I've done before (what's worked / what hasn't), and think hard about what I want in the future. I hope these questions encouraged you to think about how the past, present, and future are all connected. What we do today impacts our lives tomorrow. What we've done before is influencing what's happening now. Sometimes, with striving to live in the moment, I forget how much the present impacts the future. What you do now matters, not only to your present self, but also to the future you.

And, now, for some additional inspiration from Dickens, I've rounded-up some of my favorite quotes from the book. Hopefully they'll positively influence you now -- and keep you feeling inspired in the future too. 

"No space of regret can make amends for one life's opportunity misused."

"I will honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach!"

"I have always thought of Christmastime, when it has come round...as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys."

"It is a fair, even-handed, noble adjustment of things, that while there is infection in disease and sorrow, there is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good-humor."

"Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms. His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him."

 

 

Loving-Your-Self

Self-love is an important aspect of self-discovery. Want to empower yourself with some serious self-love and acceptance? Start loving yourself (or increase the love you already have for yourself!) with the inspiration and motivation found in Loving Your Self: An Empowering Workbook for Increasing Self-LoveFilled with uplifting encouragement, thought-provoking questions, and engaging exercises, Loving Your Self is an essential tool for mastering the art of self-love. Learn more about the workbook here and purchase your own copy here.


10 tactics i use to cope with anxiety

Anxiety
Source / Alex Jones
 

Anxiety is a perfectly normal reaction to stress (and in some cases very useful to our survival!), but when you're in the midst of experiencing it, it doesn't feel all that normal. As someone with an always-racing mind, anxiety has always been a part of my life. I was an anxious kid, always worried about getting my schoolwork done well before it was due, trying as best I could to plan my day so I'd always be on schedule. (Today friends from childhood still tease me about always having to be at home at 7pm so I could take my nightly shower!) I've gotten better at managing my anxiety as I've gotten older, but I still have moments where I really struggle with it. For me, anxiety comes in waves. There are times in my life where I don't experience it much and there are times (like right now...) where it feels as if I'm constantly anxious. As you can imagine, this does not pair well with striving to live a positively present life. 

Whether or not you suffer from anxiety on a regular basis, this time of year can spark anxious feelings in even the most at-peace individuals. Adding holiday tasks (gifts...cards...parties...baking...etc.) to your already long to-do list can feel overwhelming, as can all of the events and family time (which, for some, can be a major stressor even if they really love their family members). Anxiety always seems to ramp up for me at the end of the year because, not only do I have all of the new holiday tasks to contend with, but my workload always seems to be the heaviest this time of year. (And don't get me started on the whole being-single-during-the-holidays-stress!) A lot of you might be in the same boat so I thought, Why not write a blog post about some of the ways I combat my anxiety? 

Over the years, I've tried a lot of different anti-anxiety remedies and I know there are still more I could put into my stay-calm toolkit (essential oils and regular meditation being some), but here are some of the tools I've been using to combat the end-of-the-year anxiety that seems to always come knocking at my door around early November... 

 

 1. TALK ABOUT IT WITH OTHERS. 

Talking about anxiety can be tough, and it's especially tricky if you're in some sort of position where you're supposed to have everything together (like, for example, someone who writes about staying positive and present for a living...). It can be awkward to talk about any mental health issues, but, believe me, it really helps to share what you're going through with someone else. I'm lucky to have a close friend that also struggles with anxiety and she's one of my go-to people to talk when I'm struggling because she knows exactly what it feels like. But people don't have to have experienced anxiety to be empathetic. And, to be honest, most people have experienced some level of anxiety in their lives — whether it's a slight bout of anxiety before a big test or a full-blown panic attack — and they should be able to somewhat relate to what you're going through. And if you can't find a close friend or relative to share your feelings with, seek out the help of a good therapist. A good therapist can work wonders with an anxious mind. (If you're not sure about the idea of therapy, check out my 10 Reasons to Sit on the Couch post.)

