Over the past 3 years, I have made an enormous commitment to happiness…. My own happiness… And over the course of that time, I have made significant internal changes that have transformed, literally, the way that I perceive and interact with both the world around me AND that pesky one in my own head.
I got tired of feeling anxious, of not being content, of feeling overwhelmed, upset, and wasting so much time and energy on circular, useless thinking. I am a parent, a wife, foster mom to over one hundred newborns over the past 14 years, and working full time. There is a lot to be overwhelmed by. Sometimes I felt like I could not handle it if one more thing went wrong, if one more person failed me. I was at the end of my rope. Basically all the time.
Now, most of us have felt this way at one point… or many points… I know I had, time and time again. And I have no idea why I chose this time to change. There was no “aha moment”. In fact, there was more of a slow dawning of understanding that I was 38 and it was time to take responsibility for my feelings.
Someone I know says something that still occasionally drives me crazy, but in fact, it is true. “I don’t make you feel anything, you choose to feel…..(insert feeling)”.
And I would think, damn you for not taking responsibility for the way you make me feel. And I would get all caught up in my reaction… MY REACTION. Mine. As in belonging to me. As in… under my control…
And maybe that was the point of no return. Once I accepted that I was in control, I choose what I dwell on, how I perceive people’s actions, and how I interact with the world, I was hooked.
And I was terrified, by that power.
And all this time, I had felt so exhaustingly powerless, so buffeted by the world, so overwhelmed by the things that were out of my control. When in fact, though most things outside me were out of my control, things inside me, my emotions and feelings, are not.
I started thinking, “wow…. I have wasted so much time.” And I started to think about all the time I spent worrying about things that never happened, that were not happening to me, that were not under my control. And I started to get caught up in feeling sad about that.
And then I thought, “What the Hell? This is it. This is exactly how it happens, this spiral that I do not even notice myself entering. THIS is what I can control. And I am done with it.”
I read a bunch of books on mindfulness, happiness, awareness, and joy. None of them had all the answers, but I got something from each of them. And I became more certain that I could do this.
I could choose to live happily.
I told almost no one. I was not sure how this was going to work, or how long it would take. It was, and is, a “work in progress”.
I made up some rules.
One important one was to not allow repetitive anxious thinking to take over my brain. I had to find a way to stop the looping. And one night I thought, I wish that there was something I could wear that would remind me to look inwardly on a regular basis, giving me a chance to interrupt negative or fruitless thinking, examining it and replacing it.
I looked long and hard, I even contacted some folks at MIT and other places, looking to invent something that would vibrate on a regular pattern, which was simple and required no adjusting or fiddling. After a search, I found it. It is called a Pause Bracelet. It is from a website called, http://www.meaningtopause.com/ I bought three and have given away two and the other one finally died, and it is time to get another, because this bracelet was the first tool in the building of a new life.
Because in order to stop the fruitless thinking, I had to realize I was doing it. And when you have lived for so long with negative loops in your mind, it feels natural and you do not even notice yourself doing it, even as it drains your joy and debilitates your spirit. I needed emotional biofeedback. The bracelet forced me to stop every hour and assess how I was feeling and it gave me a chance to reset my brain. My eternal gratitude to the creators.
I was amazed at how often I was in the middle of a negative/painful thought or circular worrying when that gentle vibration stopped me. I began asking myself some questions about my thoughts, or more clearly, the subject of my thoughts:
Are they useful? Is there something I can do about the thing I am worrying about? Have I done everything I can currently? Is it happening to me? Will it matter in an hour? By this evening? Tomorrow? Was it intentional? And again, Is this thought process useful, productive, fruitful?
It was stunning how often it was not… It was just a waste of precious energy, it made me feel awful, and it skewed my perception of the world so severely that would require significant effort to reorient myself.
It was a process of catching every negative thought and finding ways to turn them positive. It felt idiotic at first, even in my own skull: “hmm, self, it seems like you are getting angry because we are waiting in a bank line. Is that useful? No. So, let’s reframe: We are blessed to have money in the bank, we are blessed to be healthy and strong enough to stand here in line, we are blessed that the teller is using so much patience to help that elderly woman fill out her deposit slip.” (I find that self-talk if more effective for me when I address myself as a separate entity, I am sadly gentler with that separate entity than with myself, if that makes sense.) And, although I use the term “blessed” over and over again, I do not link it necessarily with religion. I mean blessed as in fortunate, lucky, gifted with. And I also give myself credit for a lot of hard work. Because I deserve my blessings, I have worked hard. But, there are others who have worked hard and not been so lucky. So, blessed.
And over time, it worked. I began to catch myself before the cycle began, and I got much better at identifying moments when practicing gratitude could head off fruitless thinking before it began.
And I noticed something: my baseline feeling was beginning to be “content”. One dictionary defines that as, “in a state of peaceful happiness”. And it was, and is, amazing. I began to hear myself thinking of how blessed I was when I saw sorrow, anger, trauma. I recognize the simple pleasures of safety, security, love, and peace.
Over the course of a year or so, I realized that although I was still experiencing ups and downs (I was working on gratitude, not lasering away vast quantities of brain tissue) I was generally happy, able to identify my feelings and act on them, and deeply enjoying my life.
And things in my life improved: I got a new and better job, my marriage improved, my communication with friends, and I became a far better parent. Because I was operating in a more realistic emotional environment, one that recognized the true extent of the blessings and challenges I faced, and one that had a far higher foundation than I had ever experienced. Being grateful and content the vast majority of the time simply does not draw upon your strength in the way that negativity does. And so, when real problems come along, I have more energy available to deal with them.
I am stronger now than ever before. It is not a matter of, “Oh My God, now I have to deal with this as well, and I am already overwhelmed, upset, and hurting. This is it, this is all I can take.” It is facing challenges with the understanding that I am blessed with many tools and that while yes, bad, even terrible, things happen, I have what I need to get through them, and I have many friends who will be right there with me when I need more. My supply of strength, when thought of that way, is virtually limitless.
How Powerful is that?
So, now I am working on Bliss… and on recognition of those perfect moments and remarking upon them, capturing them internally and using them to fuel my spirit. I am working on actually stopping myself physically and telling myself, “This. Enjoy this. Remember this.” I have at least one most days, of various magnitudes.
I woke at the home of beloved friends last weekend and heard my son laughing with them. I saw an extraordinary dahlia and decided that dahlias are my favorite flowers, they are strong and yet so beautiful, with nothing fragile about them. Last night Max fell asleep, our 9 week old foster baby fell was cuddled on my chest, and my husband was working on a paper for his last week of classes in pursuit of his masters. I had a cup of tea. And a book. And it was bliss.
And this morning my boy, my five year old miracle, Max Archer, King of All the Wild Things, cuddled into my body 30 minutes before I had to get up. And he fit perfectly, his body pressed into me, warm and soft and relaxed. And I was aware of this extraordinary ordinary moment of pure joy…
And even more grateful to have been open to recognizing it, for being aware.
It took me a long time to get to this point in my journey, and I am still on the path. However, these precious moments give me great strength. And flashes of bliss.
I am on a journey to Bliss.. Join me….The path is not smooth but it is beautiful…