Do you ever wish life didn’t have to be this hard?
Maybe it doesn’t.
If you’re looking for a way to make your life a little easier, a helpful place to start is by distinguishing between the difficult circumstances you are facing and how you feel about those circumstances. When you can pull apart the difference between what’s going on outside and what’s going on inside, you can begin to see ways in which you may be unwittingly making things harder than they need to be.
This isn’t always easy.
Below are 4 questions you can ask yourself to get you on a path to greater ease.
Question 1: What’s the “hard story” I’m telling myself?
We are storytelling and labelling machines.
Our minds are recording, filtering, and reacting to information at lightening speed. By the time we’ve noticed something, we have already labeled it good / bad, pleasant / unpleasant, hard / easy. Those labels create feelings. When I label something hard, I feel dread and anxiety.
From there, we create a story to justify the label we’ve attached to it. That story becomes a filter that determines what we pay attention to and what we ignore. We start filtering out things that contradict our story.
Most of this is unconscious.
“Far more than you may realize, your experience, your world, and even your self are the creations of what you focus on. From distressing sights to soothing sounds, protean thoughts to roiling emotions, the targets of your attention are the building blocks of your life.”Gallagher, Winifred. Rapt (p. 15). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Being aware that our stories are not facts and being willing to question them when things feel hard, can neutralize the habitual ways we make our lives harder than they need to be.
For example, early in my career as a professional facilitator, I found facilitating groups stressful.
When I saw a group event in my calendar, I could feel my anxiety rise. I soon created the story. “I don’t like facilitating groups.” Then I added some back up for the story. “Because I’m introverted, I’m not well-suited to this role.” It was hard.
Then one day, I happened to notice myself having fun at the front of the room. When I thought about it after, I realized that all my dread and anxiety occurred before the session started. Within a few minutes of starting a session, I would forget myself, put my attention on the group and experience a kind of flow. Even when a session was challenging or there was conflict between participants, I found the experience engaging and fascinating. And there was an “after high” that would last for a few hours.
When I thought about the story I had created, I realized it was faulty. I embraced a new story about my competence and resourcefulness as a facilitator. The whole process became easier.
Question 2: What’s clogging up my hard drive?
Have you ever noticed that when you feel anxiety, anger, or resentment, it tends to come with a feeling of heaviness, a drop in energy or feeling drained? It’s as if you’ve picked up a heavy sack and placed it on your back.
In his book, Effortless, Greg McKeown uses the analogy of a slow running computer to explain how negative emotions affect our mental processing.
“Our brain’s processing capacity is large, but limited…; So when we encounter new information, our brains have to make a choice about how to allocate the remaining cognitive resources. And because our brains are programmed to prioritize emotions with high “affective value”—like fear, resentment, or anger—these strong emotions will generally win out, leaving us with even fewer mental resources to devote to making progress on the things that matter.”Mckeown, Greg . Effortless (p. 24). Crown. Kindle Edition.
Pausing to clear these emotions by simply taking a few deep breaths, taking a break, or going outside for a walk can act on the brain in the same way that clearing your browsing data acts on your computer. When you are able to clear your negative emotions, your brain has more processing capacity to deal with the challenge at hand. Negative emotions can be difficult to clear. They’re sticky. This not about denying or repressing your feelings, it’s about letting them move through you rather than getting stuck. I find that getting up and getting my body in motion is one of the most effective ways I know to clear my personal cache of negativity at least long enough to get back on track.
Question 3: How do I want to think about this?
In 2018, I lost both my parents within five weeks of one another.
A few years earlier, they were each diagnosed with brutal degenerative diseases – my mother with Alzheimer’s and my father with Parkinson’s disease. They asked me to take on the primary responsibility for their affairs including their care.
Because we knew the outcome was not going to be good, I thought in advance about how I wanted to feel at the end of the journey. How did I want to feel about how I supported them? This intentional conversation with myself and my husband turned out to be my saving grace.
I set three intentions:
- I would respect their dignity and consult them on decisions. I would ask – if it were me going through this, how would I want to be treated?
- I would never see them as a burden. I wanted to stay connected to my gratitude for having had them in my life as long as I had.
- My husband and I promised each other that we would not put our lives on hold waiting for them to die. I knew that I would treasure our time together more if I let myself live my life. We continued to travel, to enjoy our friends and family and we planned for the future. If we had to ditch our plans at the last minute to handle an emergency, we would simply ditch our plans.
It was an extraordinarily hard and heart-breaking three years for them and for me. There were many bad days. I didn’t always honor my intentions. But I did keep returning to them or my husband would gently remind me, and I would recover.
I was fortunate. I had a very supportive partner, supportive siblings, professional long-term care, and gentle, funny, loving parents who handled their progressive decline with enormous grace. I knew that many in my situation do not have these things.
When you know you are about to face a challenge, it can help to be intentional about the mindset you will bring to it. Include an intention to be kind to yourself and those who support you through the process. Return to that intention again and again and forgive yourself when you lose your way.
This will build resilience.
Question 4: How am I making this harder than it needs to be?
Our stories and our emotions can direct our behavior in ways that can make things even more difficult. We over-plan to avoid failure or over-complicate for precision. We over-control and micro-manage. We procrastinate to avoid or we throw up our hands and abdicate our responsibilities. There are dozens of ways we can engineer our way into hard.
Here’s a trivial and somewhat embarrassing, real-life example:
A Tale of Two Turkeys
I have a tyrant (aka inner critic) living in my head who is a shoo-in for Martha Stewart. I call her “Lovely Girl” or L.G. for short. L.G.’s primary role in my life is to ensure that I am perceived as a lovely girl. You know the kind of girl I mean – masterful in the domestic and entertaining arts. It doesn’t help that I am NOT masterful in these areas, nor do I enjoy them. This makes me a constant disappointment to L.G.
Like most inner critics, L.G. is ingenious at making my hosting experience as hard, time-consuming, and complicated as it can be. Here’s how she works.
Turkey Dinner #1 Immediate family only / L.G. does not take part.
Roast Turkey, mashed potatoes, steamed vegetables, dinner rolls and a favorite cheesecake purchased from a local baker. When the turkey is cooked, everybody grabs a plate, some utensils and digs into the pots.
Prep time: 60 to 90 minutes at most, not counting cooking time. Clean up, 30 minutes if everybody pitches in.
Turkey Dinner #2 Extended family and / or friends.
Add ONE guest from outside the immediate family and L.G. takes over my mind and body with the stealth of a body-snatcher.
The menu for this dinner looks a little more like this. (L.G. will print this and display it somewhere prominent.)
This dinner is served using as many non-dishwasher safe serving bowls, silver utensils and decorative plates as L.G. can find.
There is also a printed timeline on the fridge in half hour increments because she doesn’t trust me to be able to go to the bathroom without being directed. (I have been the object of much family mockery due to these intricate timelines.)
Prep time. Two and a half days plus several hours of post cleanup plus a day of recovery from the glasses of wine I consume once dinner is served.
Suffering? 90% self-inflicted (if you acknowledge L.G. is self)
Give yourself permission for ease.
If the intricacies of formal entertaining are a fun and creative outlet for you, please, enjoy every moment.
Otherwise, trust me. Life is too short.
There are things in life that are just hard, and they don’t need your help to make them harder. There are challenges that deserve your best effort and others that do not.
Get clear about which are which for you. Give yourself permission to make life a little easier.
What’s your favorite way to make life harder than it needs to be?
Please share your stories and tips on how you make life easier below.
Looking for more? Subscribe to The Slow Sip, my free monthly newsletter packed with articles, podcast episodes, practices and practical recommendations to help you transform your relationship to work and life.