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3 Ways to Feel Good When Things Seem Bad

“It isn’t what happens to us that causes us to suffer; it’s what we say to ourselves about what happens.” ~Pema Chodron

Have you ever had something happen in your life that completely changed everything?

Wham. Suddenly you haven’t left your bedroom in days, you can’t remember what it feels like to shower, and it’s clear the only friend you can really count on is your cat. 

And whether it’s a major life-suck event or a minor one, the question is: How can I feel contented and calm when things don’t go to plan?

Which is what this post is about. Because a while back I had a M. A. J. O. R. Major event. It went like this:

I’d just graduated from college. I had a Masters Degree. In science. Human nutrition science, in case you’re wondering. I was excited about life!

Sure, I had a ridiculous door-to-door research job and my roommate was annoying, but I had plans—I’ll move in with my boyfriend, get a better job, travel, start a family, hang out with all my amazing friends, and live an awesome life.

But then I got sick. The kind of sick where raising your arms above your head makes you want to take a nap. And instead of starting my amazing planned-out life, I moved home with my parents.

It was a shock. To say the least. For starters, I was tough. I hiked. My friends liked me. I stayed up late. I wasn’t a sick person.

And while my parents are sweet and kind, living in their basement in small town New Zealand, watching daytime re-runs of Dr Quinn Medicine Woman, and hanging out with a fluffy cat called Whisky was not the plan.

It wasn’t so bad at first. But months went by, then years, and it seemed no matter what I did, I was still sick.

I thought, why did this happen to me?

I cried. A lot. For seemingly no reason. And if someone asked why I was crying, I’d say, “I’m just so tired.” I cried so much some days that I’d go home and laugh with my sister on the phone over who I’d cried in front of that day. It was comical.

That was a few years ago now. And, of course, the whole experience turned out to be a huge gift. They often are, in my experience anyway, but that’s getting ahead of things.

Here are 3 insights that helped during those “you’ve got to be freaking kidding me” times:

1. There’s a healing side to pain.

When a challenging event happens—a break-up, a sickness, or having your leopard pink car seat covers stolen—the human mind, being what it is, thinks this is why you feel badly.

You hear it all the time: “Oh, you poor thing for losing your car seat covers.” Or, “She’s such a rat to do this to you.”

The truth is, it’s your perception of the situation that makes you feel bad. This means that no matter how crumpled-in and dysfunctional you feel, you’re not. It’s just your thoughts that are a bit wonky. And actually, your thoughts on this were always wonky; the situation just exposed them.

Take my situation. Everything I’d based my self-esteem on was gone: work, grades, friends, boyfriend, the ability to sit up straight for more than half an hour.   

I thought I was upset because I was sick, when the truth is, my situation had triggered every negative belief I had about myself. Things like:

“I’m only lovable if people like me.” “I’m only worthwhile if I’m busy doing things.”

I so strongly identified with all the things I did that when you took them away, I felt miserable. I’d been given the opportunity to see what I really thought about myself.

Someone could have told me “you’re worthy and lovable,” and I might have intellectually known this, but I didn’t feel it.

What I began to realize was that behind the pain, over time, my faulty beliefs were shifting. My sense of self-worth was beginning to heal by itself.

The pain is the faulty belief system being ripped out by its roots. You feel like you’re losing something dear. The trick is to understand that it’s just a faulty belief going away. And beneath it lays a pocket of self-love that you haven’t previously been able to access.

As poet Kahlil Gibran says: “Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding. Even as the stone of the fruit must break, that its heart may stand in the sun, so must you know pain.”

2. Pain fades when we let go of expectations. 

Most of us live in an intellectual way. We make plans for our life and then we try and follow them through. We think we know the best way for our life to proceed.

The truth is, a large part of our pain is caused by an attachment to our expectations.

For example, one of the reasons I felt so bone achingly sorry for myself was because I had a plan for how to have a good life—and it didn’t include Dr. Quinn.

