Updated: Jul 2, 2020
Discouragement can derail us. Routine and radical challenges come standard with life this side of heaven, but it's what I tell myself about them that matters. Used to be a flat tire on a cloudy day was enough to send me into an emotional tailspin of doom and gloom. My mind would weave anything into a negative narrative that spanned a day or even a lifetime. At some point I decided this was unacceptable. Life is just too short and precious to magnify misery when there's plenty of good stuff to enjoy. Now, when those cloudy days or pandemic problems strike, I have reliable tools to combat discouragement. I can't exhaust the topic here, but this is a good start.
I woke up on the wrong side of the universe the other day. I had a lousy night's sleep after binge-watching Netflix and disturbing dreams triggered by one episode's tragic storyline. I strolled into the kitchen in the pre-dawn hours to make my first cup of coffee, stepping into a splash-worthy puddle in front of the Keurig. Uggh. What's up with that? I Google'd a prognosis I couldn't fix myself, but did find the shut-off valve to stop the flood. My normally abundant quiet time was cut short and I didn't have time to run. These are the (potential) makings of a bad day. By 9 am, my whole life was all wrong.
Couple routine detours with a few legitimate, larger scale challenges (like unemployment, sickness, divorce, or world pandemic) and discouragement can snowball, overtaking us and preventing forward movement. Panic can cause us to make impulsive decisions that waste time and energy, or make matters worse.
Screech. I willed myself to stop and put the brakes on my spiraling thoughts, drawing on my arsenal of helpful rerouting.
Life shows up. Stuff happens. As a friend says, "Sometimes a flat tire is just a flat tire." It doesn't define your existence. Deal with problems as they arise. Move on.
I've had a decades-long practice of exchanging gratitude lists with four friends around the world. When I first started, I'd scrounge for five items that included things like breathing. Even on my recent lousy morning, I could easily come up with a solid 15 tangible things to be grateful for, including finally cleaning behind the refrigerator and finding a quick fix to avoid a Sunday service call.
In the past, I've made entire gratitude lists on the very thing that was troubling me. Pandemic anyone? Every. Cloud. Has a silver lining.
On a highly related note, look for the positive...or at least the neutral. I used to catastrophize, imagining the very worst about anything. Friend didn't reply to my text? They must hate me. That letter from IRS? I'm being audited. Car breaks down? Probably a $2000 repair. I was always wrong. Always. Didn't stop me from doing it for a long time. But I was always wrong.
Even in the face of rising Covid cases, we need to keep a balanced perspective so panic doesn't set in, creating an entirely new problem of its own. Fear also gives rise to anger, as we've seen played out everywhere these days.
When bad things do happen, generalizing them to infect your entire day or life is unhelpful at best. A neutral or positive attitude is just more effective.
Also, don't use worse case scenarios as a comfort measure, as in, "If I prepare the worst, I won't be disappointed." This sounds sensible but it's actually a misery-making machine, feeding anticipatory anxiety. This is fine segue to:
As in, remember that time I thought my friend hated me because she didn't text me back in 11 seconds and she was actually getting a massage? Remember that time my lymph nodes were swollen and I mentally planned my burial attire and discovered I just have big lymph nodes? (True story.) Remember that time I thought having a kid with Down syndrome was the end of the road and it turned out to be a big giant gift that keeps on giving? (Also true story.)
You get it.
Moreover, even when you're dealing with a bonafide problem, staying in the moment can make even the biggest elephant edible. Focus on the "next indicated action" or "next right thing" to work through difficult situations manageably, with the emotional resources available for the single bite rather than "borrowing" emotional reserves for future tasks.
I've also found that this approach also allows room for God to work and solutions simply emerge for seemingly insurmountable problems, or they even vanish effortlessly.
Do what you can then let it go and enjoy your life.
This moment is really all we have. Be in it and life gets much easier and better.
We have access to an abundance of dark and depressing information these days, whether well-crafted but icky Netflix shows, news outlets of any stripe, or social media. Garbage in, garbage in and out. Be more intentional about what you feed your mind and you might be surprised at how your perspective changes.
Nature shows, positive podcasts, hope-filled Bible study or other spiritual nourishment, light leisure reading, music and art can all dramatically change your outlook.
