Mindfulness: Making peace when all your options suckJan 25, 2022
Coping with the demands of work and home takes a toll in the best of times.
The pressure of competing demands takes a toll on everyone, but it seems to be especially crushing for working mothers. Women are more likely to carry a greater share of both visible and invisible family responsibilities at home. There are dozens of articles with a headline that has some variation of “moms are not ok”. Moms are experiencing widespread anxiety, depression, and exhaustion. Of course, if you’re a mom, you likely don’t need a headline to tell you that. You live it every day.
A few days ago a flurry of news outlets reported on a group of mothers that met to scream in a field (sidebar, did you know the New York Times has a scream hotline?). The prevalent reaction to these articles was “sounds about right, where do I sign up?”
The world of working mothers feels hectic, exhausting, but we’re keeping it together. Barely. Somehow.
But then we get sideswiped. Our kid gets sick, our parent’s health declines and we are suddenly a primary caregiver. We’re hit with a health diagnosis. We have five snow days in a row and schools are closed, or our kids are quarantined because of exposure. Our spouse loses their job, our childcare closes or quits. A global pandemic happens. There are near infinite ways that life as we know it can blow up. The precarious balance on which our whole life is running can vanish in an instant.
And all of a sudden, there are no more good choices. There are just bad ones, and worse ones. We can no longer keep it up, make it work.
What do you do when there are no more good choices?
The first instinct for most of us is to try to fix things. Find a solution. Work harder. Move mountains to fix whatever’s gone off the rails. Hustle harder. There has to be some way to make this work, right?
Of course we should try to make the best of whatever chaos we’re dealing with, to think out of the box, get help, or find creative options.
But some sucky situations cannot be fixed. Sometimes there are no good solutions. You cannot problem solve your way out of it. And when you’ve exhausted your alternatives, and it still sucks, what’s left?
This blog post isn’t about finding solutions. It isn’t about boosting productivity or magically manifesting good options. It’s about how we survive and cope when there are no good options. When we are forced to confront situations that are more difficult than we can bear. When we have to endure.
Mindfulness in difficult times
“You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf” - Jon Kabat-Zinn
Jon Kabat-Zinn’s definition of Mindfulness is “Paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.”
Being fully present in the moment means releasing anticipation and worry about the future, and simply showing up for what’s happening right now, no matter how awful it might be. It means not resisting what is, even when it’s difficult.
Mindfulness helps us endure.
How can you apply mindfulness when your life feels like chaos incarnate?
1. Notice unpleasant emotions
The first, and often hardest step is to notice when you’re experiencing negative or anxious thoughts and feelings. This means getting out of reaction, and into observation. It’s easy for unpleasant emotions to snowball. The earlier you notice, the more quickly you can interrupt the swirl.
Take a few deep breaths as soon as you notice you’re in reaction. If you have time, a short meditation can help your reset (just a few minutes can do the trick). Otherwise, take ten slow deep breaths to settle yourself. While you are breathing, focus only on the sensation of the breathing. If you’re looking for meditations, check out Insight Timer.
3. Observe what’s happening, and how you feel
Create some distance between yourself and the experience. Acknowledge, but don’t embody your difficult feelings. Embodying difficult feelings sounds like “I am anxious”, or “I am angry”. Reframe the feelings as an observation that is separate from you. “I am experiencing anxiety at this moment”. “I notice that I am experiencing the feeling of anger right now”. Acknowledge it without internalizing it.
4. Don’t shoot the second arrow
The Buddhists say that when life doesn’t go our way, two arrows fly in. The triggering event is the first. The event itself can create hurt, anguish or pain. The second arrow is the suffering that comes from subsequent thoughts: anger, frustration, blame. You don’t need to shoot the second arrow. Acknowledge the first arrow, and the feelings it creates. Practice acceptance, and leave the second arrow alone.
5. Practice self-compassion
We are often our own harshest critics. Self-compassion is treating yourself with the kindness you’d extend to a close friend or loved one. When living a difficult situation, try visualizing yourself as a close friend, and speaking to yourself as they would in this situation. You’ll often find much more kindness, empathy and understanding than your internal narrative typically offers you.
6. Focus on the present
Now that you’ve come back to the here and now, acknowledged your thoughts and feelings non-judgmentally, and you’ve extended compassion to yourself, come back to where you are and what you can do. You’ll often find that the answer is not much, at least not right now. There are things you may be able to do later, and those are for your future self to handle. You do not need to borrow problems from the future. You can simply deal with what is, right now. If deferring your worry sounds impossible, try deciding on a specific day and time when you’ll come back to deal with the follow up actions, and mark it on your calendar. Then let it go, and do what you can in this moment, which is often to just show up.
Practicing mindfulness, acceptance, and self compassion in crisis helps us manage difficult thoughts and emotions.
When you are feeling extreme hardship, remember that you can do this. You know that you can do this, because you are doing it, right now. And right now is the only moment you’re currently living, and it’s the only moment you have to withstand, right now.
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