A few years ago, I walked into my job after a long weekend and gave my notice. I had spent the previous 6 months dreading almost every day, not sleeping and finding myself in tears both at work and at home, way way more than normal. I just couldn’t do it anymore.
Looking back at it now, I wish I had spent my energy differently during those last 6 months there. I was so unhappy (managerial changes, layoffs etc) and so vested in my own misery that I couldn’t see anything other than my own unhappiness. It was like this massive grey cloud that obstructed my senses, so thick and impenetrable, I walked around with it held out in front of me, assuming that the grey cloud I saw everywhere was confirmation that everyone around me at work was also miserable. Some of them had their own clouds for sure (it was an ugly year for the company), but I was coloring my entire world with the way I had chosen to think about my situation. And I thought that the second I walked out those doors that that grey cloud would be gone forever.
When I embarked upon starting my own business, those same grey clouds would appear every so often, not as dark and thick as before, but certainly enough to make me question what I was doing (do I know enough? am I good at this? was I insane to quit?? etc). I realized that my situation wasn’t fully to blame for my unhappiness – a huge chunk of it was because of how much time I spent thinking about how bad things were at work. I was basically growing my unhappiness by cultivating thoughts about how deeply unhappy I was, all day long, over and over – with every interaction I had.
I am not unique (though I’d like to think I am, haha!).
Most of us spend big chunks of time focusing on what we don’t want in our current situation. It’s easier to think about what’s not going well, what we don’t want, or how we don’t want things to be.
Maybe it’s your job that you hate. You get up each morning, dreading the day ahead. Even going to sleep is challenging because you are thinking about how much you don’t want to go to work tomorrow. How much of your day (or night) is spent thinking about how much you don’t want to be where you spend most of your day?
Maybe it’s your weight. You weigh yourself first thing in the morning and feel instant disappointment. You’re still fat! (side note: your weight is not indicative of how awesome you are and you don’t need to change it.) You go to get dressed and have a meltdown just going into the closet. You know most of what’s in here doesn’t fit your “chubby” body. You take one last look in the mirror before you leave the house and wonder how you let yourself get this heavy? How much of your day is filled with thoughts about what is wrong about your body?
Maybe it’s where you are living. It’s too far of a commute to work. It’s too far in the woods. Your house is too big. It’s too small. You don’t like how it’s decorated. You don’t want to stay there but don’t want to deal with a move either. How much of your day do you dedicate to thinking about where you don’t want to be?
Maybe it’s the people you spend time with. Your husband annoys you or he’s not emotionally available. Your friends aren’t available enough or you have that one friend who is too available and you need more space. Your family is too nosy or they’re too distant. How much time do you spend thinking you’d rather be with someone other than the person or people you are currently with?
Maybe it’s your car. It needs some work or it’s too expensive.
Maybe it’s your local grocery store. They don’t carry the brands you like or they do, but it’s always too crowded.
Maybe it’s how you spend your free time. What free time? Or too much free time?
I think that’s probably enough examples to illustrate the point. We spend a ton of our thinking time in thoughts about what about our lives is “wrong” or “too much” or not “enough”.
How many times has doing that actually changed your situation?
Does a new job materialize when you spend all day stewing over how miserable you are?
Do you suddenly start to love your body after you’ve assaulted it with the 8th “You’re wrong in ______ way” message in one day?
Does your unhappiness in your current home help you find your dream home in your dream town?
No. None of these thoughts about what we don’t want in our current lives serves to bring us what we do want. Sure, some of us can argue that if we’re happy, we’re unlikely to make changes – and that a glimmer of dissatisfaction can be what sparks motivation to change. But there’s a difference between wanting more in life and finding all that is wrong in it.
If anything, spending too much time in these thoughts about what we don’t want, can make us feel even more down, even more stuck, even more unhappy and less likely to take steps towards changing our situation.
