Quick note: This is a very long blog post.
My life sucks sometimes. So does yours, I’m sure. Life often isn’t easy. Something I have noticed about myself these past several months is that I have been very much not-myself. I have witnessed myself gradually become a weaker person by regularly giving in to anxiety. It has been very dissatisfying and upsetting to see myself go from being a contagiously-joyful hippie who loves everyone, to an isolated, angry, struggling young person.
I have been going through a lot. My emotional reaction is rational and easily justified. But that doesn’t mean it’s okay for me to be depressed, or that I want to be depressed, or that I don’t want to be my best self and live the best life I possibly can.
When spring break arrived, I decided to go camping. I love the great outdoors, and I knew being out in the wilderness would help me reconnect with my true self.
I went on this trip with a motive. I had been thinking about all my anxieties and how much they were weighing me down, and I wanted to learn how to control that, or if controlling your anxiety is even possible. I kept thinking, “How can I just stay calm at every moment, zen-like, and not freak out or feel depressed and angry all the time?”
I meditated intensely about my desire for self-growth, journaled about it, and here were some of the conclusions I came up with, in the order I came up with them:
1. Happiness IS a choice
I already knew this one. I had heard it a million times before. But, as I began meditating, this was one of the first realizations that hit me. Due to how much crap I had been going through, I had allowed myself to forget this important life lesson.
You have to consciously, actively make a choice every single day (or every hour, every minute, or every second) that you are going to be happy. And you can’t just say it, you have to believe in it. It’s a mental mindset to get into.
2. Depending on your circumstances, it will be harder or easier to choose happiness
Like I said, I already knew that happiness was a choice, but that brought up the question of, well, why wasn’t I choosing it?
The more tumultuous things that are going on in your life, the harder it is to choose happiness. And if there is a lot of good in your life, it can be so easy to choose happiness that you might even start taking it for granted.
It was helpful for me to acknowledge that I have had difficulty choosing happiness because of how hard my day-to-day life is, and to affirm that it’s always possible to choose it.
3. Your circumstances affect how you view your entire life
When your life has more good circumstances than bad ones, you will likely feel as if your whole life has been amazing.
Have you ever heard someone say, “I’ve been through a lot of terrible things and made a lot of bad decisions, but I have no regrets because today I’m in a good place.” ?
I have heard plenty of people say something like that. It’s a really great attitude, but the only people saying that are the people who have gotten into a better life. When you’re in the thick of it, you do feel regretful. Your entire life feels miserable.
This was a weird realization I had. During the moments of my life when I have been well, it was always easy for me to look back on my life, the good times and the bad, and see it all in a positive light. But whenever I’m going through a difficult time, like I have been lately, my mind jumps to the idea that my whole life has been defined by my more-tragic experiences.
Realizing this helped me to see things in this way: “My entire life has not been terrible, it’s only my depression telling me that. And as soon as my life gets better, it’s going to be much easier to see the world in a positive way.”
4. You already are who you want to be
This is some amazing life advice. Kyle Cease, one of the greatest human beings, preaches messages like this all the time.
I went on this trip to try to gain the ability to be zen, calm, in control of my emotions. But that ability was already in me. I just hadn’t been paying attention to it because I was so caught up in my anxiety. That’s the only thing I was paying attention to — not the limitless and infinite goodness inside of me.
5. You are always in control of your actions and your reactions
Your reactions are the immediate, instinctual actions you take in response to something. No matter how much you rely on instinct, acting or speaking without thinking, you are still the one deciding what you do. Every movement you make, every thing you say, at every moment, is your decision.
This includes emotions, too. Your instincts will say, “Hey, that person is saying terrible things about you behind your back and hates you! You should feel angry because you know that that person is so mean.”
But you need to stop and say, “Hey, Instincts, come on. I don’t want to feel angry. I want to choose to be calm and zen. I know that what that person is saying doesn’t actually reflect who I am, even if other people believe it.”
Also, as a bonus tip, if you feel sad/angry/frustrated or any negative emotion because of someone bullying you, that means the bully won. That’s the bully’s only objective: to make your life worse. Don’t let them win by allowing yourself to feel how they want you feel. You are in control of your actions and reactions. Don’t rely on instinct.
6. Your problem in life is never your problems
This wisdom needs some explanation because it sounds like it makes no sense. It’s also perhaps the most significant thing I learned, so I hope I can articulate this well.
This goes along with the previous lesson, that you are in control of your actions at all times. Whenever you are facing any difficult situation in life, you aren’t actually dealing with that situation. What you are dealing with is your own ability to respond to that situation. The challenge is never the challenge itself, but how you decide to react to it.
The problems you are facing are never external. They are only ever internal. You don’t have control over what happens to you or how people treat you, but you can control how you act. If you are skilled enough (and you always are), you can handle anything. But you have to know that you are capable of getting through your situation unscathed. The real problem is only ever your own ability to respond to something.
The goal is always going to be to respond to the negative circumstances in your life in a positive way. Not in a way that will bring about your own negativity.
7. Anything can be spun
One thing I got to thinking was a frequently-discussed topic in my communication classes in college. The concept of “spin.” It basically means that, no matter what you are talking about, you can present it in a positive way or a negative way.
No matter what idea you are putting forward, you needed to choose whether to interpret it from a positive or negative angle.
Whether you rely on your instincts (which may be negative) or not, you are always going to be making a choice on how you feel about something. Even if you don’t express to anyone else what your feelings are, you are still making a choice about what to feel. Choose to spin your circumstances in a positive way.
8. Hiking teaches you how to be calm
There’s something really great about being alone in the forest and going off the beaten path. I tend to do that whenever I go hiking.
I was taught through this experience exactly what I wanted to know. When you hike, you have to stay calm, and you will learn to stay calm really freaking fast. If you lose your cool while you are alone in the wilderness, you are going to get mauled by a bear like in The Revenant.
Seriously. You don’t know where you’re going, what might be out there, or what could happen to you. But you don’t ever have time to panic. You want to enjoy the experience, right?
Life is the same way.
Bonus: One little nugget from Whiskey Tango Foxtrot
One night, while it was super dark and I couldn’t do anything because it was super dark, I got in my car and went to the movies. I saw Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, which was AMAZING. This line from the film is going to stick with me:
“Embrace the suck. And move the fuck forward.”
No matter what happens to you, no matter how bad, just acknowledge it and move on. No need to dwell on something terrible that has happened to you. Once it happens, it becomes history. Let it stay in your history and look to your future.
Holy cow, you read this far?
Anyway, in conclusion, I don’t actually have it all figured out. The terrible things in my life that were causing me severe stress still exist and, as soon as I left the wilderness, I came right back to those things. What I have now is a slightly better grip on what is necessary for me to feel okay again. I’m probably going to keep stumbling and failing, but in time, keeping these lessons in mind, I think I’ll eventually be the best version of myself I’ve ever been.
Or maybe I already am?