Sometimes life is hard. Something happens that we didn’t want to happen. Maybe it’s a tragedy, a loss, a diagnosis, or maybe it’s just that you have important work deadlines but your kids are sick and keep you awake all night. Sometimes it feels like too much, but you have to go on anyway. Here’s what to do.
Let Life Be Hard
Just a century ago, people pretty much accepted that life was hard a lot of the time. But more recently, we’ve come to expect that life shouldn’t be hard. Madison Avenue has been convincing us that we’re supposed to be happy all of the time and we see that belief perpetuated on a daily basis on social media. The problem with that expectation is that life is not supposed to be easy all of the time. Life is still hard. A lot.
If you’re thinking “life should be easy all the time” or “life shouldn’t be this hard,” you’re arguing with reality, which creates even more suffering than the pain you’re already experiencing from life being hard. It’s been said that pain in life is inevitable but suffering (which comes from resisting the way things are) is optional. Understanding the difference between the two is key if you want to let go of the suffering.
To “let life be hard,” practice cultivating the feeling of acceptance. For example, if you decide to think “life is hard right now and that’s okay,” notice the feeling in your body. Do you feel a weight being lifted from your shoulders? Do you breathe a sigh of relief, even in the smallest way? When you stop arguing with reality and accept what is, you eliminate the extra unnecessary suffering that you were creating for yourself.
Allow Yourself To Feel The Negative Emotion
An additional source of suffering comes from our extreme dislike of feeling negative emotions, including pain. Our brains are wired to avoid any type of pain—physical or emotional—so we avoid negative emotion at almost any cost.
Instead of feeling negative emotions, we often avoid, resist, or react to them.
Avoiding negative emotion is the main reason why people procrastinate, overeat sugary or processed food, overdrink, overspend, overwork, or over-Netflix. We want to avoid feeling the discomfort of negative emotion, so we turn to things that will flood our brains with dopamine, a feel-good chemical that helps us to temporarily escape the negative emotion.
Resisting negative emotion is like trying to keep the door closed and not inviting it in. It’s still there, but you’re trying to pretend it’s not.
Reacting to the negative emotion involves some sort of outward act, such as yelling.
None of these are as productive as allowing the emotion. When you allow the emotion, you just sit with and feel it.
For example, say that a close family member gets a diagnosis. Allowing the emotion means that you don’t react, even if you feel like it. You don’t resist it by turning around and trying to ignore the circumstance. You don’t avoid it by going straight for the fridge to start eating ice cream.
Instead, you just let the emotion well up inside of you and notice it. You might say to yourself “Fear. I’m feeling afraid. So afraid.” Where is the fear? Is it in your chest? Your stomach? Your shoulders? What color is it? Feel it completely, allow it to wash over you, and then notice how you survived that feeling. When you understand how to allow your feelings, you no longer have to run away from them. You may need to coexist with a negative feeling for awhile. By allowing it, you invite it in and offer it a cup of tea. But you don’t let it run your life or drive you to do things you don’t like doing.
Being willing to experience negative emotion will lessen its impact on you. Experiencing emotional pain–whether it be fear, grief, or sadness–is part of being human. Arguing that we shouldn’t experience fear, grief, or sadness is what creates suffering and further perpetuates those emotions.
Recognize That You Are Still In Control Of How You Choose To Respond
When things happen that are hard, it can be tempting to think that life is happening to us and we’re just the victims of our circumstances. When we choose to think that, we give away our power. We’re not taking ownership of what we can control.
Even when things are hard, we still get to decide what we think, how we feel, what we do, and what results we create in those circumstances.
When our feelings are so strong that we want to react to them, the truth is that we have a choice about how to respond. It can feel like we’re acting involuntarily when we react in anger, for example. “I can’t help it,” we might say. But it’s just not true. It might be the way that you learned to react from your own parents or it might be a habit, but it’s still within your control.
As Victor Frankl said, “between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” Allow for a greater space between the stimulus and your response by recognizing that you have a choice. You always get to choose.
You’ve Got This
Finally, remember that you’ve done hard things before. You’ve worked hard and overcome obstacles to get to where you are. You’ve suffered losses before. Just because life can be hard doesn’t mean you can’t handle this. Practicing the thought “I can do hard things” can create the motivation you need to power through. You’ve got this.
Go forth, grow, and bloom.