In honor of World Mental Health Day, take a few minutes to reward yourself with some self-reflection today. How do you feel? How do you WANT to feel? And what steps can you take now that will promote your happiness? Keep reading to learn some ways to slay your demons, reclaim your self-identity, and reconnect with your real purpose in life.
What is it that’s holding you back? Is it your stressful job, financial strain, or perhaps something – or someone – who’s standing in your way? Whatever the culprit, we all have things leeching off the best of us, stealing our time, ambition, money, and eventually, our dreams. But we’re not victims. In fact, we should take responsibility for the choices we’ve made in life that have put us here. The good news is, if we’re not happy where – or how – we are living, we can make changes for the better. And if you’re feeling that way, then it’s time to do some critical thinking.
Step 1: Identify Your Demons
We all have proverbial monsters clawing at us in our daily lives – from unexpected bills to surprise deadlines to unsupportive family members to an overburdened schedule and more. We’re expected to do more with fewer resources and less time. Blame it on the high cost of living or skewed American ideals. Whatever it is, most of us believe we’ve got to “do it all” and “have it all” to be truly happy.
“Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.” – Neil Gaiman
So what’s standing in your way? What demons (or dragons) are nipping at your toes? Think about it. Then take this short quiz about what triggers your stress.
Once you’ve identified some of the things causing your unhappiness, you can start to address the problems with possible solutions. Lucky for you, it’s not too late to change things. But you have to act fast. And it all starts with understanding what’s wrong, and how you can fix it and move on.
Step 2: Identify What Makes You (Naturally) High on Life
Have you ever felt so happy that you were embraced by a divine life force – completely surrounded and filled with love, peace, and pure joy? Maybe it was when you had your first baby, or when you got married, or when you landed your dream job? Those are certainly milestones in life, but when it comes to your happiness on a daily basis, what is it that really makes you happy consistently? Have you ever tried to really think about it, and write it down? Take 5 minutes and try it now.
If you’re like me, and most other people, it’s not material things that make you truly happy, but real, tangible life experiences and deeper connections and relationships with others that make a difference in your quality of life.
When we’re growing up, we don’t think about the end of our lives. But the life cycle, like all things, has a beginning and an end. That’s why sometimes, especially now, it’s important to practice self-reflection and figure out what it is that you’d like to experience in this lifetime – so you don’t regret it when it’s too late.
Let me get real for a moment. When people are on their deathbeds, the most common regrets they have are not the fancy car or designer handbag they wish they’d bought – it’s the risks they didn’t take in life and the wrong decisions they made, or didn’t make at all, that they regret. It’s the chances they left behind that they’ll miss most.
These regrets stem from our basic human needs. You’ve probably heard of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (which are, from the bottom of the hierarchy upwards: physiological, safety, love and belonging, esteem, and self-actualization), but have you heard of Manfred Max-Neef’s list of nine fundamental human needs? Some scientists believe these needs (which include: subsistence, protection, affection, understanding, participation, leisure, creation, identity, and freedom) are just as important in determining your quality of life.
Going hand in hand with this theory are the 5 Love Languages® – a free online assessment of the needs you have when it comes to feeling fulfilled in close personal relationships, and the methods of how you give love to others. The five categories of expressing love are: Words of Affirmation, Acts of Service; Receiving Gifts; Quality Time; and Physical Touch. Where you fall on that scale will determine what you need from your partner to be happy in love, and how you’ll fulfill their needs in return.
Whichever needs occur to you most – the needs you can’t live without – those are the ones you should seek to fulfill regularly to avoid regrets later in life.
Step 3: Kill Your Regret & Slay Your Demons
You’ve come this far already. You’ve learned how to identify your demons (whatever is causing your stress and unhappiness), and you’ve identified some things that make you happy. Now it’s time for action. We’re going to learn what causes regret, and how we can kill it dead.
3 Causes of Regret
In my own life, I’ve found that the three biggest culprits to feelings of regret and overall dissatisfaction are as follows.
Failure. Pain. Loneliness. Death. What are you afraid of? The fear of the unknown is real, but an even worse fate is NOT making a decision and just floating through life. We may not be able to plan everything that happens in our lives, but we can certainly set ourselves up for success by making better decisions.
Things can only change and get better when you make a hard decision, commit to it, and ride out the consequences, whether good or bad. That’s how we learn and grow as human beings. And the act –and art – of risk-taking through decision-making helps reinforce our beliefs and our sense of individuality. Making a decision, even a hard choice, is powerful, and it’s something that we all have the power to do.
For me, I’m like a lot of 30-somethings who are working professionals that have held a lot of jobs (over 20, including internships). I’ve also had a lot of apartments (having moved over 10 times in two decades), and a lot of relationships (hey, who hasn’t?). I’ve always had a “leap of faith” attitude. If it wasn’t working, I would quickly move on to the next best thing. Baby steps toward success – that was my motto.
But as I slowly approach my 40s, I’m not as quick to take giant leaps of faith anymore. The risk are higher and seem harder. Risk-taking (and change) is not only stressful but also expensive and time consuming. It also takes its toll on your mental, emotional, and physical health. Sometimes it’s worth it, and sometimes a different option is smarter and healthier.
But I’m not saying it’s OK to stay in an unhappy situation. Rather, instead of leaping without looking, consider careful planning first. When you are able to save up for a big change and set up a support system in place to help catch your fall, you’ll feel less of a long-term burden. It’s also important to weigh your options before making a hard choice. It helps to make a list of pros and cons.
When I reflect on all the risks I’ve taken, I don’t regret making those hard decisions. They have all shaped me into the person I am today. And I’m grateful for it (for the most part).
