When we experience difficult circumstances in life (and we will!) it’s natural for our brain to offer up lots of thoughts on the subject, most of them negative. That’s totally normal and healthy in the short term. But when we allow negative thinking to dominate and guide our lives, difficult circumstances can become a crushing weight vs. a blip on the radar.
Why do we have so many negative thoughts? As humans we are hardwired with a negativity bias. That means our brain places a higher priority on noticing anything negative in our environment. You might be surprised to learn that this is actually a good thing. It helps keep us safe and alive by alerting us so we can avoid anything which might threaten our life and safety.
Thankfully, most of us reading this have fairly safe and stable lives. But in more primitive times, staying alive was a daily concern. Danger lurked everywhere from exposure to harsh elements, dangerous animals, lack of food and water sources, illness, injury and so on. It was vital we remained alert to notice anything that posed a threat. In that context, negativity bias ensured basic human needs were met.
In today’s modern world, most of us have our basic needs met and we gradually adjust our expectations about what safety and comfort look like. We are no longer in literal survival mode, but our negativity bias still takes its job quite seriously and looks for anything that might upset the status quo.
Threats to our modern lives look more like stress, financial worries, health concerns, strained relationships, career setbacks, looming decisions and the never-ending to do list. Sometimes we are dealing with multiple issues at once and we find ourselves drowning in negativity.
When difficult circumstances send us over the brink into overwhelm, we usually fall into one of three survival mindsets: fight, flight or freeze.
Fight mindset looks like a lot of action, but generally not constructive action. We may try desperately to change things, to fix them or control every outcome. This may seem empowering on the surface but can also create a false sense of pressure to change circumstances that may NOT be within our control. The belief that we can or should strive to change negative circumstances can lead to exhaustion and burnout as we resist, rather than accept what is.
Flight mindset can look like avoidance, procrastination, delay or inability to accept the reality of a situation. “This shouldn’t be happening.” “I can’t deal with this.” It feels so righteous and justified to think this way but is actually very disempowering. The fact is, it IS happening, you will eventually have to deal with it and nothing can change that. Running and hiding from reality doesn’t stop it from being so. It just provides temporary escape with little relief because you know it will be there when you return.
Freeze mindset can look like overthinking, indecision or inaction. We all know someone like this (it may even be us!). Faced with challenges they spend an inordinate amount of time researching, trying to gather all the facts, taking every possibility into consideration. They have all the information needed to make a decision, but lack the confidence to actually make it and go with it. From the outside it can look like wisdom and prudence, but in reality, they aren’t doing anything.
So, if fight, flight and freeze aren’t helpful, how CAN we approach difficult circumstances? I’d like to offer two strategies that I’ve found particularly effective.
Just Go with It
First, I try to work with my natural tendencies, rather than against them. When I notice myself overstimulated and exhausted from being in fight mode, I pause. I ask myself what is in my control, what isn’t in my control and what is one small thing I can think or do to acknowledge that and move forward.
If I notice I’m in denial about a situation or stuck in procrastination (usually shows up in lots of scrolling), I take a few moments to get real with myself. I allow myself the time and space to find acceptance, even when it hurts to admit. Then remind myself I can do hard things and that procrastination delays my relief.
When if find myself in “analysis paralysis”, I don’t beat myself up for not being stronger or more decisive, but I do give myself a little push in the right direction. Inaction can have quite a powerful hold over us, keeping us stuck with an invisible field of inertia. I break free by doing something, anything that will get me in motion. Sometimes doing the wrong thing is better than doing nothing. At least you know and can keep going to try something else.
It’s All Good
Second, I try to remember that difficult circumstances are a normal part of the human experience. If life was all good, we wouldn’t be able to recognize good. How mind blowing is that? If bad things didn’t exist, we wouldn’t even have the language to articulate good and what a shame that would be.
I recently read an idea in the book “Build the Life You Want” that shifted the way I thought about happiness:
“If you believe you have to eradicate your feelings of unhappiness before you start getting happier, you’re going to be unnecessarily held back by the perfectly normal negative feelings of everyday life, and you’re going to miss out on understanding what makes you you.”
The way to deal with difficult circumstances, the way to feel happier is not to focus on eliminating the difficult. It’s not to try and avoid unhappiness. It’s recognizing that good/bad, happiness/unhappiness, difficulty/ease don’t exist on a continuum. One doesn’t negate the other and they can (and do) coexist in every life.
When we expand our capacity to allow for negative emotion into our lives, our capacity to recognize and embrace the positive grows as well.
Betsy is a certified life coach and blogger who helps midlife women find satisfaction where they are now and inspiration to go after their big goals.
To learn more about working with Betsy, click here.