 

2. MAKE TIME FOR A TIME-OUT. 

Sometimes, when my anxiety gets to be too much for me, I just have to press pause on what's going on in my life and take a time-out. This "time-out" can be anything from a half hour break from work spent reading on the balcony in the sun (my favorite relaxing activity!) to realizing I need to take an entire day off of work to recharge my batteries and get into a healthier mental state. Working for myself, it's relatively easy for me to take a day-long time-out, but I know that's not the case for most people. However, if you're feeling so overwhelmed and anxious that you're no longer being productive, it makes sense for you to take a mental health day. You can actually do more harm than good if you continue working when you're anxious, as anxiety can negatively impact your career. Even if it's hard and you have to ask others for help with your job (or kids or schoolwork), being okay with taking a time-out can be a game-changer when it comes to anxiety. Those moments (or days) spent relaxing can be just what you need to create a more positive mindset. 

 

3. ENGAGE YOUR MIND FULLY. 

One of the best ways I've found to combat anxiety is to do something so stimulating to my mind that I don't have room for all of the anxious thoughts, something that 100% gets me into the flow mindset. When your thoughts are racing, it can be a challenge to get them to focus on anything other than worrying, but there are certain activities that can really bring you fully into the moment, which is essential for combatting all of those stress-driven thoughts. There are tons of activities that prompt people to get in the flow — drawing, painting, running, etc. — but my personal favorites are: coloring, doing puzzles, and playing Boggle on my phone. (Yes, I know, I sound like a 90-year-old lady.) Whenever I do these three things, I find it hard to keep my mind on what's causing my anxiety because I'm so completely focused on what I'm doing. In particular, I like using the Boggle app because: (1) it's a set amount of time (three minutes) so I have to focus on the game and I can't let my mind wander, (2) I can play it almost anywhere so it's a great on-the-go anxiety tool, and (3) I really like words and searching for things so it's kind of the perfect mix of a game for me. I only recently discovered that an app/game could work so well for my anxiety, but it's something that fully engages me and I think that's the most helpful aspect of it. 

  

4. CREATE A SOOTHING ROUTINE. 

"Soothing" isn't really my forte. I tend to walk fast, talk fast, move through my day quickly, and the high pace I generally like to keep (which exists even when I'm resting on the couch since I'm usually scrolling through a million different apps, trying to watch a show, and reading all at the same time!) isn't very good for my anxiety. However, one thing I've found to really work for me is sticking to some sort of routine. Not every day can be exactly the same, but I try as much as I can to have a routine during the day and especially at night (when my anxious mind really kicks into high gear!). Crazy as it sounds, one thing that really helps to soothe me is watching the same show every night before bed. For some (most) people, this might sound like a waste of time (or something that a lunatic would do), but I find it very soothing to turn on a show (30 Rock) that I've seen countless times. Even though, by now, I know almost every line, for some reason it soothes me and helps me feel a bit more at ease at the end of the day. This is my go-to routine, but yours can be anything — a special kind of tea before bed, a relaxing bubble bath, a walk around the block — that helps to soothe your mind. 

 

5. CHALLENGE IT WITH GRATITUDE. 

One of the best quotes I discovered last year was Danielle LaPorte's "Interrupt anxiety with gratitude." When I read this I thought to myself: Wow. That is so, so wise. As soon as you start thinking about all of the things you have to be grateful for (health, family, friends, a roof over your head, food, clean drinking water, a job, your unique talents, every possession you own, the experiences you've had, your personal strengths, etc.), it becomes much more difficult to be anxious. I'll admit that I don't always remember to do this one. Sometimes I'm so caught up in the craziness of my mind that I forget to focus on what I have. But when I do remember (and I really try to!) this tactic of replace anxious thoughts with grateful ones works every single time. Gratitude is a really powerful force, which is one of the reasons I continue to do the 30-Day Gratitude Photo Challenge every year. Each year it's a great reminder of how important it is to be thankful and I try to keep that reminder with me all year long — especially during the times I'm struggling with anxiety. 

 

6. AVOID (STRESSFUL) PEOPLE. 

During anxious times, one of the worst things you can do for yourself is be around people who cause you to feel more anxious. I bet if you think for just a minute you can identify the people in your life that make you feel more stressed, overwhelmed, or unhappy. Some of these people might be bad people in general, but more often it's just that they're bad for you. For whatever reason (a past experience, a weird vibe, a personality difference, an underlying issue we haven't dealt with) some people are just tougher to be around than others. A lot of the time this is okay and you can cope with it, but when you're struggling with anxiety, this is not the time to try to tough it out. During stressful times, it's very important to stay away from stressful people (or limit your interactions with them if you can't avoid them all together). And, as a bonus tip: try to spend even more time with people who make you feel at ease! 

