When you feel better, you do better.
Several years ago I was mired in a job that entailed little more than pushing pieces of paper around. It was corporate drudgery at its finest, and while I was grateful for the income it provided, it was taking a toll on my physical and mental health. My spiritual health, on the other hand, was in shreds. Deaf to the warning signs that I was simply doing too much–a badly dislocated shoulder, a broken leg, a sense of spiritual vacancy, and a difficult pregnancy–I persevered.
After all, while joyless, my job defined me. It didn’t matter that I clocked in ten hours a day in a position that was below my qualifications; it didn’t matter that I went straight home from the office to tend to a toddler, a husband, a home, and my blossoming belly. Given my age, my doctors cautioned me to take it easy; that my unborn son was at risk. This I ignored. Sleep was scant, my diet was terrible, my body was in pain, but I had a job. Working was one of the few ways I could redeem myself to the world.
Then my son arrived, two months too soon. He died in the womb. And, suddenly, those warning signs I was so gifted at eschewing were louder than a tsunami warning.
When I got home from the hospital, I went straight to bed and stayed there for a week straight. I quit my job over email. I didn’t accept calls. I didn’t let in visitors, refused food, and writhed with nightmares. I stared at the ceiling, my breasts aching and my heart breaking, wondering, what did I do wrong?
The answer, surprisingly, arrived with the clarity of a sunrise: I had spent most of my adult life striving to make everyone happy. Everyone but myself, that is. Intuition? I ignored that too. Instead, I operated from a place of dogged determination to feel worthy–and worthwhile.
As the old adage goes, one can’t love another unconditionally unless they love themselves first. And a brief glance back at the last two decades—twenty-plus years dedicated to various jobs and relationships that robbed me of true happiness–suggested that I downright despised myself. I threw off the covers and embarked on a mission. That determination was still intact and raring to go, but this time I focused it on finding contentment while enhancing my compassion towards myself and others. If I could love myself, then–and only then–could I give others the same in return.
And so I set out to see if it was possible to feel good, day in and day out.
I read hundreds of books, practiced myriad wellness methods, plumbed into the meandering paths of my past experiences, so much of which was marked by suffering. When I came through the other side–for one always exists, as long as we keep on keeping on–I wrote down a list of things I committed to performing daily.
If you, too, feel disconnected to your sense of well-being or need a splash of vitality in your life, here are 6 simple ways to feel better fast:
6 Simple Ways to Feel Better Fast
1. Stop penalizing yourself for your mistakes.
I used to spend hours and hours cursing myself for the errors I made–the things I said, the actions I took, the doors I closed, the people I lost. It was such a relentless cycle of guilt and recrimination that I barely had enough emotional energy to accomplish anything meaningful.
Once I began forgiving myself as thoughtfully and thoroughly as I forgave others–once I began extracting lessons from the missteps I’d made–I started to feel freer, happier, and more attuned and empathetic towards those around me. People leave valuable relationships, say harsh things to those they love, gamble, cheat, lie, steal, and betray their bodies all the time, I acknowledged, and managed to find a reason to smile—why couldn’t I? Plus, if we didn’t make mistakes, how could we discover the depth of character and insight? If we assimilate the instructions given to us by lapsing, we realize that life is a path that often veers off course. The point is our getting back on.
2. Choose your words wisely.
Sympathy and empathy are often interchanged, but there are subtle differences between the two concepts. As explained by Dr. Burton in Psychology Today, “Empathy can be defined as a person’s ability to recognize and share the emotions of another person, character, or sentient being. It involves, first, seeing someone else’s situation from his perspective, and, second, sharing his emotions, including, if any, his distress.” Sympathy, on the other hand, “is a feeling of care and concern for someone, often someone close, accompanied by a wish to see him better off or happier. Compared to pity, sympathy implies a greater sense of shared similarities together with a more profound personal engagement. However, sympathy, unlike empathy, does not involve a shared perspective or shared emotions, and while the facial expressions of sympathy do convey caring and concern, they do not convey shared distress.” In other words, to practice compassion is to practice an active engagement with another person, or with yourself; a desire, and fight, to alleviate suffering. And that wish and grit should always be extended to one’s self.
Think of it this way: If you constantly judge yourself (“I’m not pretty enough/rich enough/smart enough”), berate yourself (“You shouldn’t have had that second cookie”), or compare yourself to others (“She has a newer car, a better education”), you’ll likely be so crushed by remorse, regret, and envy that you won’t take the steps necessary to move forward and achieve your goals. When we speak to ourselves with scorn, we close off the possibility to ever-changing: If I am “this” or “that,” how could I possibly be something else? Instead of obliterating negative self-talk entirely–a nearly inconceivable concept for many–try changing the words you speak to yourself. Switch from “I’m an idiot and made a complete fool out of myself” to “I acted inappropriately, and need a different approach.” You’ll note a sense of liberation and a feeling of ease–as well as an eagerness to act, and therefore feel, differently.