During this unusual season of epic global challenges, recognize that so much is outside your sphere of influence and even the experts are befuddled. While we don't want to be ostriches, we don't want to feed despair with loads of negativity.
4 O'Clock Faith - Positive Thinking That's Reliable
And though we don't want to be controlled by other personalities either, this may not be the best time to call Aunt Zelda, who spends 20 minutes lamenting her in-grown toenail, and the doctor, and the price of bread. Or that girlfriend who has a conspiracy theory for everything. Unless of course, you can...
If your light and loving phone call encourages Aunt Zelda, call her. If a short chat with your buddy puts her paranoia to rest, have at it. But if not, focus your energy on helping people where you can have a positive impact. Grocery shopping for an elderly neighbor, picking up trash at a favorite park, or writing an encouraging note to a sick friend can quickly shift the focus away from our troubles or dark mood.
My son Pierce and I walked our neighborhood the other day with a bucket of soapy water, steel wool and scrub brushes to clean the road signs. Our little community service project was fine bonding time, we had a couple of friendly neighbor chats, and the small chore made our little nook a little prettier. It felt good.
Helping others without strings attached is one of the most effective ways to lift your spirits.
7. Dig deeper.
I believe the darkest times of life, whatever the cause, are opportunities to dig deeper in several key areas:
The pressure of tough days and tough times can surface underlying issues that otherwise lay dormant. I've found this is especially true now, when many of us have fewer distractions with scaled down activity and greater isolation. Uncomfortable, nameless feelings can arise. If we explore them, they can point us to problems we need to address.
When I talked to my mentor on my dark morning, a few sharp questions unearthed what seemed like an unrelated conversation with a friend that had triggered my feelings of sadness. Just seeing it helped me let it go.
I've openly shared that I spent years numbing my feelings with work, busyness, spending, alcohol, food...just about anything. The problem is the numbing agent can be as destructive as the underlying issue we don't want to face--which remains, by the way. As they say, "if you can feel it, you can heal it."
Facing some of my hurts and hang-ups was admittedly painful, but I'm now enjoying tremendous freedom, and much more peace, joy and purpose.
Persistent discouragement can be a sign we need to deal with something. While facing a long-avoided problem can be scary, it can actually be very empowering and lead to a happier, healthier new beginning.
Pressing through challenges and persevering when we feel discouraged can build our mental, emotional and spiritual muscle. I liken it to exercise.
Between marriage and my first pregnancy, I put on more than 70 pounds. Along with some other issues, I became deeply discouraged. I started walking on the treadmill and I used a food program to lose the first 10 pounds pretty quickly, giving me an encouraging boost. I went to therapy and recovery groups to help me understand what was driving me and find healthier alternatives. Over time, I gradually increased my walking time and speed, and did Weight Watchers to help develop more conscious eating habits.
Eventually, I lost the 70 lbs and was regularly running 7 miles/day. I've since scaled back to 3 or 4, but it's become vital to my physical, mental and spiritual well-being.
Many, many days I didn't want to walk, run or skip the second bowl of pasta, especially when the results were slow coming. But pressing through can be an acquired habit that pays rich dividends over time and is transferable to many other areas of life.
I still have to battle to stay motivated some days, and the hunk of cheese or brownie wins. That's OK, too.
This is last but absolutely not least. In fact, it's both first and last. What do I mean by that? I've found that when I put God first, everything else follows more smoothly. Starting my day with prayer, meditation and reflection frames my day. Consulting God throughout the day at decision points large and small, especially during tough times, fosters a more restful and effective way of life. I'm less likely to get tied up in unhappy knots or have emotion-fueled reactions.
On the other hand, if my diligent, strenuous or even frantic effort doesn't produce results, and I finally get to the end of myself, that can be a good thing, too. Once I get out of the way, God can step in, point to solutions I couldn't see, or solve problems altogether without my input.
If you're feeling discouraged today, don't give in. Take a few minutes now to jot down a gratitude list, send an encouraging email, or take a walk 'n' talk with God. This moment will pass and before you know, hope will rise.
And remember, God loves you no matter what.
Love & hugs in a hazmat,