 

7. MASTER THE ART OF DISTRACTION. 

When you're feeling super anxious, one of the best things you can do for yourself is distract your mind from negative, racing thoughts. This might sound kind of counter-intuitive coming from someone who strives to live in the present moment, but when it comes to anxiety, sometimes you need a little distance from the present state of your mind. Oddly enough, some of the best ways to take a step away from current anxious thoughts involves engaging in activities that bring you back to the present. I recently found this amazing round-up of distraction ideas on Tumblr, and I've gotten in the habit of referring back to it whenever I'm in need of an anti-anxiety activity. I'm sure there are tons of other ideas online for distracting yourself when things can really tough so if you ever need ideas, just search for some. This tip might seem like you're avoiding your emotions (something I don't recommend!) but, as anyone who has suffered from anxiety knows, sometimes you have to step away from your thoughts in order to stay sane. 

 

8. SET A DATE WITH WORRY. 

Anxiety often stems from ruminating about a situation that made/makes/could make you unhappy. As humans, we try to protect ourselves from harm by assessing what hasn't worked in the past and what might not work in the future, but sometimes we take all this analyzing too far and that's where anxiety comes from. One way to combat the obsessive rumination of a situation is to set up a date with your worry. Set a timer for 5-10 minutes and write down every single thing you're worried about. Don't hold back — just let it all out. Doing this gives you a opportunity to think things through, which you can then refer back to when you feel as if you might need to rethink a situation. Honestly, this trick doesn't always work for me. Sometimes it's so liberating to write down my worries and I feel almost completely free of them after I do so, but other times, I find myself still drawn back to worrying, even when the clock has stopped. That being said, the times it's worked, it's worked so well that I definitely think it's worth giving a try! 

 

9. MAKE A PHYSICAL CHANGE. 

I've only discovered this tactic more recently, but I find it to be really useful. When the mind is stuck in anxious-mode, one way to break the cycle can be to make a physical change. This can be changing location (get off the couch and go for a walk), changing position (if you're lying down, sit up), or, my personal favorite, making a temperature-related change. What's a temperature-related change, you ask? It involves engaging with something really warm or really cold. Some examples: taking a hot bath, holding an ice cube, putting a cool cloth on your forehead, sticking a blanket in the dryer and covering up with it, taking a cold shower, stepping outside when it's really cold, drinking hot tea, drinking really cold water, etc. It might seem odd that these things help with anxiety, but they really do. I don't know exactly why (I'm pretty sure there's a scientific reason, though I'm not certain about this), but the change in temperature is like the rational part of you giving your brain a nice, firm "wake up!" jolt that seems to send the anxiety running. 

 

10. SEPARATE FROM YOUR THOUGHTS. 

Last, but definitely not least, is learning to separate yourself from your thoughts. In case you weren't aware: you are not your thoughts. Let me write it again (in case you missed it): YOU. ARE. NOT. YOUR. THOUGHTS. If this sounds odd to you, read this. It might seem as if what you think is reality and absolute truth, but in actuality, your thoughts are only going on inside your head. They are not part of the real, actual world. And, as a result, you don't have to accept them as 100% truth. For example, thinking anxious thoughts doesn't mean you are anxious. Just because you feel anxiety doesn't mean you are anxiety. The more you can learn to see your thoughts as separate from yourself, the easier it becomes to gain control over them. It can be really hard to take note of your anxiety and say, "Hey, I see you. I don't like you being here and I need you to leave." Identifying anxious thoughts can be hard because sometimes they are so dominate that they feel as if they are the only thought option. But they are not. You might not completely eliminate anxiety by remembering "I am not my thoughts," but you'll definitely help it from spiraling out of control and taking over your mind. 

 

An important reminder before you use any of these tips on your own: I am not a doctor or a psychologist or a therapist. I don't know if these tips work for everyone or even why they work for me. What I do know is that they work (most of the time) when I need them, and they've helped me when I've really been struggling, which is why I wanted to share them with you. You have to try things out and you have to figure out what works specifically for you. 

