At the end of every year since 2015, I write an Annual Review, a reflection of what happened in the last year including insights that might inform my decisions in the future. The following post is my answer to the question, “What did I learn in 2018?” (some personal details redacted):
Joy, gratitude and love are like muscles; they languish if you don’t work them out
From my experiences attending Spirit Rock meditation retreat, reading mindfulness literature and conversing with close friends, I was inspired to treat certain positive emotions as ones I could learn to summon more easily through habitual exercise. That’s why I started gratitude journaling and Loving Kindness meditation as part my morning routine.
When I write in my daily gratitude journal, I answer the following prompts:
- I am grateful for..
- What would make today great?
- Daily affirmations. I am..
The Loving Kindness practice helps with cultivating love for yourself and others. I start with the easiest exercise and then shift into progressively harder ones:
- First visualize yourself (as a child if it helps). Repeat the following mantra several times: May I be happy. May I be healthy. May I be safe. May I live with ease.
- Next visualize a friend or someone you’re close to. Repeat the same mantra as in 1), but swapping you’s for the I’s.
- Next visualize a stranger or acquaintance. Someone you don’t have emotional attachment to. Repeat the same mantra as in 2).
- Finally visualize an enemy or someone you dislike. Repeat the same mantra as in 2).
I learned to start with practicing with just self-visualization and am now shifting to doing 1) and 2). This year I hope to work 3) + 4) into my practice.
These practices, in addition to taking 20-minute morning walks, have had a profound influence on my mental state. After a few weeks of practice, I felt more patient and kind with other people — and myself. Now after several months of practice, I feel it getting many times easier to access feelings of excitement about the day ahead of me. This year I intend to continue building on these positive habits.
Improving your outer game unlocks better inner game
I used to believe that better inner game only came from focusing on improving my inner game, so I would practice meditation and reflection — which helped to a certain degree. However, a totally unexpected result of working on my body transformation goal was just how dramatically it would shift my mental and emotional state. After I made tangible progress, it became much easier to sustain a confident and positive mindset.
How was this possible? One reason was the positive feedback loop. Achieving results led to more encouragement from my peers, which led to higher confidence and motivation, making it easier to achieve more results, and so forth. My new belief after this experience is that human nature is to avoid stagnation but as creatures of habit we are always changing via the positive or negative feedback loops we create for ourselves. It’s important to create an environment that nurtures positive feedback loops and disincentivizes negative feedback loops.
Another reason was the halo effect from feeling more in control of my physical health: I started caring more about taking responsibility for my reactions in other parts of my life. I was telling myself a different, more positive story about myself. Finally better physical health meant more energy and stamina, so I don’t get tired out as easily from trying to build new habits. There’s a physiological element to this story: emotions are just bodily reactions, and if we can change our body, then we can change our emotional state.
Based on these learnings, I can’t wait to continue experimenting with various physical and physiological triggers this year while I shift the focus of my health and wellness habits onto building more strength and muscle.
Fear is your friend; it tells you when something is important
My career coach shared this pithy statement with me a few months ago, and it really stuck with me. For most of my life, fear has had a larger influence on my mental state and decision-making than I’d like to admit. I never learned about tools to break out of my “fight or flight” mode and assumed my default state was normal.
Working with my coach this last year, I’ve learned practical tools for addressing my fear for the first time. When do I feel fear? It’s usually when I’m making a big decision, think I’m going to be rejected, or think I’m doing something wrong (morally or incorrectly). I used to give into this fear, then feel shitty for letting it happen, which led to a terrible feedback cycle.
Now what I do is pause when I feel fear creep in and with curiosity, ask myself, “why do I feel this fear? do I care a lot about this particular decision?” I’ve learned to sit with my fear, not try to ignore it. I’ve found it helpful to thank fear for being a good friend and showing me that the decision I’m making is important. Counterintuitive, I know, but honoring fear this way strips it of its power and makes it feel smaller for me.
By learning how to transform my relationship with my fear, I feel more calm under pressure, resilient and courage to pursue the things I want in life. Going forward, I want to continue working on my relationship with fear until my “fight or flight” mode rarely kicks in anymore.
Take complete ownership over your reactions; no excuses
After a couple personal events exposed the cracks in my emotional reactions, I realized I had to put in the work to develop a healthier response. My new strategy is that when I have a negative reaction I try to ask myself a different set of questions.
For example, if I feel like blaming a co-worker for my negative feelings, I try to ask myself a more empowering question that swaps my victimhood for agency. Instead of “why is she/he doing this to me?” I ask “why am I feeling this way? what can I do about these feelings?” I try to assume she/he is doing the best they can and pay attention to other explanations that may have caused them to direct their negative energy towards me. More simply, I cut the BS with myself and take responsibility for how I feel in the aftermath.
Making an investment in this new strategy has already saved me a lot of time and energy that I used to waste on feeling indignant and angry. It’s enabled me to trust myself more, which has awakened deeper feelings of calm and serenity in my day-to-day life.
Make fewer commitments; slow things down; leave room for play
This last lesson is really a grouping of a three related lessons about how I can better pace and organize my lifestyle for cultivating freedom and joy.
After stretching myself thin in the second half of the year, I realized I needed to make fewer, but stronger commitments. Through my meditation practice, I noticed that my grasping and suffering were the most intense when I was in a rush; slowing things down helped me take more time to treat people well and not cut corners with my craft. Once I burned out from working long hours for what felt like little reward, I decided to build in more time for play into my schedule to prevent future burn out and sustain my motivation in my day-to-day.
All these lessons emphasize self-care for a reason. I’ve become much more conscientious about how taking care of my mental and emotional state empowers me to do more of the things I want to do in life.