That’s when we come to the second biggest cause of regret – self-doubt.
Self-doubt is a quiet monster that rides in the back seat until it sneaks up on you and takes over the wheel. Self-doubt can stem from a lack of self-confidence, often a symptom of depression caused by failure, embarrassment, or even abuse (whether self-inflicted or afflicted by someone else). Self-doubt can be temporary or long-lasting, depending on the reasons behind it. Fortunately, it’s in your power to overcome it.
The best way to overcome self-doubt is by conquering your fears (face them and make the hard choices), learning to accept yourself as you are, and accomplishing your goals. This is done most successfully when you have a support system, such as family, friends, or even a counselor. The more goals you accomplish, the more your confidence will grow, and the less your self-doubt will overpower you. The more you accept your faults and learn to love yourself wholly and unconditionally, the better you will feel. And when you love yourself, you make room in your life – and your heart – for others to love you too.
One great way to practice self-love is to start building confidence through positive self-affirmations. (As it turns out, there’s some truth to Stuart Smalley’s “Daily Affirmation” skit on Saturday Night Live!) You can do this by catching yourself in negative self-talk and banishing it immediately, without judgment. Then replace those thoughts with positive ones (anything, no matter how small that you like about yourself, such as: “I love my smile. I love my sense of humor,” etc., followed by reassuring thoughts such as “I am worthy of love, success, and happiness.”) Once you do this a few times each day for several weeks, your positive thoughts will play like a recording in your head and become second nature.
Next, set small daily goals, such as working out for 30 minutes (even if it’s just walking around your neighborhood or your office building), and taking your lunch hour to unplug from social media and work on your favorite hobby, such as reading a book, writing in your journal, sketching, solving a puzzle, or even meditating.
Once you’ve achieved a week’s worth of small goals, reward yourself with some self-pampering. Get a massage, a haircut, a makeover, or any small, health-conscious reward that gives you an instant feeling of happiness. Once you’ve made time for yourself, try setting larger goals, such as revising your resume and LinkedIn profile, and applying for a higher-paying job, or taking fitness classes each week to improve your health.
Once you actually do these things, instead of only thinking about doing them, you’ll build self-confidence that will empower you to accomplish even bigger goals and fuel the fire it’ll take for you to make harder choices that will alter your life, such changing careers, changing a relationship, or moving across country.
The third cause of regret is disappointment. Unbalanced expectations that are out of line with reality are the root of feelings of disappointment. Oftentimes, when it comes to personal or business relationships, this is due to miscommunication and differences in lifestyles, values, goals, or interests. The best way to combat disappointment is to communicate and share expectations.
If you have a roommate, for instance, discuss and agree upon a chores chart, so each person is responsible for specific housekeeping tasks each week. If there is a financial strain or resentment over paying bills, discuss who is responsible for paying what and when each month. If someone fails to hold up their end of the bargain, then there have to be consequences. Disappointment and resentment go hand in hand, so it’s important to communicate expectations before they lead to deeper problems.
Another solution to avoiding disappointment is to change your expectations. You don’t have to lower them, but you should try to overcome self-denial, recognize what is acceptable to you, and what is not acceptable. While meeting someone halfway and reaching a compromise is OK, it is not OK to let someone walk all over you.
So although the pie-in-the-sky wish list for the “perfect” life you had when you were a kid doesn’t likely exist, your ideal life is still within your grasp. You just have to be willing to take it.
Step 4: Reclaim Your Self-Identity and Happiness
For me personally, when I experience depression due to one (or all) of the three big types of regret – fear, self-doubt, or disappointment – I often am too depressed to create. As a creative person, the act of creating something regularly, whether it’s song lyrics, a poem, or a blog post, is surprisingly crucial for my happiness, because it’s a form of stress relief and self-expression. The very act of creation helps to reinforce my self-identity. (Creation must be at the top of my list from Max-Neef’s categories of fundamental human needs!)
Lack of creation leads to depression, and when I’m too depressed to create – I start to lose pieces of myself. I find myself too overwhelmed with depression to get off the couch sometimes. Even when I start to have a spark of creative inspiration, it flickers out just as fast and winds up with me feeling disappointed again for not seeing the project through. It’s a vicious cycle.
But I find that when I’m really feeling down or confused, when I reflect on all the risks I’ve taken, and the hard choices I’ve made throughout my life, it helps….
After all, I overcame my fears and self-doubt when I beat anorexia, stopped years of body shaming and self-harm (by battling that monster inside my head with my passion for writing and self-expression). I found a way to survive after the suicide of my high school sweetheart (through counseling, songwriting, and reading many self-help books). I left a physically abusive relationship only to wind up in an emotionally abusive one (which I also fought and won by overcoming my fears).
I left a dream-come-true music journalism job a decade ago and moved from Indianapolis to Chicago to save a relationship that would eventually fail anyway (but discovered that I really wanted to be the one making the music after all, so I now live in Nashville). I met other feelings of disappointment head-on by leaving a well-paying but toxic job to take some time off and then found a much less stressful job I actually enjoy. And I left a long-term relationship and found a way to start all over again and keep persevering, even without an endgame in sight.
There are a lot of things that weigh heavy on my mind, but when I’m super stressed or depressed, if I find that if I talk to someone in my support system about it, it helps. When I take a quiet walk through the forest, breathing in all the fresh air, it calms me, and it helps. When I think about the things I want to (and WILL) accomplish this week, this month, and this year, it helps. When I make a list of goals for my future – including big ones – it helps.
When I remember all my blessings in life, it helps. And when I reflect on everything I’ve been through and survived to get here today, it helps.
So who are you, and what the fuck do you want to do with your life?
Photos from Unsplash