Speaking of things that work (or don't), you might notice that a very common anti-anxiety tip is missing from this list: taking deep breaths. That one can be useful for some, but not long ago I had a really bad experience with deep-breath-taking. I was in the situation that produces the most anxiety for me (getting an IV put in at the hospital) and I decided to give deep breathing a try. It started off okay, but pretty soon I'd worked myself up so much that I was hyperventilating and I even passed out for a little bit. Yikes. Clearly this did not help with my anxiety. Deep breaths don't work well for me (though sometimes counting my breaths does), but they might be a miracle-cure for you. The point is this: try things out. If you suffer from anxiety or racing thoughts, give the things I've written about a try, and try other things too. You just never know what kinds of weird things (Boggle! 30 Rock! A warm blanket!) might work for you. 

  

 

Loving-Your-Self

Self-love is another important anti-anxiety tool. Want to empower yourself with some serious self-love and acceptance? Start loving yourself (or increase the love you already have for yourself!) with the inspiration and motivation found in Loving Your Self: An Empowering Workbook for Increasing Self-LoveFilled with uplifting encouragement, thought-provoking questions, and engaging exercises, Loving Your Self is an essential tool for mastering the art of self-love. Learn more about the workbook here and purchase your own copy here.


mindfulness + the power of self-love

Unconditional-self-love

 

Last week, I was fortunate enough to have a chance to listen in on Tara Brach's talk via The Mindfulness Summit (you can still sign up if you're interested and it's FREE!) and her words of wisdom were, as always, so incredibly eye-opening. They related a lot to the topic of self-love which, as you know if you're a frequent Positively Present reader, is a passion of mine. I listened to Tara's talk twice on the day it aired and tried to jot down as much as I could. I wanted to share some of this inspiration with you (as well as add my own two cents!). Below you'll find her words (paraphrased) in italics and below those words are some of my thoughts on what she said. 

 

WE ALL FEEL FLAWED

We all have the sense of being flawed in some way and this results in our suffering. We're at war with ourselves, and many of us don't feel at home with who we are. Because we're not living true to ourselves, we have a lingering sense of feeling unworthy, which leads us to constantly feel disappointed. 

We judge ourselves, feeling as if we're not good enough. This constant judgment makes us feel as if we have to be on guard all the time, which hinders intimacy with others, blocks creativity, and stops us from enjoying the present moment. 

We spend so much time feeling as if we're not enough. Believing in this limited self is a veil that covers our true nature, which causes us to suffer. 

We are taught that we are limited, defective, isolated. Realizing that you belong and recognizing the barriers you've put between you and love is important. Ask yourself: how do I keep myself from connecting with others? 


No matter who you are, you probably feel flawed in some way. You probably have some notion that you're not completely living up to your potential, that you're not doing what you "should" be doing, or you're not meeting some sort of arbitrary standard that society has set for you. This constant judgement of yourself blocks you from being who you're really meant to be. Imagine what it would be like if you dropped all your defenses and stopped feeling as if you were flawed in some way? That would be pretty amazing, wouldn't it? 

 

A FEELING OF SEPARATENESS

A feeling of separateness starts when we're very young. We view our inside in comparison with everything that's outside of us. With this separateness comes a need to defend and protect ourselves. And from this, fear arises. 

Many cultures (particularly in the West) encourage separateness. American culture in particular is very individualistic with very emphasis on belonging. We internalize this and it compounds the innate separateness we began feeling when we were young. This makes us feel like something is wrong with us, that we're defective in some way. 

To combat the suffering of separateness, we go after "false refuges," or substitutes to feel a sense of belonging, such as focusing intensely on our careers, putting all of our time and energy into how we look, overindulging in food, overthinking every little thing, judging others, or turning to drugs or alcohol. 

Much of our lives is organized around a feeling of insufficiency. We need to realize and release this feeling in order to get to the true nature of ourselves. 

We often cover over the purity of ourselves in order to cope with difficult situations with family, society, work, etc. And this becomes a problem when we start to identify with that cover as if it is who we really are. We start to think of ourselves as our defenses, our cravings, etc. 


