Letting Go Of The Past: Always Look At What You Have Left

beautiful curly hair girl vector illustration

Always look at what you have left. Never look at what you have lost.
Robert H. Schuller

When I was young I had big hair.  My hair was curly, black and frizzy and it caused me to stand out in a crowd.  People were always saying to me, “Allison you have to do something about that hair!”  I became a bit insecure about my hair and tried everything to make it straight and not frizzy.  My hair became something that always bothered me.  Over the last ten years, I have noticed that my hair is a little thinner than it was and I am often battling new grey hairs.  I look back on my childhood hair and miss it.  I miss the fullness and the shine.  Yet when I had that hair I did not appreciate it and I was struggling with my hair again for different reasons.  Then a few months ago, I was out on the street and I saw an older woman with some bald spots.  In that moment, I was struck by the thought that I could be that woman one day (it could be any of us).  I realized that in thirty years I might be thinking about my hair as it is today and missing it; possibly missing the grey hairs that might have fallen out and left some bald patches.

Longing for the hair of my youth is not the most painful or significant thing in my life.  However, it is a simple example of how we hold on to the past.  Some of us long for our twenty-something bodies, our carefree childhoods or the opportunities we had when we were younger.  We also obsess about relationships that ended years ago, a former job that we really enjoyed or money lost in the stock market.  There is nothing wrong with remembering these things we once had in our lives, but sometimes these memories are the source of our pain. The reason it can be so painful is that often we cannot recreate the past and we compare it to what we have in the present. It doesn’t mean that we won’t have great things come into our lives in the future, sometimes even better things. If we lose a great job, we can get another terrific job. We can set goals and do our best to achieve them.  Yet everything changes and, for better or worse, the past is no longer with us.  Everything in this moment is different from yesterday and the day before.

So we have a choice. We can continue to long for what was and live with pain in this moment or find another way.  There are ways to get the most out of this moment, even if it is not what we hoped for, dreamed of or expected.  Here are three steps to help you try to let go of yesterday and embrace today with less pain. This can be a slow process and certain things we hold onto can be tougher to let go.  But try these steps and see if you feel a little lighter.

1.      Acceptance.  When we refuse to accept where we are in our lives, it causes pain.  Arguing with “what is” is like banging your head against the wall.  It hurts! Acceptance does not mean we won’t try to improve our circumstances, but we need to be able to remember yesterday without holding on to it so tight.  It is not an easy task to let go of youth, a relationship or something that was very important, but the pain of clinging to something that can no longer be is excruciating.  I don’t write this lightly, and understand the struggle of acceptance.  We are asking ourselves to let go of a very meaningful past as we try to accept “what is.”  But if we don’t let go we are shouldering a burden and limiting ourselves from finding new ways to live and new hopes and dreams to pursue. Take a moment and think about a few aspects of your life that you are not accepting. How would it feel not to struggle with it anymore? Can you accept this circumstance and relax into the moment? You can accept your situation and still try to improve your position in the future.  Try the mantra, “I did not expect this, but I accept this. Maybe everything is still okay.”  I use this mantra often and find it gives me a foundation for finding acceptance. It helps me feel hopeful that I can live with my present circumstance and find a way to move forward.

2.      Appreciation.   When I saw the woman with bald spots, I was not judging her appearance but was realizing how everything changes whether or not I am holding on to the past.  Allowing myself to appreciate what I have in this moment brought me more peace and acceptance with my current circumstances.  Sure, I was just thinking about hair and not an illness or the loss of a job, but the same mindset can apply to most aspects of our lives.  Appreciating what we have in any moment, from good health to a good meal, from a friendship or our memories of friendships, helps us to be more content with what is today. We can also appreciate how lucky we are to have had those cherished experiences from our past!

3.      Something new. Sometimes we need to try something new to create some distance from the past.  Take a class, apply for a new job, volunteer, take up a sport or a new hobby.  It will help your mind get busy with the present instead of thinking about yesterday. When we allow ourselves to engage in new activities, we inspire new thoughts, and we often meet new people. Our new activities might not be what they used to be or even what we expected at this point in our lives, but action can move us forward with joy and open us up to wonderful opportunities.  We start to see that life was always moving forward and only we were hanging on to the pain of yesterday.

