Last week, I offered some suggestions for moving on from the difficult moments life presents. When we’re in the throes of trauma, sometimes taking a single step forward feels overwhelming. But once you get yourself moving, the focus shifts: now you have to figure out how to feel better about the life in front of you. That’s no easy task–especially when your life is missing a piece you’d counted on having.
Your missing piece might be the career you thought you’d love–the job that now pays the bills, but doesn’t feed your soul. It could be the job you thought you’d retire from–until you were let go. Maybe it’s the marriage you committed to forever–the marriage your partner has left behind. And maybe that missing piece is a friend or family member. We all know the people we love are going to die, but that’s a completely theoretical kind of knowledge until it actually happens.
My life changed completely after both of my parents passed away in a span of less than five years. As I’ve said to my friends more than once, “The world just looks completely different now that I’m walking the high wire without a safety net.”
So how do you help yourself feel better about the life in front of you? Let’s be honest: sometimes, you don’t. You just keep moving on, gritting your teeth and feeling awful. But most of us get tired of that, eventually. We start to feel like we’re ready to do something else. Something better.
When you’re ready, here are a few things to try.
Do something kind.
It can be very, very small–maybe you pick up a piece of trash that fell to the floor beside a garbage can. Picking it up is a small thing that doesn’t benefit you in any way, but it makes the area more pleasant for everyone else.
Maybe you open the door to a building for someone who’s carrying an armload of packages. Maybe you smile at a fussy baby in the checkout line at the grocery store and make him laugh.
You won’t get a pat on the back for doing things like this, but you don’t need one. You’ll feel better about yourself for being a kind person. And feeling better about yourself–the one thing you can control in this world–is what we’re going for.
Last week I went to the eye doctor, then ran next door to Costco to order a new supply of contacts. For once, the optical department didn’t seem too busy–there was only one person ahead of me in line. As it happened, that person was an elderly woman with lots of questions and a penchant for telling stories.
Instead of letting myself get impatient–Is this woman completely unaware of the fact that people are behind her in line? I have things to do. I can’t believe people are so oblivious–I decided to be empathetic. Maybe she doesn’t have anyone to talk to at home, I thought. That would be really lonely.
Suddenly, I didn’t feel so annoyed. In fact, I was grateful to the optician for being patient and friendly. When she glanced at me, I smiled to let her know this. And smiling–whether you’re actually happy or not–decreases your stress level. That’s right, you can make yourself feel better by putting yourself in someone else’s shoes rather than viewing that person as an obstacle to your happiness.
Empathy isn’t always my first response, but I try hard to make it my second.
Celebrate the positives.
These don’t have to be events in your own life. If a friend gets that new job she wanted, take her out for a celebratory dinner. If there’s a birthday coming up in your family, find the perfect gift–then revel in your loved one’s joy at receiving the item you’ve chosen.
If positive things are happening in your own life, mark them in a big way. But if they’re not, remember that good things are always happening. We live in a culture that wants us to believe this isn’t true, so we have to work hard to shift the balance. When we put all our energy into celebrating good news, it’s not so hard to believe that better things are on their way for us, too.
I know, I know. I say this a lot. But that’s because it’s true: physical activity makes your brain produce endorphins, which make you feel better. 15 minutes of gentle exercise is all it takes to get that benefit. I was over 40 before I finally got this through my head.
So walk the dog. Or just walk yourself. Seriously, what’s more important than your own good health?
What you do in your silent moments is up to you–whether you read, journal, draw, or just stare into space. The point of building silence into your day is to check in with yourself. How are you feeling? If you want to feel better, what are you willing to do? You can’t have these moments of self-assessment with noise blaring in the background, competing with your honest thoughts.
As a general rule, I make my 30-minute commute to work in silence: no radio, no music. By the time I arrive at work, I’m focused and ready to roll. When I leave work in the afternoon, I use that 30 minutes of silence to decompress before I get home. This may not be a strategy that works for you, but finding even 10 minutes of silence in your day will almost certainly improve your sense of well-being.
Moving on after trauma is only the first step. It’s an important one, to be sure, but moving on in despair does no one any good. Finding a way to change your feelings about the future is just as important. So when you’re ready to feel better, remind yourself of this: it’s possible.