This concept of separateness really resonates with me. As an introvert who strives to follow her own goals and aspirations, I often feel like I'm isolating myself from others, reinforcing the notion that I'm separate or "other" in some way. American culture also seems to really amp up this notion that we all should be different and we should celebrate our uniqueness. Being unique certainly isn't a bad thing, but the heightened emphasis on it definitely takes away from feeling truly connected with others. I've definitely turned to my fair share of "false refuges" in an attempt to ease the suffering of feeling separate and it never seems to work very well. I love the notion of focusing on belonging and connectedness, something I think we could all use a lot more of in our lives. 

 

UNCONDITIONAL SELF-LOVE + COMPASSION

We need to offer kindness to our own beings, to learn to love our present lives unconditionally. Imagine: what would it be like to love yourself unconditionally? 

Unconditional self-love can change your life. 

How much of your life is shaped by feeling unworthy? When you encounter self-aversion, you must face it with self-love and compassion.

Develop a compassionate mantra for yourself. [Mine is: "It's okay."]

The more self-compassion you practice, the more your sense of self with shift. That shift is freedom. But you have to practice in order to create new patterns in your brain. It's like dyeing indigo: at first, you dip the fabric, it turns a bright shade of blue, then fades back to almost white. Dip it again, it looks bright blue, then fades back to white with a hint of blue. Again, it turns bright blue and fades to a slightly deeper tint of blue. You have to keep dipping the fabric in over and over again to eventually get the bright, vibrant hue of indigo. Same goes for self-love. You have to keep practicing a compassionate mindset over and over again for it to actually become a pattern in your brain. After many, many repetitions, self-love will hold and it will dye your life a brighter hue. 

The more you trust your own goodness, the more you'll see the goodness in others. You'll have a new perspective filled with compassion. Even when someone does something unpleasant, your heart will understand and it won't shut down. Self-compassion shifts how we relate to the world, and it helps the world as a whole. We learn to see past our own masks, which gives us an opportunity to seek others behind their masks.  


Self-love and self-compassion are absolutely essential to living a positive, present life, but, man, if they aren't hard concepts to master! There's so much in society that tells us we're not good enough or we could be better, so much that urges us to keep striving, keep seeking more than what we are, that it sometimes feels like an endless uphill climb to embrace self-love. Self-love takes a lot (and I mean, A LOT) of practice, but the reward of loving who you are is so absolutely worth all the effort. After listening to Tara's talk, I've been using my self-compassion mantra ("It's okay.") quite often and it really helps me when I'm struggling in the self-love department. 

 

DISCOVERING TRUE AWARENESS

You can start striving for this kind of self-love by recognizing what's happening and not judging it, practicing complete acceptance. 

There are two parts of awareness: (1) identifying what's happening (both internally and externally) and (2) letting it be and sitting with it (whatever "it" might be).

Whenever you're feeling strong emotions, pause. The space between the stimulus and response is your freedom, as Viktor Frankl says. Try to become the witness and objectively view situations you find yourself in, rather than immediately reacting. 

 
I loved this part of Tara's talk because I'm always striving to be more mindful (and always struggling at actually being successful at it!). Breaking it into a two-part process made it easier for me to actually understand what it means to be fully aware (side note: every time I go to type "aware," I accidentally type "awesome," which I feel like is the universe reminding me of how awesome it is to be fully aware -- or it's just my brain playing tricks on me!). I tend to feel a lot of strong emotions (both good and bad) and I love that Tara shared Victor Frankl's advice in her talk. We could all benefit a great deal from pausing before reacting to the stimuli in our lives. There truly is a sense of freedom that comes from trying to be objective and observant rather than reactive. 


Listening to Tara's talk was so inspiring, and I highly recommend checking her out online or trying to attend one of her events. (I went to one earlier this year and it was amazing!) It can be hard to take time out of our busy lives to sit still and listen to someone else share their words of wisdom, but I've found that every time I'm able to sit quietly and just listen, I learn something new and valuable -- and I also practice my awareness/awesome skills! 

