What Was the Best Part of Your Terrible Day?

We’ve all had that day. The one that begins with the horrible realization that you have overslept, and then proceeds to the coffee machine malfunctioning, an angry email from the boss about a project that is running 6 months behind, progresses to your getting stuck in a 2 hour traffic jam (that you usually avoid because your alarm gets you up to be on the road before the chaos of rush hour), and results in spilling drive-through coffee down your shirt. This is the day when the local sewage main ruptures and begins spewing waste into your basement which you find upon your return home as you stand in a foot of filth, calculating the cost of this to your already tight budget.

If you haven’t had that day, you’ve had your version of it. So let me ask you, what was the best part of that day?

I know, you think I am insane. You think I am one of those happy, cheerful people with framed posters of inspirational quotes against a beautiful natural scene hanging on my wall. I assure you I am not. I like sarcasm and snark and have at times enjoyed the nectar of my own despair.

But several years ago while taking a class on positive psychology (an area of study that was in many ways contrary to my default settings), I decided to take one of the practical suggestions from the literature. Because I am a mother, and have the natural authority to do it, I brought my family along for the experiment.

Every night at dinner, we go around the table and say the best part about our day. There is no skipping. There is no qualifying. There is no using the best thing as an excuse to talk about what you didn’t like. You must find one positive thing to say about your day- even if it was a terrible day.

In the beginning it was hard. I mean really hard. There were some days I struggled. There were some days when my kids informed me that there was nothing good about their day. This is when I told them the beauty of the exercise.

You see, you do not need to find one great thing about your day, or even one good thing. You must identify the best thing about your day. Sometimes the best part of a bad day isn’t great in and of itself. Sometimes the best part of the foot of raw sewage in your basement is that you found it before it was two feet. Sometimes the best part of your day is the two quiet moments you had when you entered the house and you actually took a deep breath and relaxed (before venturing into the sewage filled basement).

Over the years this has become a beloved part of our family meals. Some days there are multiple “best” parts of our days (yes- I know grammatically there should only be one thing that is the best- but I am going with the spirit of the exercise here). The exercise causes us to stop and take stock of our days and take us off automatic pilot.

And the effect goes beyond the dinner table. I now often find myself throughout the day noticing when I am enjoying my day. I notice the people around me and the joy that is in my life. Indeed, this simple exercise was the first step that helped me make changes in my life.

It turns out that noticing daily what is good in your life, as the research in positive psychology tells us, leads to greater happiness. I started to notice what gave me pleasure and what made me unhappy. I decided to do more of the things that made me happy and fewer of the things that didn’t. I decided to spend more time with the people who made me laugh and less time with those who made me angry or sad. I decided to notice that even a terrible day has parts that are good. It allowed me to shift and make changes in my life. It helped me begin a journey into a more positive way of living and indeed, eventually led me to mindfulness, coaching and meditation.

So, ask yourself, “what was the best part of my day?” Even if you are standing in sewage.

 

Not My Circus. Not My Monkeys.

A friend of mine posted this image on Facebook:
CircusMonkeys

It made my day. Not My Circus. Not My Monkeys. It is witty, and profound, and incredibly useful. There are days it is my mantra.

We have all had that friend at some point in our lives whose attraction to drama is matched only by their ability to suck you into it. After a phone call or a cup of coffee with them you find yourself worked up, drawn into their catastrophizing and anxiety. It may feel at first that you are just being a good friend, but after a while, it becomes apparent that you have been pulled into their special brand of crazy.

In moments like these- these six words are incredibly powerful: Not My Circus. Not My Monkeys. Knowing when to step back is vital. It is part of the maintenance of healthy boundaries- in friendships, in family and at work.

Let’s be clear, we all have days when we, or our own monkeys, are running the circus. Yes- it’s possible to attempt management of your circus and someone else’s, but it may not be advisable. And just as we do not want to get sucked into someone else’s circus, it’s important not to draw other people into our own.

The truth is that good friends are the ones who are able to empathize, but are also able to offer a perspective from outside of the circus. With compassion and kindness these friends are able to calm us down.

So when you feel yourself getting drawn in and spinning about someone else’s problems, remember: Not My Circus. Not My Monkeys.

Not My Circus. Not My Monkeys. Say it over and over until you are calmer. With this attitude, your own circus may even seem more manageable.

