Tough times can play havoc with our emotions, but a few simple strategies can guide us through any crisis, says life coach Liz Wilde. These are the ones she swears by…
As a life coach, I’ve witnessed my clients suffering in many ways. I went through my own crisis three years ago when I was involved in a serious accident, lost my father suddenly, had a breast cancer scare, was made redundant from my highest earning job and developed tinnitus – all within three months. I was left reeling, but five principles helped steady my nerve and guide me through the chaos. I still use them in times of fear and uncertainty and I hope they will help you navigate life’s inevitable rocky patches too.
1. Don’t be afraid of your thoughts
We all have trains of thought, but if we board a scary one, we will travel to a frightening place in the past or future. When we endlessly replay past scenes in our head, we are trying to change reality. When we scare ourselves with prophecies of the future, we are attempting to fix the problem before it happens.
It’s usually my thoughts about my thoughts that get me into trouble. I think the boiler is making a weird noise – then fast-track to how much a new one would cost and ‘How will I afford it? I’ll have to cancel my holiday. I won’t be able to buy that new sofa’ and
so on… Rather like a child drawing a picture of a spider then running terrified from the room, I am creating a future scenario that isn’t real, then scaring myself by believing my own stories.
It’s normal to feel anxious and frightened during times of uncertainty and crisis. I used to waste so much energy trying to manage my thoughts but now I know that they can’t hurt me, I allow myself to feel whatever I feel in the moment. A hurricane of anxious thought is always about the past or future, never the present. I know from my crisis that if there was an emergency, I’d be too busy dealing with what was in front of me to be consumed by thought.
Feeling frightened simply means I’m having some not very nice thoughts. The more I see that I’m creating my own experience, the faster I begin to unwind from the drama and come back to reality. And from that calmer place, I usually know the right thing to do.
2. Control is an illusion
We all want to feel in control – it makes us feel safer. Studies have shown that the more in control we feel, the happier we are. When my life started unravelling three years ago, it felt like I was in mortal danger. So many things I took for granted disappeared in an instant. Yet it was only when I lost control of my life as I knew it that I realised that I had always been heading into the unknown. No one knows what’s going to happen, we just live in the illusion that we do. The only thing that had changed was the story I’d been telling myself about how much I could influence the future.
Think about it: how often does the unexpected happen? How often does something we expect to happen – good or bad – never materialise? How random are many of life’s biggest turning points? I would love to have more control over what happens to me, and I wouldn’t mind being able to control other people a bit more, too. But this is not how life works.
We like what’s familiar, but we learn from what’s new. Adversity creates new perspectives, different priorities, a deeper appreciation of life and, crucially, a trust in ourselves that we can handle this disordered, uncertain world. We’ve all had experiences when we’ve risen to the occasion. Three years ago, I learned that I was stronger than I knew. That even in the worst circumstances I had the capacity to find something good.
3. Worrying won’t make a problem go away
When our minds are full of worry, we have no space to see the situation clearly. We may think we want to stop but subconsciously we’ve learnt to perceive worry as beneficial: ‘if I wasn’t worried, I wouldn’t do what I need to stay safe.’ ‘If I stop worrying, the worst might happen.’
Worry is a form of superstition. The reason we’re afraid to stop worrying is because it feels as though if we do, we’re taking our eye off the ball: if we stop worrying about the safety of our children, something terrible might happen to them; if we stop obsessing about our health, we may get ill.
It can be uncomfortable to admit that you have chosen to worry, but when I look beneath the internal noise I can usually see that I’ve made a subconscious bargain with fate. That if I suffer enough now, I am somehow protecting myself from the very thing I fear might happen in the future. Once you see how futile this is, it makes no sense to continue and you are less inclined to do so. When we recognise worry for what it is – anxious thinking rather than important information about our future – we can find the courage to leave it alone. And with a clearer mind, we are far more able to find solutions to the challenges we are facing.
4. You can never know what another person is thinking
When someone upsets us, we suddenly acquire a crystal ball which lets us know how another person is thinking and feeling. We then assign a motive to their behaviour and become an expert on the inner workings of their mind. We do this to feel more in control – and the deeper our upset, the more likely we are to read that person’s mind through our own insecurities. ‘They said that because they deliberately wanted to hurt me.’ ‘That email was meant to put me in my place.’ Of course, the other person is making up our motives too, which is why relationship problems can escalate so rapidly into major arguments and misunderstandings.
The moment I become aware that I’m channelling my inner mind-reader, I step back to investigate the meaning I’m giving the other person’s behaviour. Do I know for a fact that they meant to hurt me, or is my assumption a product of my protective thinking?
The reality is, I can never truly know what someone else is thinking or feeling. I can only ever know the self-doubt behind my own actions. When I remember that we are all attempting to protect ourselves, that people hurt others because they feel hurt themselves, I can step out of my story and ask: what else is possible? I’ve invented the original motive, so who’s to say any number of alternative ones might be just as likely. A kinder story will not only make me feel better, it will help me respond in a more helpful way. And personal challenges are always much easier to handle when I’m not wasting mental energy on anger or blame.
5. Cause the least amount of your own pain
Few of us can live a life without some discomfort or pain, but we can endeavour to cause as little of our own suffering as possible. The biggest influence we have over our feelings is our ability to make them worse. It’s all too easy to dredge up an unhappy memory or fantasise an angry exchange. We all have our own favourite brand of suffering, one energy-draining emotion that we indulge in the most:
The survival part of our brain may constantly be searching for what’s wrong but there’s always something to appreciate. Our suffering depends on where we put our focus. If what’s wrong is always available, then so is what is right.
I’ve learnt that I don’t have to listen to the overprotective, fearful child of my habitual thinking. It may be impossible to control what comes into my mind, and from a low mood my thinking is rarely helpful or true. But I can choose what to pay attention to and, most importantly, what to act on.
Ultimately, we are what we do, not what we think or feel. And to feel good we must act well. During even the most difficult times we can determine how we want to behave, even if we can’t choose how we get to feel.
Happiness is really about our happiness in ourselves. Act well when life is testing us and we may still hate what’s going on but we can like who we are. It is possible to be a failure at something and still be a person we are proud of.