 

 

Loving-Your-Self

Want to empower yourself with some serious self-love and acceptance? Start loving yourself (or increase the love you already have for yourself!) with the inspiration and motivation found in Loving Your Self: An Empowering Workbook for Increasing Self-LoveFilled with uplifting encouragement, thought-provoking questions, and engaging exercises, Loving Your Self is an essential tool for mastering the art of self-love. Learn more about the workbook here and purchase your own copy here.


why you should stop saying should

Should

 

Should. It's a small word, but it has a pretty big impact on the way we think about ourselves and others. It's a word I don't contemplate often, but frequently use — and I don't think I'm alone in this. But, after reading Kate Bolick's Spinster: Making a Life of One's Own (part memoir, part cultural exploration of the unmarried woman that I found very eye-opening), I've spend a lot of time thinking about the word "should" — both in the context of my relationship status and in a more general sense. I've done a little digging into what "should" means for me (and for most of us), and I've been pretty surprised by how influential the concept of "should" really is. 

"Should" is a commonly used part of most of our lexicons, but it can become so pervasive that we don't even think about how (or how often) we're using it. How many times have you thought to yourself: I should be...  or S/he should...  You've probably had one of those thoughts already today. I certainly have! As someone who tends to buck anything I'm "supposed" to do (a result of falling into this Rebel category, I think), I find myself quite often thinking I should be doing something other than what I am doing. (For example: I should be writing right now. I should be more settled. I should be wearing real clothes and not sweatpants...) If you're like me, you probably experience quite a few "should" thoughts yourself. 

At first glance, "should" feels like it might be a positive, motivating word. It can guide us to do what's best for us... right? Well, the more I think about, the more it seems to me that "should" is a pretty negative word. In fact, it's almost the opposite of being positively present. It's focused on what's lacking (not very positive) and it's focused on something other than what's happening (not very present). Here are some of the reasons you might want to kick "should" out of your vocabulary...

 

SHOULD ISN'T A GREAT MOTIVATOR. 

It might sound like "should" would encourage you to focus on what needs to be done, guiding you toward your goals, but when most people think the word "should," there's a knee-jerk reaction to rebel against it, or at least feel resentful of it (if you're not the rebelling type). Rather than empowering you to do something else, should actually reinforces what you're not doing. When you think something like I should be spending more time with my partner, that thought is actually focused on what you're not doing instead of what you want to be doing. It's hard to get motivated to do something different when you're focused on what you're not doing right. 

 

SHOULD SPARKS NEGATIVE EMOTIONS.  

Think about the last time you used the word "should." How did it feel? Usually, it makes you (or someone else) feel guilty, unhappy, or annoyed. If you're thinking about what you should've done in the past, you usually feel upset with yourself for not adhering to your future self's expectations. If you're thinking about what you should be doing now, you might feel guilty for not acting in accordance of what's expected of you. And if you're thinking about what others should be doing, you might end up feeling resentful. There are very few situations (if any) when the word "should" evokes a positive response. 

 

SHOULD TAKES YOU OUT OF THE PRESENT. 

The word "should" is always focused on what should have happened in the past or what you expect to happen in the future, making it the exact opposite of staying present. Even when the word is referring to the present moment (as in, I should be working right now...), what it's literally means is: In the next moment, I should begin working because I'm not working right now. In the present moment, like it or not, you're not doing what you "should" be doing. A lack of acceptance for what's happening right now (regardless of whether that thing is positive or negative) is one of the best ways to become unhappy and stressed. 

 

SHOULD STEALS YOUR AUTONOMY. 

Because "should" isn't a great motivator (see above), it often leaves you feeling frustrated when you're not doing what you think you should be doing. When you don't accomplish what you've tried to motivate yourself to do, you can feel as if you don't have control over your own actions. For example, if you think to yourself, I should stop reading and get to work, but you keep reading anyway, it feels as if you're not in control. Because "should" takes your focus away from your current actions, it takes away from the freedom to do what you want to do (even if that activity isn't what's expected of you). 

 

SHOULD AVOIDS ACCEPTANCE.

One of the biggest downsides of the word "should" is that it doesn't allow you to accept what is. When you think something or someone should be different, you're not focusing on what's actually happening. You're contradicting what is, for no purpose other than to fuel your own expectations. This also applies to inner "shoulds," like, I shouldn't be feeling jealous of my best friend, or I should be happy for him even though I'm very angry with him. Instead of expecting yourself to feel a certain way (and labeling those feelings as good or bad), what if you just accepted them for what they are? What if instead of challenging those feelings, you accepted them and looked at them more closely for clues about who you are

 

SHOULD NEGATES SELF-LOVE. 

