The goal of this article is to think of your own life, and connect the dots on where you can find the small improvements that make a big difference. We are all complex, flawed and phenomenally unique specimens who can always find ways to get the most out of our existence. That is the beauty of being alive– and of being human.
The last month has been a struggle for me personally, and there isn’t one reason to point to. Often we go through rough patches and try to search for a smoking gun that explains our misfortunes, but we just can’t find one.
For me the series of viruses, stomach bugs, migraines and mental breakdowns were obvious signs that I have been doing something wrong and therefore damaging my mental and physical health. But even as I run down the list of all of my life characteristics I have to ask myself, where is my smoking gun?
My life, for all intensive purposes, is what I want it to be. I live in Manhattan in a little apartment on the east side with my long-term boyfriend whose ambition and charm can only be matched by his friendship and comic relief. I have an excellent job that does more than pay the bills and allows me the autonomy and opportunity needed to really grow as a professional in my field. I have a kind family, a lot of friends and several outside hobbies that I feel passionate about. I’m also young and in good health. So, what’s my problem?
Sometimes the problem exists in our everyday choices and perceptions. They seem small and meaningless, but cumulatively they make up the biggest portions of our existence. They’re the glue that holds together those big building blocks of our lives.
So for me, and possibly for you too, the below list addresses those pieces and how to keep them together.
1. Say no. You can’t do it all, and you’ll kill yourself trying.
I’m a big fan of trying to do and accomplish everything I possibly can. I stretch my time to the limits. I say yes to every adventure with friends. I say yes to every new project at work. I say yes to every person who wants something from me or asks for my help. I say yes over and over until my body is like NO, DAMMIT.
Then, I’m disappointed in myself. I feel like a failure or a disappointment because I couldn’t do it all. This kind of cycle is absolute madness and many of us get trapped in it. It can and does literally make you sick, like it has to me. So if you have the peace of mind and self-awareness to just understand your limitations and say no, everything works out much better.
2. Evaluate and adjust your expectations of others.
This one is huge, and falls far more into the mental health component of this.
One of the biggest issues I have emotionally is that I expect a lot from others, and often those expectations are not met. In my mind, it’s not unfair at all because I still expect more from myself than I do from them, but the line is pretty close and therefore unattainable for a lot of people.
Here’s the cold, hard truth: All people are different and you cannot force them to change.
They think differently, choose differently, prioritize differently, feel differently, love differently and live differently.
Not everyone is going to be the same kind of person you are. Not everyone is going to be the same kind of friend as you are. Not everyone is going to be the same kind of co-worker as you are. Your partner isn’t always going to be the same kind of partner you are to them. And it’s honestly on you if you expect them to.
Deep down, you know what people are and what they aren’t. I know I do. That’s actually something I’m quite good at. But still every time someone disappoints me, I get so heartbroken and beaten down that it feels like the first time all over again. I blame myself and ask what’s wrong with me and circle a drain of insecurity that I really don’t deserve to put myself in. I know for a fact I’m not the only one out there who does this, so how do we fix it?
The answer is to adjust and understand your expectations, or connect yourself with people who meet them. A lot of times if you really consider your expectations you may find they’re too high for the situation of life you’re in, and the best way to proceed is to just let a relationship continue at the level someone else is willing to invest in it, instead of trying to force more or give more yourself. You may also find that the balance is so out of whack that you have to distance yourself and instead invest more time in relationships that fall closer to what you’re looking for. This act alone of reflecting on what you want and need from others is something we do far too infrequently, and it spikes all of these painful emotions.
3. Drink less, live more.
I am by no means a good person to advocate for sobriety, and this isn’t what I am aiming for either. I also don’t feel dependent on it or like I need it to have fun. Nonetheless, drinking is something baked heavily into my social life, as it is for many people. And as I start trying to connect the dots and isolate factors of my life that make me feel unhealthy or unhappy, alcohol keeps coming up.