I thought success came from going to college, getting a good job, and having a family. No one said anything about spending all this time in bed. But actually, it was the best thing for me.

To illustrate you how powerful your expectations are, try this exercise:

First, imagine you’re me.

Now, imagine you’d grown up thinking the best way to have an awesome life was to spend five years in bed cross-stitching cushions. That it was something everyone did.

“Oh yeah,” you’d say to your friend, “I’m just off to do my five-years-in-bed years.”

And they’d be like, “Oh cool. I hear you learn such amazing things, like how to feel self-assured, and you get clarity on your life direction, and you start to feel that inner calm we’re always reading about. “

Seriously.

Now think about your current situation and imagine that for your whole life, you believed that what is happening to you was going to happen. And not only that, but it’s the absolute best thing to happen.

So much of the pain we feel is because we can’t let go of how we think life should look. Your mind thinks it knows the best way for your life to work out—but simply put, it doesn’t; the plan it had was flawed in the first place.

Your mind can only see your life as it’s showing up right now. There is a bigger picture.

3. You’re doing fine.

Learning about personal awareness and healing can be such a helpful thing, but remember, there’s no right or wrong way to feel.

Feeling grateful and “being positive” and so on is perfectly fine, and sure, it can be helpful, but if you don’t feel like it all the time, don’t worry about it. 

Instead of attaching a judgment to how you’re feeling or what you’re thinking, try just noticing it.

I believe the act of simply noticing and accepting how things are, right now—no matter how messy and dysfunctional they seem—is the most powerful, healing thing you can do.

Photo by Dahl-Face Photography

Avatar of Lisa Esile

About Lisa Esile

Lisa is the author of "7 Secrets Your Mind Doesn't Want You To Know" which you can download for free at her website. Lisa grew up in New Zealand and now lives in Venice, California with her husband.

Announcement: Wish you could change your past? Learn to let go and create a life you love with the Tiny Buddha course!
  • Margarita

    Great article! Thank you for inspiration :)

  • randyh

    Hi Lisa…
    At 53 years old I have spent most of my life being depressed about “how my life was supposed to be”…always waiting on that “next thing to happen” that would complete the plan of living the life I thought would come after graduating high school 34 years ago. Several months agp I discovered meditation and the idea of living my life for what it is now, not thinking about the past and not stressing about the future. Your article is a breath of fresh air in the start of my morning…it is brilliant, thought-provoking and humorous. It is a shame we can’t all be given that insight early in our lives…would be a much happier world, don’t you think?

  • Phil Bennett

    Thanks Lisa, read this at just the right time. The universe tends to give you exactly what you need, when you need it.

  • Allison

    Hi LIsa, I can relate to your story. I had a major life awaking situation years ago that lead me to pay attention to stuff and things that I had been pushing under the rug for years. Yes it was terribly painful and continues to challenge my perceptions about how I think. Im forging ahead and trying to relocate to a smaller more beautiful city to see if it is a place I feel vibrant and alive. I’m sensitive to my surroundings and environment and New York City is just to hectic. I’m aware I have certain expectations of myself to do better then the last time i tried to move, to be able to handle change in a new place, make friends, flourish…etc. your story reminded me that expectations lead to controlling and we all know that causes distress and disappointment. Your last quote about not worrying if one day or a few days your not feeling strong all the time is okay. I have this thought that my vulnerability at this moment is an act of courage, because I will forge ahead and try to seek an environment that suits me and its its not the place, take heed not to loss my self-esteem and try someplace else.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=502146646 Alexey Sky

    Pretty awesome :-)

  • http://www.facebook.com/constance.driver3 Constance Driver

    Hey…Thanks alot for writing this article! I am sending it to my son who is in college right now….and is going through a very hard time…And I think it’s all because of his ‘expectations’!! I think your article really breaks it down in a way he will understand, and I think it will definitely HELP him!! (When ‘Mom’ tells him things…Well, …That’s just ‘Mom’, ya know…lol!!) Anyway…Thank You very much!! You sure have figured out some things for Yourself!! I wish You the BEST of things in the future!! :)

  • Anon

    Thanks for this article, Lisa. It makes me feel less alone. I’ve struggled with depression my whole life and adjusting to things especially new life stages is particularly tough. I thought getting a job after college would be difficult but not nearly impossible, as it turned out. I fell into a black hole from self inflicted expectations, societal pressures, and FEAR. I keep reminding myself that we all have separate paths, and it’ll only make sense in retrospect. Reading articles like yours keeps me going. Thank you.