Acceptance, appreciation and finding something new: a good recipe for reducing our daily pain of longing for yesterday. Today has its own gifts if we are willing to be present enough to open them.  MAYBE the best is yet to come!

Are You Too Focused On The Things That Bother You?

New York City - Historic buildings on Gay Street in Manhattan

Last summer, one of my friends invited me to her house for the weekend. As soon as we pulled up to her house, she started to yell about the weeds that were growing by her porch. She spent the first thirty minutes of our arrival in a bad mood, complaining about the gardener not doing a proper job and how her husband should have taken care of the matter. Interestingly, as we stepped out of the car I was admiring the beautiful setting in which we’d be spending the weekend. Just getting out of the city and smelling the fresh air was a treat. Also, the house and yard were charming and had me thinking how lucky my friend was to have such blessings in her life. I don’t mean to say that my friend should not be upset about the weeds, but her reaction overshadowed all that was wonderful in that moment.

I returned home two days later. As I walked around the city on that very hot day, I noticed I was walking around thinking about everything that was wrong and bothered me. I had thoughts like, “the city is really too smelly on a hot day,” “this restaurant should have better air conditioning,” “that store has a distasteful display” and “green is an ugly color for that car.” I had walked by beautiful buildings, lovely shops, neighbors, and so much more but I was only thinking about the stuff that bothered me or that did not fit how I like things to be. All of a sudden I realized I am no different than my friend. I was hot and bothered and searching for all the things that were not right. These thoughts were not the big issues in my life, but were creating some negativity and keeping me focused on being hot and cranky. At that moment, I caught myself and decided to actively search for beautiful things for the next few minutes. I saw a mother walking with her adorable child, I smelled the fresh juices from a raw foods restaurant, I admired the colorful apples in a bin outside a grocery store and noticed all the beautiful flowers in front of an Italian restaurant at which I had never eaten. I immediately felt more joyous. Sure I was still hot, but I just kept looking for the beautiful block after block. After a while I expanded my mindset to include things I saw that I wasn’t sure about or that might normally bother me. I decided to see it all as interesting and to be more curious. I noticed that when it is really hot outside an iced coffee tastes like heaven, people are more likely to speak to you in Washington Square Park in the heat than in the cold and the architecture of the hotel across the street is stunning. I even took a peek in the “ugly” window display of that store and noticed some lovely original art work with vibrant colors. It made me smile.

This simple exercise really changed the quality of my moment and created a better mindset for the day. You can try it while at home, with your friends, at work or just walking down the street. Here are some examples:

1. Home. If you are sitting at home or doing chores, focus on everything that is clean or is working well. This way the little mishaps or messes won’t bother you as much and you can enjoy everything else. If something is broken, try to see it as interesting or try being curious. My dishwasher was leaking two times in six months. When the repairman came the second time, I decided to be curious instead of upset about my resulting slightly warped floor. I learned about the different parts of the machine and found new ways to load and care for it. Sure I would rather have had a working dishwasher but I tried my best and did get something out of it.

2. Relationships. If you are with a friend who says something at lunch that hurts you, try to remember the rest of your conversation as well. Sometimes we get stuck on the one thing a person said that caused hurt and forget everything they said that was positive. You can also do this with your children or your spouse. We can harp on things about them that upset or aggravate us or search for the good stuff too. Often we forget that people around us have some beautiful qualities and we stop enjoying them because we don’t look beyond the stuff that bothers us.

3. Work. Instead of focusing on how annoying or rude your co-worker is, look for her/his good qualities. Try to see the benefits of a project you are working on instead of dreading the long hours it will take to complete. Try to create new ways to approach routine tasks. Maybe being more curious will enable you to see something interesting that you never noticed before. Work can sometimes be a tough environment for a new perspective, but keep at it. You might even find you become more productive when you are willing to see everything with a different state of mind.

4. Walking or Shopping. As for our walks or time shopping, look for what is pleasing, different or fascinating I sometime walk around and say to myself, “that is beautiful,” “that is interesting” or “I wonder how that works.” It makes my walk intriguing and more joyous. The quality of my time out in the world greatly improves when I remain open minded and curious, trying new foods and meeting more people. I also tend not to think about my daily stress and worry because I am busy experiencing the moment from a better vantage point.

