An Overview: Life in Four Easy Steps
by Suzanne Manser, PhD
My blog is intended to be a bit of a How-To in living a meaningful and easier life. It addresses topics such as managing painful thoughts and emotions, increasing self-acceptance, and living with more intention. This article is an overview, compiled into four easy (you know, like “taking-home-Olympic-gold easy”) steps. If you’d like the more in-depth how-to’s, I invite you to look through my other articles.
Step 1: Identify what really matters to you
Get clear about what is important to you. What lights you up? What is worth fighting for? What is worth making peace with? What is worth living for? What is worth your time? Identify your top 5-10 values. (None of this is about what “should” be important to you, by the way. The whole thing won’t work if the values aren’t truly yours.)
Knowing what is most meaningful to you gives you direction any time you need it. The more often you steer toward your values when you come to a decision point, the more meaningful your life will feel. Decision points are happening all the time; every time you have a thought or a feeling or something happens in your external world, you are at a decision point. You can decide how to respond to each of these, and if you are clear about your values, you can decide to respond in a way that makes that moment feel meaningful. If you don’t take the time to identify and stay connected to your values, you should not be shocked if your life doesn’t often feel fulfilling.
Step 2: Get into the driver’s seat
Get clear about who is running your show. There is a “you” who gets to decide whether you believe your thoughts. There is a “you” who gets to decide how to respond to feelings. There is a “you” who takes charge when you remember to consciously make these decisions. When that “you” is not in charge, you are on automatic pilot. The decisions the automatic pilot makes do not often feel meaningful or align with your values.
Notice the “you” that had some thoughts about values just now. Notice the “you” that has formed an opinion about this article that you’re reading. When I ask, “How are you feeling today?” identify the “you” that stops and notices how you are feeling.
Perhaps all of this seems obvious, but we can get so caught up in our experience – our thoughts, our feelings, the things that happen to us – that it feels like they ARE us. We ARE them. And when that happens, we have far fewer options about how to handle them. They start running our show, leaving us feeling somewhat powerless.
So, consider this a PSA: there is a “you” who is in charge of how you respond to your experience. You just have to give yourself a minute to shift out of automatic pilot and get into the driver’s seat. (Pain, by the way, makes it especially difficult to stay in charge, because then you have to be aware of the pain and feel it. In the large majority of cases, it is worth feeling the pain to stay in charge of your experience.)
Step 3: Decide where to put your thoughts and feelings
Get clear about what to do once you are in the driver’s seat. You are now in charge of deciding whether each thought and feeling should be in the front or the back of your mind. You can decide that a particular thought is not helpful to pay attention to right now, and let it move to the back of your mind. You can decide that this next thought is helpful to you and keep it in the front of your mind by paying attention to it. Same with feelings. It takes effort, and it’s worth it. This is one of the most useful skills we can cultivate. And it can be practiced at literally any moment.
The effort and the skill come from having the mental space and presence of mind to go through these steps:
a) Be aware of what you are focusing on;
b) Decide whether it would be helpful to you right now to keeping focusing on it.
c) If you decide it is helpful to you, maintain a focus on it.
d) If you decide it is not helpful to focus on, move your focus to something else.
Our minds and the rest of the world have their own agenda about where they want our attention, so none of this is actually easy. It takes practice to move your focus where you want it to be.
To be super clear, “helpful” is not a code word for “positive.” It is not only positive thoughts and emotions that are helpful to us. “Helpful” is about what is in alignment with your values. Pain and challenging situations can be helpful to attend to when doing so aligns with your values. As Susan David discusses in her compelling TED talk The Gift and Power of Emotional Courage, it is impossible to live a meaningful life without disappointment or heartache. Risks must be taken, and the landing can’t always be graceful. Valuing the risk-taking, the courage despite the fear, can be a helpful focus when pain shows up.
Step 4: Let go of self-judgment
Get clear about how useless self-judgment is. Do not be judgy with yourself, your thoughts, or your feelings. It gums up the works and is totally unnecessary. Instead, notice your expectations for yourself, your thoughts, and your feelings. Notice your expectations for your life. If you expect life to be without pain, you are probably going to get judgy when pain shows up. If you expect to do things perfectly, you are definitely going to get judgy with yourself when you don’t.
Shoot for expecting things to be as they are and put effort into changing them if you want them to be different. Focus on where you want to be. This is the key to letting go of judgment. Judgment keeps you focused on where you don’t want to be.
If you find it difficult to let go of self-judgment (i.e., if you are human), work toward feeling compassion for yourself in those moments. Let yourself feel kindly toward yourself about the fact that you are in pain, as you would feel toward a friend in pain. The shift in energy that happens when you feel kindly toward yourself helps you manage the unexpected parts of life with more ease and fluidity.
So there it is. Four easy steps. No problem, right? There is no part of any of this that comes naturally to me. Because of my career and my interest in the topic, I think about this stuff A LOT. I write about it. I practice it daily. And still, it does not come easily. I still get very judgy with myself at times, and strong feelings still run my show more than I’d like. I forget to pay attention to my values. I’m not bringing home any gold medals, but I’m still in the game. And the game is much more fulfilling than it used to be.