  • Lisaesile

    Thanks Margarita!

  • Lisaesile

    My pleasure! Thanks Phil. And yes – doesn’t it do that just perfectly!

  • Lisaesile

    Hi Randyh. How wonderful to hear your recent discovery. I know what you mean about it being a shame that we don’t all learn it early on – but then I think maybe that’s what life is about – learning it. And whenever we come to it, is exactly the right time for us. Best wishes! & thanks so much for saying hi!

  • Lisaesile

    My pleasure! Pleased to hear it resonated with you. I know what you mean about adjusting to new life stages. Understanding how the mind works and what it’s proclivities are is such a helpful thing – or it has been for me anyway – so much easier to step back and just notice what it’s doing rather than getting caught up in it once you do! Best wishes to you. And thanks for saying hi.

  • http://www.facebook.com/kathleen.appelbaum Kathleen Appelbaum

    I really liked your illustration of imagine this is the way your life is supposed to go. If we could just say to ourselves something like; Right on track, life is going just as it should;” when life seems difficult. I really enjoyed this article.

  • Suze

    Fantastic article Lisa, I really enjoyed reading it and you’re right, we do put so much pressure on ourselves for everything to be ‘just the way we want it to be’.. thanks for sharing :)

  • Lisaesile

    Thanks Suze! My pleasure:)

  • Lisaesile

    It’s a great exercise isn’t it. And it’s usually true – even thought it can be hard to see when you’re in the middle of the funk! Thanks for your note:)

  • Lisaesile

    Thanks Alexey!

  • Lisaesile

    My pleasure! And thanks for saying hi. I do love to chat like this. i hope your son finds it helpful! Our twenties can be such a challenging time, – so many pressures, external and internal. And the very best wishes to you too!!

  • Lisaesile

    Hi Allison,
    Thanks for your note. Good luck with the coming move. I know what that’s like. I recently left New Zealand for Los Angeles. The first time I visited here was about 18 months ago. And I spent almost three months entirely on my own! It was challenging but well worth it. And I had that feeling of being courageous at times too. Go easy on yourself. And trust that you’ll meet the friends you’re meant to meet, when you’re meant to meet them. Best wishes to you!!! L. XX

  • Jon

    Hi Lisa,

    Thanks for writing this – I felt the message was profound. I haven’t had what I’d call a major life event; however, as someone who has struggled with chronic depression for years the reminder to let go of expectations is a good one.

  • GP

    Loved your article! I’ve been down and felt like I couldn’t be happy again last year. Such a horrible feeling. I am working on healing and letting go of expectations. So many of my expectations last year were destroyed and I am trying to rebuild myself. I am a recent grad and after graduating it felt like all the door would open, I’d have a good job, my relationship with my boyfriend would get stronger..but no. I’m stuck in a dead end job, no friends or even a boyfriend. I am slowly healing and just taking it slowly. Thank you for your article!

  • http://twitter.com/dmont59 Diego M

    Hi Lisa… I’m here sitting in my chair revising 200 pages for my final exam tomorrow… and reading this definitely made me feel good. I don’t know what disease you might have had… but I can clearly see that you understood deeply the meaning of the situation you were in and took the best course of action. I’m going trough a lot of major life events in my 20′s and I feel refreshed. You just inspired me. Thanks

  • Joan Silva

    As always, amazing stuff Lisa! In gratitude.