It is truly amazing how much joy and possibility you can add to your life when you shift your mindset to see all that is beautiful or interesting. MAYBE give it a try and let me know how you do!

Originally Posted in Psychology Today

Why Are We Always Looking For Certainty In Our Lives?

Paper ball forming a lightbulb, white background

When sharing his secret to happiness, the great philosopher Jiddhu Krishnamurkti said, “Do you want to know what my secret is? I don’t mind what happens.”  I think many of us reading this quote can understand why this state of mind leads to freedom and happiness.  If we don’t mind what will happen next in our lives, we would have no reason to be stressed and worried today.  Although this sounds like a ticket to emotional freedom, most of us cannot help but care what happens next in our lives.  We care about keeping our jobs, having enough money, our children being healthy, and a slew of other crucial aspects of our lives. We want to make sure that the things we want to happen actually do happen and that is exactly where our need for certainty begins. We want to know what will happen next so we can rest in the moment knowing everything will be okay. Yet we can’t control everything and life is filled with twists and turns; sometimes our efforts to secure certainty leave us far from the life that we desire. And we mind.

Our “need to know” can become the foundation or priority for every choice that we make.  In fact, our search for certainty affects how we face life, approach work, maintain relationships and even how we parent.  At work we may lean towards a particular job with a “certain” future or pay grade or we may analyze a problem with a limited view of all possibilities.  We choose relationships that feel secure and engage in activities we know and with which we are comfortable.  We make choices for our children that seem like the most prudent paths to success. Sometimes these decisions work out great.  But often we are ignoring new opportunities, stifling creativity and true desires for the sake of certainty. And let’s not forget that nothing is certain, and even choices that seem prudent at the time can change when the unexpected wind blows our way.

If we can find the courage to face the unknown, we can “mind” our futures more gently. We can examine new ideas, go places we never expected to go, or develop a relationship with someone that is different from us.  We can let our children quit the soccer team if they want to spend more time with friends or pursue a new interest.  Mindfully releasing our need for certainty also creates more tolerance and patience as we give up our view or our path as the only way.  This in turn can open us up to the blossoming of a life filled with wonder and maybe even happiness.  It is amazing that the very thing we avoid can be the catalyst for creating the life that we really want.

So how can we start to release our need for certainty? Here are a few suggestions to start to change how you make the choices in your life in the face of the unknown.

1.   Let some Maybe into your life.  The idea of Maybe reminds us that life unfolds more than one way.  Just because we don’t know the answer or we are unfamiliar with a problem, it doesn’t mean that it won’t work out to our satisfaction.  Maybe what we are experiencing is good, Maybe it will get better, or Maybe we can find a new way to handle the situation and still be okay.  Maybe we can take a risk, Maybe we can just peek at some new possibilities and see how it feels.  Maybe is an invitation to view life differently.  It doesn’t demand it.  Instead Maybe is supportive and allows us to realize that the unknown has gifts and benefits. Sometimes this little word can become the platform for making new choices in life because it shows us uncertainty is filled with hope and dreams that have yet to manifest.

2.   I know people talk a lot about gratitude and it seems too simple and basic to tackle our relationship with the unknown.  However, the mindset of gratitude is a wonderful and strong platform to launch into something new in your life.  Sometimes we are so afraid of the unknown, we become fixed on what we don’t have, what never works and what can’t change.  When we start listing what we are grateful for, we start to see the things that have worked out.  Sometimes we recognize risks that we took that we didn’t realize or beautiful aspects of our lives that manifested and blossomed from a place we could have never imagined.  It gives us some support and hope that life can work out and we have good things in our lives supporting us on the journey.

3.   We also can increase our awareness in our decision making process.  Sometimes we can’t even get to a Maybe or a gratitude mindset because we don’t realize we are choosing certainty over another possibility in our lives.  A great way to create awareness is to review various choices you made throughout the day or week.  Ask yourself did I make this decision for certainty? Did I make this decision to feel more secure or to pursue my goals? Does this decision make me feel joyous or dreadful? Do I think it will lead to new opportunities and experiences? What if I wasn’t afraid of the unknown, would I have made this decision?  If you find you are making more “certainty” choices than ones that align with your true desires, MAYBE you can rethink your decisions using the steps above.

