Jean-Dominique Bauby had more determination in his left eyelid than many people have who are alive and well. At the age of 43, Bauby suffered a stroke that left him not only speechless, but unable to move his body. The exception was his one eye.
If you were rendered motionless and speechless, what would you do with your life? Imagine lying in a bed all day, having other people take care of you. Unlike those who knowingly have a short time to live, you are still vital on the inside. You weren’t given a death sentence. You just have limitations.
Despite not being able-bodied, this French author was not ready to throw in the towel. Where his body failed him, his mind was still intact. He had much he wanted to share. Just when it seemed impossible to do so, Bauby found a way.
Of course, he couldn’t do it alone. Bauby used an interlocutor and a system called partner-assisted scanning. After writing his book in his mind, he blinked with his one functional eye when his assistant recited the alphabet. Together, they assembled his book one letter at a time.
What Bauby has shown us is that determination can win over despair.
Life is Full of Gifts
Sometimes we are so focused on the negatives of what’s happening to us, that we miss the positives. The two are always there simultaneously, even when you’re convinced life simply cannot get any worse.
The truth is, your brain is designed to focus on those negatives. It’s your way of staying alive. If you missed those, you could be in danger. Well, at least that’s how we are programmed to think.
This mentality would have served us well when life was about life or death, like when we lived in caves and had to hunt animals to eat. We had to be extra tuned into the sounds around us to detect whether a vicious animal intended to eat us for lunch.
But these days, focusing on the negatives only takes you so far. We don’t want to be one-sided in either direction. To tip the balance in your favor, you have to deliberately pay more attention to what’s going well.
This can be especially challenging when we are in a state of burnout. That’s when we’re exhausted from the work we’ve put in, the thinking we’ve invested, the responsibilities we’ve carried – all to ensure that everything goes the way it is supposed to go (well, at least according to us).
Perhaps if you are already burned out, the solution lies in clearing out the negatives (e.g., journaling about your resentments) rather than focusing on the positives.
But for the rest of us, intentionally staying aware and recognizing the good in our day to day lives can make a big difference in our experience on the plan and this practice can serve as burnout prevention.
I believe life is full of gifts and we need to take time to appreciate what we have. Too often we take things for granted. We are so used to have certain things in our lives that we forget they are there.
I was just telling a friend of mine about a pattern I’ve noticed. People who live near the beach often don’t frequent the beach…because it’s there. Kids who grow up in a house with a pool often don’t get excited about swimming…because it’s no longer novel.
What are you taking for granted?
The other pattern I’ve noticed is that we tend to dwell on what we don’t have. We compare ourselves to others and this can lead to unhappiness and low self-esteem.
To turn this around, we need to mindfully notice what is going well and be grateful for it.
I recently started a practice at the dinner table. We go around and each member of my family has to share one thing they are grateful for from that day. It forces you to review your day and express out loud to others something positive from the here-and-now. Not only does this practice help me remember and highlight the good in my life day to day, but it creates a positive ambiance in my home when everyone shares good vibes.
You Can’t Control What Happens to You, But You Can Control How You Respond
Too often, we become frustrated, anxious, or exasperated when we don’t have control over some aspect of our lives. We so desperately want things to go the way we want them to go, but more often than not, this attachment to the outcome wreaks havoc on our mental health.
Here’s what I know:
- You can’t control the past. When you’re stuck in a loop of rumination about things that have come and gone, you are wasting energy. No amount of crying over spilt milk will rewind the tape and bring the milk back into the container.
- You have some control over the future, but only when it comes to yourself. We want things to be predictable. We want certainty so we can have a clear outline of how our actions lead to our results, but there are too many factors to contend with that are outside of our control. All we can do is create a plan and stay flexible.
- You can’t control what other people do or what happens to you, but you can control how you respond. This is a work in progress for many of us, but an important skill to learn and continue to refine.
Sometimes Things Feel Hopeless and That’s OK
Things don’t always go the way we want. In fact, life is pretty unpredictable, despite our attempts at controlling the outcome. When things don’t go according to plan, we can sometimes lose hope, especially when we really want to achieve a specific outcome.
You know what’s worse than feeling hopeless? Feeling hopeless and not knowing why. You’re probably just feeling overwhelmed, which is totally normal. You might be thinking, “I can’t do this. It’s too much to handle. I don’t know where to start!”
If this is you, my friend, take a deep breath and give yourself permission to step back for a minute—or even longer if need be—and look at the big picture before jumping into something. Take some time to get some perspective on your situation and how best you can approach it so that you feel more in control of your life again.
It helps to ground yourself in what is going right just to put things in perspective. That said, we need to give ourselves some grace to grieve our losses, even if it’s just our disappointment about how things turned out.
Fear is Natural
Why is it, you may wonder, that we focus so much on control? It’s because we fear unpredictability. We saw this at the start of COVID, especially. We see this anytime there is change (e.g., during elections, a job loss, promotion at work, divorce, etc).
Fear is a normal, natural emotion. It’s how we respond to danger and protect ourselves from harm. Fear can be good because it can keep us safe, but fear can also be bad when it prevents us from doing things that we want to do.