  • James

    Lisa – what a fantastic piece. One of the best on this excellent site – the exercise of imagining that what’s going on is the best that could happen is revelatory. Thanks very much.

  • lv2terp

    This post is fantastic!!!!! Thank you for sharing your experience, and wisdom!!! :) I love when you said “The truth is, a large part of our pain is caused by an attachment to our expectations.”. sooo true! Thank you! :)

  • Lisaesile

    My pleasure! Thank you:)

  • Lisaesile

    Thank you James:) It’s a good exercise isn’t it. Sorts out pretty much anything. Well, that’s what I find. Sometimes you have to come up with sneaky tricks to see just how our beliefs are controlling us!

  • Lisaesile

    Thanks Joan:)

  • Lisaesile

    It’s my great pleasure. Thanks for your note:)

  • Lisaesile

    Thanks GP! The time after graduation is a classic case of our mind convincing us we’re going to feel happy in the future, once we’ve achieved such and such. In this case, a degree. The picture our mind had was never real. Good idea to take is slowly. I truly believe that when we start to follow our inner guidance the result is so much better than the picture our mind had for us anyway! Best wishes discovering the wonderful things that lie ahead!

  • Lisaesile

    Thanks Diego! I had something called Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. And I should say, it was a process! Cripes yes. Initially I spent quite a bit of time feeling sorry for myself and blaming other people and/or my situation for my feelings. And then another big lot of time, feeling miserable, but not blaming. But yes, definitely a process! The very best of wishes to you and I hope the exam went well!

  • randyh

    Hi Diego…I read your CNN posts…hope everything works out for you…you sound very bright and headed for success!

  • http://twitter.com/pepprspraypatti E. Kennedy

    Hi Lisa. I’m on year two after my M.A.J.O.R event and on the brink of pulling myself out again, but feeling overwhelmed by my lengthy ambitious To-do list (way better than the list pre-event) for life post-event. How did you decide where to start first?

  • Lisaesile

    Hi E.

    Great question:))

    One thing to keep in mind is your mind wants you to have all the steps worked out – but all you need to deal with is what’s happening now. Which is why I tend to defer to my gut feelings in situations like this.

    For example, having made the list, could you put it away and trust that if you follow your inner guidance that everything on the list that’s truly important to you – and probably many more things – will eventuate?

    Then the question is – what do you feel is the thing to do now? And it could be right now, as in – “ah, I don’t know, except I’d like a cup of tea.” Or it could be in the larger sense of ‘now.’

    For example, a few years ago I sold my house and almost everything I owned, even though i had no idea what i was going to do next, or where I was going to live. I remember thinking, “the only thing I know, is I don’t want to live in this town anymore.” So that’s what I did. I dealt with what I knew deep down in my bones.

    And then, ha ha – there I was living in a van for a year with my two dogs traveling around New Zealand waiting for the next bit of inspiration to guide me! (I talk about this in a post on my blog called ‘Sophie’s Christmas Penguin – What Children can Teach Us About Trusting Our Intuition’)

    Hope this helps! Best wishes and have fun discovering all that lies ahead!! I’d love to hear how it goes. Love Lisa.

  • http://twitter.com/pepprspraypatti E. Kennedy

    It is encouraging and serendipitously coincidental that you are advising me to think about NOW when I am starting classes on Tuesday for one of Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness programs. I want to celebrate and enjoy the independence and freedoms I have been missing the last two years. My friends and family try to gently encourage me toward safer formula-like plans then look at me with disbelief when I tell them I want to play roller derby, drive across Canada by myself (lol, with my dog too!), and work on a science fiction novel before diving back into nursing school where my final goal is to be a nurse practitioner in a rural community. I know it is within my ability and power to achieve these things but my self-esteem is struggling against the nay-sayers even though I never asked for their well-intentioned advice. Thank you so much for your thoughtful advice, maybe I will send you a postcard from the road. :)

  • Lisaesile

    I would love a postcard! And cool about Jon Kabat Zinn course – I once did one of his ‘Full Catastrophe Living’ courses – it was my first introduction to mindfulness and meditation. Kind of changed my life, that little course.

