A hurricane raged through my mind.
I waited in a sparsely crowded Pune airport at 3.20 am. The departure was still one hour away. I had bought the penultimate ticket for this flight, at a premium, that afternoon.
Like a river with violent undertow, I appeared, by all means, calm and composed. But inside, I couldn’t dam the distress that flooded me. I felt overwhelmed.
My mother was lying in a nursing home 2000 KMs away, in the small suburb of Serampore — where I grew up.
She lived alone.
Her voice had sounded weak and strained on the phone a couple of days back.
She had caught the seasonal flu. Mild at first, it morphed into a severe lung infection — she made a sudden and unconsulted decision to halt her daily inhaler dose a few weeks back…because it was pricey — severe enough that the doctor asked her to get admitted immediately.
She called one of my brother’s friends, entrusted him with the house keys and the sparse ornaments that she wore (the nursing home won’t allow jewelry), and got herself admitted.
And here I was —furious as well as full of dread — assaulted by helplessness and guilt.
‘Why can’t she stop being so stubborn, suspend the grandiose notions of being low-maintenance and just listen to me for a change?’
‘What happens now? What am I going to do? Why the heck can’t I find a job nearer to her?’
Frantic and hounded by these thoughts, I boarded the flight. I took a cab from the airport and showed up directly at the nursing home — with my bags and all.
And, guess what I found?
I found that the Mark Twain quote still stands true: “I have been through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened”
Maybe the Snowball was Your Creation?
My mum looked pale but better than the picture my worry addled mind had concocted.
She gave me a wide smile — I imagine she felt like the archers in a medieval skirmish when the cavalry came to their rescue — though I looked more like a packhorse with my luggage.
I wanted to hug her. I wanted to scold her for her callousness. I wanted to tell her how worried sick I was.
I settled for just holding her hands and saying that everything will be fine.
Then it dawned on me that things are not always as bad as we imagine.
So next time when you feel overwhelmed, your emotions threaten to snowball — stop and do a reality check.
How much of that is real? How much information do you really know? How much of the scenario did you imagine?
Your negative thoughts tend to spiral out of control. The trick is to catch yourself early in the mental snowball formation and stop adding unreal details into that gob.
Instead, I think you’ll agree with me when I say, your time is better spent in giving attention to the present.
Try to enjoy a book, a song or a video if you are en-route or if you are waiting for an outcome. If you are at the forefront, soak up details around you which may help later.
Do this and negative thoughts will have much hard time sneaking up on you. Your attention to reality will push fear out of your mind.
‘Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff’
Now that you have winnowed the fictional, its time to deal with the factual.
You can’t ignore that there are some things or conditions that you would like to deal with, but can’t right now.
But do you really need to tackle ’em all? Time to separate the pebbles and the cobbles. Just don’t sweat the small stuff.
This Richard Carlson philosophy is so profound, that his ‘Don’t Sweat’ best-selling books have over 25 million copies in print today.
You will always have something to worry about — that list won’t ever be empty. But do you need to bother with them right NOW? Really?
I remember, when I was on leave nursing my mother, I worried about who will cover for me at work.
Looking back, it feels downright silly. My boss and my colleagues were cool enough that they didn’t let anything pile up for me.
So ask yourself — do you really need to be perfect at executing that trivial task? Will that even matter after a few days? Are you sure that the deadline that you are beating your brains to, isn’t self-created?
But even that’s not all.
As if you don’t have enough on your plate, you feel compelled to jump overboard and help out with other’s problems…unasked…even when your ship is sinking.
Don’t man the bilge pumps of other barges. Not now. Only non-appreciation and resentment awaits that road. Do you really need that now?
You can easily lose perspective when you are overwhelmed. Just take a step back, breathe and focus on the most important things…things that matter.
For me, it’s my well being, my family and my bliss.
You may have different priorities, but the vital thing is to have a laser focus on them. Don’t get involved in choices or actions that conflict with your priorities. They will mire you even deeper in your worries.
Embrace the Unfairness
You have dealt with the imaginary, didn’t allow yourself to get sidetracked, and now you are laser-focused on your priorities.
But guess what?
The elephant’s still in the room. Life is still unfair to you.
What do you do? You embrace the unfairness; extend your arms like Mr. Fantastic and give that elephant a hug.
I know that sounds counter-intuitive, but bear with me…
You know now that you’re in a tight spot, something that you have to live with awhile. You feel that you can’t do much, but endure.
But that’s not true — not by a long shot.