3. Identify your inner players.
We all have an inner dialogue led by voices that are seductive (“Go ahead, have that third glass of wine!”), apathetic (“Screw it; who cares what you do?”), shameful (“You don’t deserve happiness–take a look at what you’ve done!”), and downright wretched (“Poor me”). Consider them actors on the stage that are your inner self. These characters are almost always purely antagonistic, pulling you in different directions and trying to take over the lead role for the sake of glory. They emerge as we grow up, and intensify as we age. Children of critical parents often turn into fault-finding adults. Kids who were abused tend to have a Saboteur inside them–a voice who will try to undermine everything they do, or go to drastic measures to escape perceived harm. Adults of alcoholics often have a devil on their shoulder in the form of an addict, whispering enticing words to persuade them to imbibe. The sooner you’re able to recognize and label these inner players and what they represent–the Victim, the Executive, the Temptress, the Addict–the sooner you’ll be able to quiet them. Listen to what they have to say, but don’t let them become the star of your show.
4. Remember: ‘What people in the world think of you is none of your business.’
Consider the amount of energy you expend questioning how you’re perceived by others. From “She must think I sound ridiculous discussing foreign policy” to “He probably thinks I look like I’m trying too hard in these platforms,” we unceasingly fret over what other people think of us.
First things first: Most people are so consumed by their own self-doubt, worries, and compunctions that they want and don’t notice the chipped red polish on your right pinky, even if you’re convinced they’re staring at your fingernails and judging you for your imperfections. Secondly, by remaining focused on what others think of you–whether it’s in your imagination or comes to light to be true–you’re essentially leaving yourself, traveling beyond your own priorities, and allowing something intangible (and something you can rarely fix, anyway) to devour your time and enthusiasm for thoughts, projects, and actions that have actual benefits and consequences.
Think: Have you ever attempted to assert yourself in some fashion, only to end up stuttering through the very thing you were determined to say because you were concerned about the impression you would give? That stammering stems from the fact that you weren’t centered inside yourself; rather, you were wrapped up in the judgment of others. Fixate on what you believe others are thinking of you and you’re bound to feel like a disappointment, if not an utter failure. Direct your attention instead on the positive qualities you possess and know to be true and your creativity–and ability to impress even the most indifferent of souls–will flow with immeasurable ease. Finally, give yourself permission to relax, because, as John Lydgate once remarked, “You can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time.”
5. Keep in mind that you’re exactly where you’re supposed to be: Right here, right now.
As the saying goes, the present brings many presents…so why do we so often fail to see the gifts in it? If we timed ourselves to see how many hours we dedicate each day attempting to read and control the future or recalling our past, we’d be astonished. Yet no matter how many minutes we clock in musing over eras that are beyond our command, life will move through us and around us. The sun will come up, just as it will set—whether we like it or not. By returning to the present and concentrating on the sensory details of the here and now, you’ll become more mindful–of your decisions, your emotions, your behaviors, your well-being.
Mindfulness–a concept that’s tossed around like confetti but is nonetheless crucial to a whole and satisfied spirit–is to graciously and gratefully treat each moment of our waking lives as if they were manna from heaven. Washing dishes? Engross yourself in the feeling of warmth and cleanliness on your hands. Writing a difficult email? Concentrate on the sensations you receive when you let go of what’s on your mind on the page. Stuck in traffic? Marvel at the sky, listen to an interview on NPR to expand your mind and give thanks to the universe for giving you the opportunity to steer your own car. The point is: Focusing on the present offers tremendous relief. There is no past to grieve, no future to fear. There is only what is right in front of us–and more often than not, it is beautiful as is.
6. Leap, even if everyone is looking.
Having faith that the radical decision you might be just about to make takes a boatload of courage and equal measures of a doubt—particularly if you’re the type of person who is always looking over her shoulder to see what others are thinking as you take your next step. Believing, even without confirmation, that your feet will land in exactly the right place will enable you to move forward with the confidence so many lack when it comes to doing what’s right for them. Do your homework, wave to the swimmers along the way, but walk to the edge of that diving board–whatever it may be for you at this time in your life–and take a jump right in. You can spearfish the brilliant life that you deserve the moment you hit the water.