    I’m thinking it might be fun to start a discussion on my own site for people doing things that are out of the box. I’m seeing your comments reflected in a number of correspondence. I can easily think of 5 major decisions I’ve made where people have told me things like it was damaging for me or I would get sick again. The thing is, other people are just trying to help, but they don’t have the benefit of being in touch with your inner knowing!! The challenging bit for me was sometimes I was also scared of exactly the things they mentioned!

    If you want to email me directly I’d love to hear from you. Or if you receive my newsletter keep an eye out for an article on this topic!

    Woo hoo! And go following your dreams!!

  • Suzanne

    The exercise in #2 is such a great idea — I never would have thought to do that…It completely changes your perspective to think that way and let go of what you expected (even expectations that you were not even conscious of having).

  • KB

    Did you ever heal or figure out what was wrong with you? This basically just happened to me. I just kept getting sicker and sicker. Now my entire life is gone. Job, city I loved, friends. I live with my parents at 32 after just getting my masters degree and my dream job. It’s a tough transition. They did figure out I got bit by a dumb tick and have lyme disease. So now at least I’m getting treatment.

  • brittany schwab

    This was beautiful and exactly what I needed to read. I am trying to understand myself more and this helped me so much! Thank you.

  • Melissa

    I never thought that someone else would be going through or went through what I have been going through in my life right now, I felt the same exact way that after I was finished with college I would have a great job and move out of my parents house but my life is the exact opposite and you are so right I feel like my life right now depicts my self worth and because I am not where I think I should be in life I feel awful. I truly appreciate this article. Thank You!

  • Carole Feild Osvalds

    Reading this now after a very difficult time in my life has given me such an amazing feeling of peace! Thank You!

  • Caroline Kirk

    As Phil has said, the Universe does provide at the right time, its just we may not always notice it, as you said, this is and excellent post, just what i needed, you never disappoint Lisa :)

  • van

    AMAZING message. I feel better just from reading this.. and felt this way before reading this, but have to agree with Phil B, about coming into this just at the right time.

  • Tara

    “The truth is, a large part of our pain is caused by an attachment to our expectations.” Things are suppposed to be a certain way. If I do so many things right in my life then good things will happen. Unfortunately life doesn’t happen this way. Life’s not a fairy tale even though we would love to see life as one.

  • Sarah Y

    Thank you Lisa!! Your situation was so similar to mine and this article truly relate all those feelings. Felt so much better that I am not alone and there ways to overcome them. (=

  • Mika

    Thank you very much Lisa.

  • grevyturty

    Just plagiarizing Albert Ellis’ REBT approach to psychotherapy. The author has no credentials and is not original.

  • Libin. Andrews

    Thanks for all your good thoughts and words.

  • SusanJ1

    Lisa, I love this! Although I’ve just had about the same amount of time of severe health issues causing delays in my to dos, I wasn’t looking for this information right now for that reason.

    I just had a bad morning lol and needed to clear my head so I could write. I just love this.

    I know this philosophy and try to live by it but sometimes you just need to hear it again from someone else. Well said and perfect transition to my more more productive day. Love it (have I said that yet lol)! Very uplifting and true and just what I needed to be reminded of and hear. :)

    Thank you and sending you aloha,
    Susan

  • Jake

    Thank you so very much, Lisa. It has been incredibly difficult at times to cope with all these unfamiliar feelings. At first I would ask myself “Why don’t I want to always be around my friends like I usually do?” “Why do I feel like I can’t relate to who I was months ago?” “Why do I always feel so tired?” It has been a tidal wave of discomfort. But what you said about thinking of it as it being what was always supposed to happen has given me a refreshed feeling. You can not be more true. You reassure me that this IS the best thing that can happen. I now know I’m unwrapping a gift that’s always been there. I am so happy for you and I will very often come back to this during and long after the process. I knew I needed this the moment I started reading. :)