I’ve found that many times I can associate instances of feeling like complete garbage to drinking too much. (I mean, can’t we all?)
I can connect it to unnecessary disagreements with my boyfriend, situations or comments I feel regretful or embarrassed about, nasty hangovers and self-degrading internal dialogues. So, it naturally becomes one of the first things to go. All it takes is planning and focusing on activities where drinking isn’t the main goal. It’s crazy how much it usually is…
It’s also passing up on the shots, having a few extra glasses of water and taking it slow. Most of the time, I like that version of myself better anyway.
Maybe you feel the same way?
4. Dedicate yourself to healthy choices, even when you’re young.
This one is tough because often an emphasis on being health-conscious starts to come later in life instead of in early-adulthood, but it’s really necessary to start now. This point is different for everyone. For me, it’s making more home-cooked meals, drinking more water, drinking less diet soda and going to yoga class more frequently. For you, it may be any number of life changes, even if it’s as simple as asking myself “Where can I get a physical?” so that I can get a better idea of what I need to work on. They’re easier to spot than the emotional changes I’ve already covered, but they’re often just as difficult to carry out. Physical health always impacts mental health. They go hand in hand.
5. Champion a work-life balance that gives you the time to be you.
I know this is a struggle for a lot of people, especially all of you ambitious folk out there who can barely stand the thought of sitting idle for too long. For me, it’s something I’ve always had a problem with. If I had an extra half an hour, I was going to squeeze some work or activity into that time slot. The problem is that this is actually really counteractive to your productivity in the long run. It takes away from your ability to perform when you actually need to. So when it’s Thursday morning and you’re home with a flu from sleeping 4 hours a night the entire week, you miss your big meeting.
Your body needs time to relax. You need study breaks and lunch breaks and nights where you just veg out watching movies. You need time to play your instrument, read your book and do the dishes. You need time to hangout with your boyfriend or gab with your girls at dinner. All of those healthy changes I mentioned, like home-cooked meals and yoga trips, take work-time sacrifices to make them happen. Otherwise, you get in this vicious cycle of blaming work for being unhealthy.
Also, if things aren’t going too well at work, leave those problems at work. Bringing them home and stressing about them only hurts you, and too often they’re out of your control anyway. If you let work define everything you are as a person, it will undoubtedly destroy you.
6. Put less focus on social media, and more focus on real life.
For everyone who knows me, this one may be pretty damn shocking. I love social media. It’s a big component of my job, my hobby and my life. I’ve always loved social media since I was 12 years old on dial-up-connected MySpace sessions in my parents’ basement. I loved it because it was an opportunity to communicate with others, share fun photos and be creative, all things I’ve always enjoyed since I was young.
But now I question its impact on my life, and on all of our lives. It’s turned into a competition of false realities. Sometimes I even think it warps my perception of my own life, making me compare who I actually am to who I look like I am on social media. Social media can also make you question your life choices based upon comparing them to those you barely know.
Should you be working out more? Should you be getting married? Should you be having kids? Should you be studying for your masters? Should you have a boyfriend? Should you be single? Should you have a better job? Should you have a dog? Should you be traveling more? Should you spend more time decorating your home? Should your kids be doing more? Should you have more friends?
It never ends!
So instead of spending valuable idle time endlessly scrolling through social feeds, I’ve been trying to spend it elsewhere. Reading, writing and listening to music top the list, but so do silly things like playing crossword puzzles, trivia and word games on my phone. I’m not saying to go cold-turkey and delete all social media (because I tried and people will think you’re insane), but try to actively spend less time on it, and it’s incredible how much happier you become.
There is no one recipe for happiness and healthiness, just as there is often not a smoking gun for feeling unhappy and unhealthy. There are just a series of small choices you can make that often have a big impact. There are little moments where you can give yourself a break, drink a green smoothie and take the high road. But these moments add up, and what is waiting for you at the other end will be well worth the journey.