What do you think would happen if we spent more time thinking about what we do want in our lives, where we want to be, what we want to create and who we want to be? What might happen if we spent time thinking about all the things that are right in our world?
When we put our focus on the things we do want in our lives, it makes us feel gratitude, appreciation, love and even joy. When we feel more of those things, we take actions that bring us more of what we want and it can cultivate more patience, tolerance and even appreciation in the areas that we do want to change.
How do we get there? How do we stop thinking so much about what we don’t want?
Here are two exercises that can help turn your thinking around (you’ll need paper and pen or pencil for this):
- Think about a time when you felt super pumped up, ready to create something new, go after something big or otherwise make major changes. What was going on in your life? What were you thinking about? Who with, and how were you spending your time? Write down the thoughts that you recall made you feel the most motivated. What thoughts in your current life are most like those thoughts? How can you have more of them?
- Each morning or evening (whichever is more convenient for you) write down 5 things in your life that you already have that you want. We spend a ton of time thinking about the things in life that we want but that we don’t yet have. That creates feelings of drought, lack – scarcity! I’m asking you to spend some time creating desire for the things you already have. What do you have in life that you truly want? Try to list 5 different things each day, even if it’s a variation on something you’ve listed before.
For exercise #2, here are a few examples from my own life: I want my husband and I want to be married to him. I want fulfilling and meaningful work. I want my sweet cat. I want my empathy and my sense of humor.
It may seem silly to list out things that seem obvious that we have that we “want” – and it’s certainly way easier to come up with a list of things we don’t want! There are some days I get stuck in thinking about how I’m tired of living so far away in the woods or that as much as I love the freedom of working from home, it gets lonely and I feel like I’ve gotten extra socially awkward since I started (haha!) but while those things are true – there are not the only “truth” in my life. There are plenty of things in my life that I do want – exactly as they already are.
We think of “wanting” as something we do when we are going without. But wanting is also desiring what we have already and even if there are things in your life that you don’t like and do want to change, I am sure there are things that you are blessed with that you do want and you do desire. Putting your focus on those can help get us out of focusing on the stuff we don’t want – and it will release our energy to be able to be put to use doing something more constructive.
One area that this has really made an impact on for me is my relationship with my body. Someone asked me recently how I made a switch from such a negative body image to a more positive one and one of the things I shared with her was that I indulged thoughts about what my body could do more than I indulged the thoughts about what my body was lacking (in my opinion). Both types of thoughts pop in my head and there’s no controlling what thoughts we have – but we do have control over what we do with those thoughts. I started to put more energy (intentionally) into thinking about all the amazing things my body does for me every single day – breathing, heart beating, feet supporting me when I want to take a step, every muscle, bone, tendon, ligament, organ and everything else in my body serving a function every day that enables me to do really cool things. Being able to ride a bike, take barre classes, walk, run, jump, lift weights, carry groceries, think, cook, love etc. (This doesn’t mean that if someone is not able to do these things that they should not take the same joy in their body. I think we should celebrate what we can do even if it doesn’t look like what another person can do.)
My whole life is possible because of the body I’m in and all that she does, every day for me.
Doesn’t that deserve more attention than what is “wrong” about it?
It does and so I started putting more energy there. And the cool thing about that is that it fuels my decisions about what to eat or what kind of exercise I do that is more supportive of a body I love (rather than as a way to punish my body). I put more focus on what I do want about my body than what I don’t want – and that has revolutionized my relationship with her.
In the same way, we can revolutionize our entire life with how we direct our thinking. What if we focused on what we want as much as we focus on what we don’t want?
That’s not to say that if you’re unhappy in your job, your marriage, your lifestyle, your health etc that you should just ignore it and focus on the happy stuff. I’m not suggesting sweeping anything under the rug. I’m just suggesting that we put in an equal amount of time and energy thinking about the stuff in life that we do want as we spend thinking about the stuff we’d like to change.
This is your life and you get to make of it what you want – so do it!