I will never forget the first episode of the TV show Lost when the plane crashed on the (not so) deserted island and all those city people had to figure out how to survive. The basic necessities for physical human survival are food, water, adequate shelter, fire, safety and so on. If you have the basics, you can survive in almost any situation. It made me wonder: what are the basic survival needs for emotional health? What are the basic necessities for emotional survival when the plane of our lives crashes on some wacky island and life begins its continuous assault on our soul? So here are some specific skills we can learn that, if well-developed, I believe can enable us to successfully survive and even thrive in the face of any difficult life circumstance.
“The present moment is as it is, always. Can you let it be?” ~Eckhart Tolle
Acceptance means allowing life to be as it is. It is allowing people and situations to be as they are without trying to fix or change them. It means accepting the things about yourself that cannot be changed. It means allowing others to be as they are (obnoxious as they may be) without trying to make them be different. Acceptance does not mean passively letting life defeat and flatten you, neither does it mean never trying to change negative situations, it means avoiding the trap of obsessing about people or situations that we have no power to change. It is surrendering to life as it is rather than fighting against it.
“Healing is being present in this moment.” ~Lisa Schwarz, EdD
Presence is the ability to remain mentally and emotionally available, open, and present in the midst of difficult moments or circumstances or with people who are behaving badly or being difficult. It means being attuned to yourself (your body, thoughts, and emotions) and to those around you. It means facing–not avoiding–fears, pain, or reality. It means releasing all the things we do to numb our pain and divert our attention from our short and long-term problems. It means facing life as it is with our head up, eyes open, face-to-the-wind, fully present with all of our attention, focus and courage.
“When we meet real tragedy in life, we can react in two ways – either by losing hope and falling into self-destructive habits, or by using the challenge to find our inner strength.” ~Dalai Lama
Resilience is the ability to bounce back from failure, disappointments, mistakes, or difficult life circumstances. It means that the problems of our lives neither define nor defeat us. Rather, we become able to re-frame negative circumstances as opportunities to evolve, grow and learn important lessons about ourselves and others. It involves “using the challenge,” making it your friend, choosing to see the blessings hidden within the pains of life, which are always there if we will only look for them.
Developing Tolerance of Uncertainty
“Stop hoping for a completion to anything in life.” ~David Deida
Uncertainty is the cold reality of being human, and emotional health is found in the ability to tolerate and graciously accept uncertainty, even considering it a good teacher or friend. It is also important to be able to emotionally tolerate that nothing is ever really finished and there will always be ongoing problems and struggles. Would our lives be better if we could be absolutely certain about the future? Perhaps and perhaps not. It is uncertainty that teaches us to have faith in ourselves, and in God, and prompts lessons and creates treasures we would not have had unless we took a leap into the unknown. And the ever-evolving, never-ending nature of problems provides us the opportunity to develop and access our resilience, to be creative in our problems-solving, and to personally evolve and grow as we learn to live in co-operation with the challenges of our lives and develop a grateful acknowledgment that meeting challenges helps make us who we are.
Finding Inner Stillness
“To the mind that is still, the whole universe surrenders.” ~Lao Tzu
There is a still, quiet place inside of us all, but few of us take the time and effort to find it. Like the stillness at the bottom of a raging ocean, this quiet place inside lies at our core, though usually the blustery tempest of our problems, thoughts, and feelings sap all of our energy and attention. But the ability to become still, to be at peace with ourselves, to embrace alert stillness, to breath deeply into the calm of just being, this is where peace and centeredness are found. This stillness become accessible when we stop “doing” so much and learn the art of “being.” Living, in increasing measure, within the embrace of this stillness creates a powerful love, a peaceful knowing of the truth, and a settled hopefulness that no raging life storm can shake.
Taking Personal Responsibility
“Some would like to learn to be happy grown-ups; others would prefer to magnify their misery and find someone to blame.” ~Frank Pittman, MD
It is exceedingly difficult (and scary) to take responsibility for our lives, especially if our lives are not what we hoped they would be. The cold truth is this: there are no victims. While all of us have been “victim-ized” at various times (hurt, treated poorly, judged unfairly, etc) we all have a personal decision to make: will we take personal responsibility for how we will respond to the events of our lives or will we crumble into victimhood and blame everyone else for our problems? No personal problem can ever be solved until we take complete personal responsibility for how we are going to respond to it. In contrast, there is absolutely no personal problem we cannot solve (despite how tough and challenging it may be) if we choose to take responsibility full ownership of both the problem and the solution.
“It’s funny how some distance
Makes everything seem small
And the fears that once controlled me
Can’t get to me at all!
Let it go, let it go…” ~”Let it Go” from the movie Frozen
Before Elsa ever sang her famous song into the winter night, it has long been known that the ability to release negative experiences and emotions is connected with positive emotional health and increased life satisfaction. It involves the ability to let go of the anger we hold toward those who have hurt us and to let go of our compulsive need for life to be fair. It is also the ability to self-forgive, that is, to let go of self-criticism, mistakes and disappointments. It means releasing shame. We must let go of the things about ourselves and our lives we cannot control or change, the things that happened in the past that should not have happened and the things that did not happen that should have.
Loving and Being Loved
“We can only love others as much as we love ourselves.” ~Brene Brown, PhD
The entire point of life is to give and receive love. A large amount of human emotional anguish has roots, in one way or another, in a disruption of the flow of love either to/from and others or to/from ourselves. Healthy loving means to both give love unselfishly to others and receive and accept the love others offer to us. We must let love in and project love out in a continuous flow that cleanses our souls like a warm breeze. Appropriate self-love and self-acceptance are also crucial, especially since we will only be able to give to others the same measure of love and compassion that we offer to ourselves.
“In a world filled with hate, we must still dare to hope.” ~Michael Jackson
As oxygen is to physical survival, so hope is to emotional survival; without it we suffocate. Hope is the belief that, no matter how dark it may look right now, circumstances can and will get better. It is a deep conviction that the future will be brighter, and that we have the power to make choices that will improve our lives. Hope does not depend on the circumstances or the way things seem; it is an internal, deeply held core belief that as long as we are breathing and fighting there will come a better day.
“We are not human beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a human experience.” ~Teilhard deChardin
Spiritual health and emotional health are intimately connected. That is, people who develop a meaningful sense of spirituality tend to be more resilient, build more hopeful, and have more peace and higher overall life satisfaction. It is important to say that this is different from religion. Certainly many people find significant meaning in specific religious traditions, but it is not religion per se that enhances emotional health, but rather a deeply personal sense of connection to God, or that which is transcendent or divine.
Life is constantly challenging us but any circumstance can be survived with these tools. And more than mere survival, we can learn the art of using difficult life circumstances to grow and expand our inner lives. Such is the art of thriving.