 

Life Lessons From Dr. Seuss: Helping Horton Hatch the Egg

hortonhatchestheegg
One of my favorite books is Horton Hatches the Egg by Dr. Suess. It is the story of Horton the Elephant who sits faithfully on a bird’s nest in a tree for fifty-one weeks after he promises the mother that he will babysit the egg. The egg, abandoned by its mother, eventually hatches into an “elephant bird” (read the book- I am not doing it justice!).

It is a book about the transformative power of love as well as loyalty and responsibility.
It is also a wish. After Horton hatches this amazing creature, the reader is told “and it should be, it should, it should be like that! Because Horton was faithful! He sat and he sat! He meant what he said…And he said what he meant…And they sent him home happy, One hundred per cent!”   We all want to believe that our hard work will be rewarded; That all the blood, sweat, and tears that we pour into our careers, our relationships, and our children will pay off and that we will be one hundred percent happy.

And perhaps it should be like that. But all too often it isn’t. Even the happiness from a great victory can be short lived. I often imagine that the elephant bird goes back home with Horton and is teased because he is different or that even if not teased by others, he himself feels isolated and alone. I imagine that Horton, the dedicated father he has become, stays up late at night worrying about his child’s future. I imagine that Horton’s happiness does not stay at 100% for very long.

What do we do when life does not reward us as we would like or even as we deserve? How do we rise to the next challenge? Part of the answer is actually the first part of Horton Hatches the Egg. Horton shows up. He takes on responsibilities and plugs away even when it is hard. As they say, 90% of success is just showing up.

But another part of the answer is sadly absent from Horton’s tale. Horton sits on the egg alone for 51 weeks. He never asks for help. Perhaps Horton fears that others will not be willing. Perhaps he feels that no one else could do it as well as he does. Perhaps he feels that he will not be living up to his word if he takes even a short break to stretch his legs and see his friends.

Horton makes the mistake that so many of us make- believing that there is only one right way to do things and that only he is capable of doing it. Sometimes the best way to show up is to know when you need a break. Sometimes it’s about delegating. Sometimes it’s about connecting with others who are dealing with similar issues and learning from them. Sometimes showing up means getting help to view things from a different perspective.

Through his love, devotion and dedication to being there, Horton helps to create something beautiful and special. We are all, in our own ways, capable of being Horton. But we shouldn’t have to do it alone.

The Storms of Life

As another winter storm bears down on New England, I engage in my pre-storm ritual: obsessively reading weather reports and blogs.  I love weather.  I love storm watching. I feel (despite much evidence to the contrary) that if I read everything I will know what the future holds. I will be able to predict what will happen and where. I will be prepared.

Of course, I am not. Meteorology may be a science but it is clearly not an exact one. Every storm teaches me that the future is unknowable, and therefore uncontrollable. My constant reading aside, the weather will do what it plans to do. Rain/snow lines will shift, low pressure systems will unexpectedly move in and my day will be affected in ways I hadn’t planned.

In short, the weather is just another area of my life over which I have very little control. The career I planned in my twenties is very different than the one I have now. The marriage I imagined as a child bears little resemblance to the one in which I happily find myself. The beautiful children I have today are very different than the ones I daydreamed about as I held my hand over my swollen belly all those years ago. What happened? Life.

All the preparation in the world, all the good advice, all the self-help and parenting books, could not prepare me for the ways that life intervened. I could not have predicted the ways that love, economics, ambition, violence and illness would affect the trajectory of my life.  All the reading and planning could not have prepared me for the ways in which life would alter and change me- shifting priorities, values and beliefs.

Control is an illusion.What mattered more along the way was knowing myself and being open to learning more.When life challenged me, my willingness to adjust, go with the flow and when needed, set limits, allowed me to grow as a person- to not only survive, but thrive.

We focus a lot in our society on being prepared. And preparation is important. Too often though, we focus on the wrong kind of preparation. We prepare for life’s storms never realizing that forecasts change and that the storm we prepared for is seldom the storm that arrives. We cling to dogma and ideas about the way things should be instead of looking within to build strength to find our own truths.

What I have learned is that flexibility and humility are my lifelines; knowing what I can and cannot control and learning to ask for help when I am tossed in the waves of life’s hurricanes.

I suppose that I like to watch storms because it provides me with an illusion of control. But I know now it is an illusion. I know that I can no more control the storms of my life than the storms in the Gulf Stream. But with the weather I can pretend. So, today I’ll buy the loaf of bread and the gallon of milk and enjoy watching the storm, if and when it hits.