Keeping Perspective

Life involves ups and downs. You or your loved ones may have sickness, surprise, financial trouble, job challenges. At these times the challenges can feel incredibly consuming. Do your best to press on, and take time to reflect on the bigger picture when you can. Do not push away the negative feelings. Let them flow in private or with caring others.
Here are some quotes and concepts to help maintain perspective when you are overwhelmed or narrowly focused on challenges.

“It is just one bad day. You do not have a bad life, you just had a bad day.”

This is a saying used by a friend. He has a remarkable ability to stay relaxed and upbeat no matter what is going on. And he is right. Most of us do not have an overall bad life. His family fled a war-torn country after losing relatives to violence. He fully appreciates life in a safe country, even on the bad days.

“Suck it up. It’s just one day.”

This is what a mentor told me she tells herself on ridiculously hard days. Some days you may have way too much on your plate. I was venting and asking how she does it. She described how once in a while she had to get to early meetings at a company site over an hour away from her kids’ school in the opposite direction of her home, resulting in multiple two-hour driving loops per day and supplemental childcare to cover the excess hours. She just plows through it and eventually that day ends.

“…No one can take away the dances you’ve already had.”

from Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Memories of My Melancholy Whores

What a lovely thought. The same goes for loves, career, everything. In the book Worry, author Edward Hallowell reminds us that feelings always pass. We can count on emotion shifting. The way you felt a year ago, yesterday, or even a few minutes ago will change.

“Get over being a sugar cookie.”

by William H. McRaven: “Life Lessons From Navy SEAL Training,” May 23, 2014, The Wall Street Journal.

This may be the best analogy ever. Mr. McRaven was a Navy SEAL, one of the United States’ most prestigious special military forces that is famously hard to train for. He described morning beach trainings when an instructor would demand that trainees jump in the cold ocean then roll in the sand, becoming a “sugar cookie,” then endure the rest of the day’s training cold, wet, itchy, and sandy. Sometimes you had to be a sugar cookie because you made an error. Other times, there was no reason. You just were. It was part of being taught to deal with whatever is thrown at you. He said that the successful SEALS were those who did not wonder and complain about why they had to be a sugar cookie. The ones who made it through the training were the sugar cookies who just pressed on in the face of hardship.

Do the best you can each day

You may get in late, dial into morning calls from home, or feel embarrassed when your child makes background noise on an important call, but it is what it is. Work smart. Delegate, choose your battles. Plot how to make changes over time to improve conditions. Incrementally simplify wherever possible. Enjoy living in the moment when the good moments come. Brace yourself for a marathon. If your ability to experience joy goes away, seek professional help. This is an indicator that you are struggling too much and structured support or medicine may help.

Choose to optimize chances of success

Maintain boundary principles: we cannot and will not do everything. You will be making choices. Own personal leadership and be deliberate about time-spend choices. Include building in time for fun and relaxation, whatever that means to you, even if it is only for a few minutes, or combined with other purposes such as exercise, social time, or caring for someone. For example, dance to a favorite song with your child while making dinner.

Life without margin

There may be times when you simply do not have any extra minutes in the day. When you keep going until you must rest, then do it all again the next day. Others may not understand. It is more than being very busy. These are the times when you are at your physical limit but have obligations to meet. It can happen when we are earning a living combined with caring for multiple others, such as an ailing parent and young children. Or when we have our own health challenges in combination with work and caring for others. Try to maintain strong discipline during these time periods.

Control your inputs

Keep yourself as healthy as possible by choosing not to do anything that makes health worse. This includes drinking heavily or eating junk food. For some, it can help to cut out viewing or reading materials that have stressful or violent topics. Television and newspapers are full of negative information that can impact our stress levels indirectly or directly. Choose carefully what you expose yourself to.