Now it’s time to cultivate gratitude for the people and things that you have in your life.
Back then, though facing the crisis alone, I had quite a few things to be grateful for. I received tons of support and advice from my wife and in-laws over the phone. Souvik’s (my brother’s friend who took custody of the house keys) family invited me for lunch; I was glad to have some company over a meal.
My mother’s housekeeper cooked and cleaned for me; her friends were always checking on her. And a week later, when she got discharged, my brother came and took up the reins of her care.
These interactions and support kept me going.
When you express gratitude, you start to relax and see the brighter side. Your brain is hard-wired to do so. The negative feelings start to lose their hold over you.
But that’s not all. This is also the time when you can concentrate on your inner work. Here’s what you can do:
- Cut yourself some slack and don’t get too worked up by the little setbacks. Just try to do your best and move in the right direction.
- Don’t indulge in the blame game. Yes, you might feel satisfied by finding a scapegoat, assuming someone else is at fault, but you do so at the expense of your personal power, your self-esteem.
- Try to listen to and understand others. Consider your own stances — you sure you are not being rigid? When people feel heard and understood, they will be more open to hear and understand you. That alone has the power to solve so many of our troubles.
Doing these inner work will calm you. It will not solve your problems outright (sorry, no magic bullets here), but it will fortify you so that you can weather the storm better.
So You Got Lemons Instead of Melons?
Ok, it’s certified now. You really are trapped in an unwanted mess. You wanted melons. Life, that ironic bastard, gave you lemons. What do you do? Do you cry around complaining about those lemons?
Of course not. You make the best of the situation and turn them into Jolly Rancher Vodka Lemonade!
So why not turn your problems into teachers? What kind of valuable lesson might they teach you?
Can they teach you to be more patient or careful? Bring more consciousness to your daily life? Maybe procrastinate less or communicate clearly?
Once you stop running away from the problems, accept them as what they are, and learn what they want to teach, they go away.
Another source of learning and growth can be your feelings and emotions.
As Richard Carlson says, ‘Feelings are a foolproof system to guide us through life.’ They let you know whether you are headed towards bliss or conflict. Tony Robbins, in his book Awaken The Giant Within, even takes this a step further, and calls the major negative emotions as The Action Signals.
Your negative emotions — discomfort, fear, hurt, anger, frustration, disappointment, guilt, inadequacy, overwhelm, loneliness — they all serve as the warning light of your car dashboard does, signaling that something has to be fixed or adjusted.
You ignore them, pretend they don’t exist, and eventually you are headed for a breakdown.
For the Love of God, Do NOT Believe Gandalf
Seriously, don’t — not when it concerns your troubles.
Your problems are not Balrog. Gandalf hasn’t mandated that they shall not pass.
Your condition will change. Change is the only inevitable and immutable fact. Even though you might feel overwhelmed now, have patience. Better yet, cultivate patience today so that your patience silo overflows at the time of need.
Here’s how you achieve that…
Practice patience periods; a period during which you will consciously remain patient — whatever happens. Start with 5 minutes and build up over time.
More patient you are, more accepting you will be of what is, rather than insisting what should be. And patience is often contagious — it may rub off on others and make your day easier.
Keep a tight rein on those negative thoughts as well. Did you know that an average human has fifty thousand thoughts per day? Some of them are bound to be negative. Don’t give consent to those thoughts to hurt you. Catch them early, trust your positive inner voice, and dismiss them.
Meditation helps you in this process. It helps you achieve control over your negative thoughts and makes you less reactive and irritable.
The bottom line is — get comfortable in not knowing. You don’t know what is going to happen, you only think that you know.
We may blow up a scenario in our mind — but I think you’ll agree with me — most of the time we are wrong.
Stay positive, alert, and open to possibilities and eventually — all will be well.
You Can Still Brave What You Can’t Control
Things you can’t control can trap you in a nightmare and overwhelm you. They can make you feel hopeless and your world may seem to collapse.
But what if — it’s not the really the end of the world?
Fortunately, you don’t have to be overwhelmed by what you can’t control. Most of the time, things are not as bad as we perceive.
Don’t lose your perspective by fretting over the trivial stuff, and embrace the rough patch as just another part of life.
Though the difficult phase might feel everlasting, this too shall pass. And while you are stuck, why not make the best of the situation if you can?
This shift in attitude will have amazing benefits. No more feeling helplessly swept away in the riptide of events. You will defy the odds and feel like a badass!
How awesome is that?
So make that conscious change. The serene life awaits you.