One way that people get over their fears is by facing them head on and challenging them with new experiences. This is called exposure therapy, and some studies show this technique as effective at reducing anxiety levels in people with social phobias.
Exposure therapy involves exposing yourself repeatedly to whatever triggers your fear or anxiety—whether it’s speaking up at work or driving in traffic—in order to become less afraid of those things over time.
You don’t have to drop everything and sign up for therapy to reap these benefits. You can challenge yourself through exposure to the things you fear the most, especially if those fears are the barrier to goals.
Accept What You Can’t Change
The most important thing to remember is that you can’t change everything. There are some things that are out of your control, and it’s okay to accept that. You can’t change other people, for example, no matter how much you want them to be different. If someone is being mean or rude or critical of you, don’t waste your time trying to change them—just accept that they will never treat you nicely and let go of the situation as soon as possible.
You also shouldn’t be afraid of change itself! Even if something changes in your life that wasn’t supposed to happen, it doesn’t mean everything has gone wrong forever; it just means something needs adjusting on your end so that things can move forward again. As long as there’s good communication between all parties involved in any given situation (including yourself), then anything truly can be worked out together so everyone feels satisfied at the end with whatever comes next!
Finally: Don’t make decisions based solely on what makes sense logically. Consider which options feel right emotionally, too! Sometimes our logical minds get bogged down by past experiences or fears about what could possibly go wrong in trying something new; these thoughts may lead us down paths where we might not even realize how much happiness we were missing out on until after making an important decision about our future happiness instead.
Life’s Precious Gifts
By now, we’ve outlined some of the mindsets to help you live with less fear, despair, and disappointment while incorporating more hope, appreciation, and joy.
Now that you know WHAT to focus on, you might still be wondering HOW to accomplish this mental shift to maximizing your experience on the planet, the way Bauby was able to do.
To this end, I share with you what I consider to be life’s three precious gifts.
Precious Gift #1
It has been said that life is the most precious gift there is. We are brought into the world as an intentional act and are nurtured by those who are older and more experienced. But along the way, we face many sharp turns, bumps in the road that can shake us up. And if we aren’t mindful, we can take life for granted or even let life events lead us to losing all hope.
It is tragic when someone dies before their time. But consider another kind of tragedy — not really living while we have the chance. We often don’t realize until it’s too late that we hurt other people, that we were selfish, or that we let fear hold us back.
No one, perhaps, understands death better than hospice workers who dedicate their career to helping the dying do so with respect. Because they have been exposed to death over and over again and because they are highly trained to have an accepting mindset and a compassionate heart, they can speak with wisdom on the subject.
In the movie Letting Go: A Hospice Journey, one hospice worker explained how “despair is a doorway.” It sometimes takes a person falling apart to be able to put themselves back together in “a new way.”
I recently spoke with a colleague who shared that a year ago, her marriage was in trouble. But instead of getting back on track, it took a different turn. She and her husband took a long hard look at what was getting in the way of intimacy and what patterns from childhood were coming up and keeping them stuck. They were able to do some inner work and support each other through the turbulence. As a result, they experienced a transformation. She described their strengthened bond not as returning to where they left off, but as taking a new road altogether.
We all have the opportunity to go through a powerful transformation, to overcome our devastation — no matter how large — and engage in life more fully.
Precious Gift #2
Many people who reach the end of life come to terms with how broken their relationships are and how lonely they feel. Even from their death beds, the dying can reconnect with family members, let those they hurt know they care, and mend old wounds. It is, perhaps, the second more precious gift there is.
Consider what your strongest stuck point is in your life right now. Do you experience chronic pain? Are you deeply depressed and considering ending your life? Is fear so great that it has taken control of the helm of your ship and keeping you a prisoner?
These are not trivial challenges. They can wreak havoc on our mind and our body and can lead us to “succumb to chaos.” We may feel we’ve tried everything in our power, but our situation has not gotten better. We may believe we do not deserve to have things go our way. We may even fear change itself.
Precious Gift #3
It is important to remember that there are things in life over which we have control and those over which we do not. For the things we can control, we can choose not to dwell on the problem. Instead, focus on the solution — how you can cure your pain, be it physical or mental. You can change your course in life, whether it is with a different partner, a new career, or simply a new attitude. And you can overcome your fears and become engaged with your life the way you want it to be. For the things beyond your control, it is important to make peace with the situation by accepting it and staying in the moment.
Life can be trying, but you don’t have to do it alone. Just like Bauby, you can find support from loved ones, helping professionals, and communities of like-minded individuals. The journey starts with you. When you make the decision to give life another go, you can find the tools and support you need to transform your circumstances and come out on the other side. This is another precious gift, one you can give yourself.
Life is full of gifts. It’s up to you to recognize them and accept them. There are things that will happen in your life that you will not be able to control, but you can control how you respond to those situations. Sometimes things feel hopeless and that’s OK. It doesn’t mean it won’t get better, it just means that right now it feels like there is no way out. Fear is natural because we’re all human beings who live in the real world with real problems – but don’t let fear keep you from living your life fully!
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