Aim to not take actions that decrease capacity to perform core functions

You do not have time for a hangover or poor sleep when you need every ounce of energy you have. It can be hard because these vices are often the easiest way to have a momentary break from the grind. Resist urges to self-medicate and self-soothe through these ways.
Do not take on new roles, such as coordinating a group birthday party for multiple kids or organizing a summer intern potluck at work. Let someone else do those things. For social interaction, choose conditions that do not present tough self-control moments. For example, meet at a park and take a walk rather than meet at a bar. Healthy social support is key to staying connected and supported, but can lead to poor choices.
Choosing healthy food can be difficult as well, because so often we are in settings with tasty, tempting treats. Make a practice of planning ahead for your day. For example, you know you have a business dinner that may involve heavy, greasy food. Choose the salad bar at lunch that day so you have at least one healthy meal. This does not require shopping or packing lunch; it is just a conscious choice to force yourself to enable healthy choices in anticipation of food later that may slow you down or make you feel ill. Have personal “rules” on daily food intake. For example, eat two healthy meals before you get any junk snacks, and limit desserts to one a day. Simple formulas work best.

Build in deliberate dalliance

Pick a few healthy pleasures such as chocolate or watching funny videos online. Building in some relief and pleasure positions you to better resist temptations. Reward yourself with short walks or a few minutes to sit outside to stare and do nothing in between rounds of work or errands.

Accept help when needed

If the tough times become harder than what feels manageable, seek a doctor’s opinion about whether you may be experiencing depression. It is very common in women-the Mayo Clinic reports that 1 in 5 women will experience it during her lifetime. It can be overcome. Coping skills, therapy, medications, and more can help improve the short and long terms. Indicators that you may be experiencing depression include a lack of ability to feel joy, and constant racing or ruminating thoughts (the same ideas going through your head over and over). Most general physician, psychiatrist, psychologist, or therapist offices can offer a short screening form to evaluate your status. It is often just one or two pages with questions answered on a ratings scale. Certainly, if you start to have thoughts of hurting yourself or others, consult professionals on next steps for your sake and that of those who love you. Depression is not something to be ashamed of. Life events, genetics, hormones, and plenty of other factors can contribute to a depressive episode. Choose the course of action that best enables you to overcome it and live your life more fully again.

Accepting Limitations and Constraints

Constraints are part of life. We all have them in some form, whether physical, financial, or otherwise. Yet we enjoy a time in which we have more options available then ever-we can travel, access endless information, connect with millions of people. This widening of choices can itself cause stress.
As life evolves, we often have more constraints than when we were young. If you are fortunate to not have major limitations, enjoy it. Help others while you have the bandwidth.
If you have constraints, live in gratitude for what you do have. Embrace obligation. Be selfless during the times in life when you are needed. This is why we have loved ones and community. Sometimes we receive, other times we should give. Accept the mantle of responsibility when you are called upon. There is a cultural norm today glorifying lifestyles in which people remain youth-like forever with total freedom, prioritizing fun above all else. Eventually a loved one gets ill or has other troubles, and needs help. You may too.
In some ways, having boundaries can feel freeing. Americans often put this unconscious, cultural, self-imposed pressure on themselves to constantly do more. Have not learned to rock climb yet, or been to Nepal? Have not been to the new wine bar, or read your daily deals emails? So what? What if you enjoy simple pleasures instead? Your mind and body might thank you for slowing down. When you cannot pursue anything you want for reasons such as an illness, family responsibility, or financial crunch, the cage of constraint can feel strangely comforting. Torn leg muscle? Think:

“I guess I’ll just have to stay home on this snowy day and drink tea and catch up with a few friends on the phone instead of taking that glacier climbing course.”

After a long nap under a cozy blanket by the fireplace, and after a bowl of chili, you might wonder why you often feel so guilty and torn about how to spend time. It is because we have so many choices, and it is our culture to experience as much as possible. Learn to define your own “good enoughs.” Some people do this well: “No thanks! Staying home tonight.” But most of us feel a constant need to keep up with new things, invites, travels, advancement, and more. Focus on the most important choices for you and be at peace with rejecting the rest.