Just as "should" contradicts the present moment, it also negates self-love. Focusing on "should," you're taking a step away from loving yourself. You're focusing on aspects of yourself that could be rather loving what already is. When you use the word "should," you're not embracing a true acceptance of yourself (including the parts you don't love...). Should is like a judging pair of eyes, looking at you disapprovingly. With the word "should," you're casting judgment on yourself and, more often than not, you're devaluing yourself by allowing feelings of "less than" to creep into your consciousness. 

 

SHOULD STRAINS RELATIONSHIPS. 

Should isn't just about what you think you should be doing — it's also used frequently when it comes to what you think others should be doing, and this can cause some major problems in relationships. It's normal to have expectations of others, but when your relationships are centered around these expectations (as so many are), this can cause some major problems. What would happen if you were to love without expectation? What would your relationships be like if you removed the word "should"? Should puts a lot of pressure on relationships and often doesn't add anything worthwhile.

 

SHOULD IGNORES ACCOMPLISHMENTS. 

Instead of focusing on what's been done, "should" focuses on what could be done differently. What if, instead of focusing on what you want to do, you focus on what you've done? I recently started tracking what I've accomplished each day alongside my to-do list and it's been so interesting to see how much I actually accomplish on the days I feel like I've "done nothing." Even when you don't feel as if you've adhered to others expectations (or your own), there are many, many things you've done well. Should doesn't let you focus on those, which is another reason you might be better off without it! 

 

Okay, so now you probably see what a negative impact should can have on your thoughts and your life. But what are you supposed to do about it if you find yourself using the dreaded "s" word? How are you supposed to get things accomplished without knowing what you "should" be doing? Here are some of the best tips I've found...

  1. Don't beat yourself up for "shoulds."

    They're normal and they're a really hard habit to break. When you find yourself saying the s-word, pause for a moment and take notice of it. Recognize that it's been said and that it means you're focusing on something other than the present moment. Then move forward to the next steps. 

  2. Focus on the benefits of doing what you "should."

    Inspired by this great article on Tiny Buddha, this tip is about focusing on the benefits of doing something other than what you're currently doing. For example, if you find yourself saying, I should be more social, reframe that "should" to focus on the benefits and think instead, I feel really good when I hang out with my friends and it's nice to get out of the house once and awhile. Focusing on the benefits you'll receive is much better than focusing on what you're lacking or not doing. 

  3. Explore what's beyond the "should."

    Sometimes "should" has a good purpose, but sometimes it exists because it's part of someone else's purpose (or just a result of general societal pressure to be a certain way). When you feel a should coming on, look at it closely to see if it adds value to your life. Ask yourself why you feel you should do something. Sometimes you're seeking something basic (like love) in a roundabout way. "Should" is often a sign of inner conflict and it's something that should be looked into, not immediately dismissed. 

  4. Change the "sh" to a "c" or a "w."

    This Psychology Today article notes that "should" leads to feelings of anxiety, stress, and lack of control, while the words "could" or "would" are motivating and encourage a take-charge attitude. Changing a couple of letters works especially well when dealing with external shoulds. For example, saying to your partner, It would be great if you could take out the trash is going to be much more effective than You should be taking out the trash. "Could" and "would" encourage autonomy and freedom, two things that are actually great motivators. 

Most of us have the word "should" pretty engrained in how we think and talk, making it a difficult word to completely remove from our lives, but if we're open to being aware of how we use it (and when), we'll be more likely to cut down on the amount of "should"s in our lives (or at least understand why we have the "should"s we do!). Think about what your "shoulds" are and see if you can reframe them in a positive (and more productive!) way.  

 

Loving-Your-Self

Want to empower yourself with some serious self-love and acceptance? Start loving yourself (or increase the love you already have for yourself!) with the inspiration and motivation found in Loving Your Self: An Empowering Workbook for Increasing Self-LoveFilled with uplifting encouragement, thought-provoking questions, and engaging exercises, Loving Your Self is an essential tool for mastering the art of self-love. Learn more about the workbook here and purchase your own copy here.