These are just a few ways we can start to reduce our need for certainty.  Be gentle with yourself and see if you can build some resilience to face the unknown road ahead.  The more expansive we can be, the more likely we will find new opportunities and possibilities because we are willing to shift our perspective to a larger playing field.  Over time, we begin to understand we can either try to avoid the unknown and play it safe or embrace what we don’t know and expand our lives beyond our imagination.

Maybe facing uncertainty is the beginning of a new life filled with more joy, less stress and new opportunities!

Originally published in Psychology Today

 

Finding A New Way To React To Problems

Miniature car carrying a red heart cushion

The other day my husband was pulling out of a parking spot and we got into a car accident. It was just a fender bender but enough to cause a significant amount of damage to our car. As my husband got out of the car and approached the other driver, I heard him angrily say, “You did not signal.” The guy answered back in an agitated tone, “I did signal. You didn’t see me.” As they went back and forth, I jumped out of the car and said to the fellow, “You didn’t signal.” He looked at me and I looked at him and we both smiled and almost simultaneously said “Thank goodness no one is hurt.” Then he quickly said, “Cars are easy to fix, people are harder to fix.” As my husband called the insurance company, we introduced ourselves (his name was Tony) and just starting chatting about life. After about thirty minutes, I had to leave because I had tickets for a show uptown. My husband and Tony stayed and waited for the police. By the time by husband met me later he knew Tony’s entire life story and Tony had asked my husband to have lunch some time.

When our car was appraised, the damage was more expensive then I had expected.  I have to deal with the insurance company, go to the police precinct to pick up the report and take my car to the shop to be fixed for two weeks.  So it is definitely creating an inconvenience in my life, but since my conversation with Tony I don’t mind that much.  I think about the moment when our eyes met and we both decided that we didn’t feel like being angry about it. There was a choice. And it’s not that having emotions are bad, it’s just that in this particular situation it was clear that we could both be angry and suffer, or accept the situation and make the best of it.

There are so many situations throughout our day that could cause us to feel angry or annoyed. For example, a kitchen appliance breaks just before a holiday dinner, we are late for an appointment because we are stuck in traffic or in the subway, our child will not go to bed on time, we have to wait on a really long line to fill a prescription or buy a cup of coffee or a friend cancels plans at the last minute; the list goes on and on.  In the big picture, none of these things seem like such a big deal, but each incident can derail our mood and sometimes can take us in a direction that snowballs for the rest of the day.

So how can we be more aware of our reactions to the minor collisions (pun intended) during the day? Here are a few tips.

1. The minute you feel agitation or annoyance, say to yourself “Maybe everything is still okay.”  It sounds so simple but it works.  It gives us just enough time to stop and get our bearings.  Because most often we get upset because we have lost our way. We forget the big picture and just how insignificant this one thing that is bothering us is.  We can then see we are suffering unnecessarily.

2. Breathe breathe breathe. Take 5 long breaths, in and out, slowly. You can never go wrong with this tactic; it takes the energy out of your mind and into your body. It will slow your thoughts down and allow you to see the situation more for what it is and so be less reactive.

3. Recently I took up the practice of transcendental meditation and I find that it really helps me calm my mind throughout the whole day. You could also use an object like keys or a bracelet, and focus on it, noticing all of its qualities, to bring your mind away from what is bothering you and allow some space within which to calm down.

4. Some people like to make a list of the things that are important to them and keep it with them, bringing it out and looking at it a few times a day. If a problem arises that does not fall on the list, they immediately gain some perspective on their emotions. It doesn’t mean a situation won’t bother you, but it can help align your reaction to the importance of the issue.  Sure, there are difficult situations that come up each day that will not be on the list, but if it’s really not what you consider “important,” then you will be less likely to waste energy on it.

These are just a few examples of how we can choose a different, more measured reaction to a situation. It is not always easy, but always worth a try. It is not about suppressing emotions, but instead examining them and giving yourself perspective while you are in the midst of an unexpected or challenging situation. For me, what transpired in that moment after the accident saved me from being unproductively angry and aggravated these past few weeks.  And that evening I was able to go uptown, enjoy the show and go out for dinner.

And who knows, MAYBE we will meet Tony for lunch some day. However, if we ever go together in a car, I will put Tony and my husband in the back seat and I will drive!