Sometimes You Must Step Backwards Before You Can Move Forward


Have you ever felt completely overwhelmed by the world? Sometimes it feels like there is simply too much of everything happening. There is too much war, hate, anger and bad news on the television; social media feeds are filled with unrealistic -ideals of perfect humans with perfect bodies leading dreamy fantasies of endless money, travel, and happiness (even when we know this to be superficial it can still cause bad thoughts); responsibilities continue to pile up at work; overdue bills come flying in like Harry Potter’s acceptance letter for Hogwarts (please understand this reference); and it seems like there simply isn’t enough time to deal with everything. I recently felt this way and as such have decided to suspend my personal social media accounts (blog media still up and active – exhibit A right here) for an indefinite amount of time. I will discuss my reasons in greater detail as a subject of this post but in short, I simply wanted to narrow my focus beyond the entire world and instead focus on myself, my values, my character, my work, and the things directly within my sphere of control. Chances of me having a relapse and re-downloading the apps on my phone and reactivating my account are high, but hopefully this time can help me break the addiction to news, media, and more that many of us struggle with today. 

First of all, if any concerned reader comes across this, I am fine, I just felt the need to step back and refocus my energy and attention, no cause for alarm. Part of my reason for doing this is that I am an extremely empathetic person, so when I watch the news I find it difficult to emotionally detach myself from anyone and everyone. I can break down in tears of joy watching Chris Norton walk 7 Yards on his wedding day (watch the documentary “7 Yards” it is awesome) or watching a young child display greater compassion than most adults could and start a fund raiser to care for the needy in their area. I can also break down in sad tears watching yet another mass shooting or reading that a hospital fire killed 82 patients. It is tough being an empath, someone who feels deeply, but I wouldn’t change it. In fact, it may be one of my favorite qualities in myself if I could be bold enough to say that I actually do have any. What I, and other empaths need to watch out for is allowing ourselves to have a deep and often negative reaction to anything and everything that goes wrong (my assumption is that if you my blog about happiness is that you are either an empath yourself and/or one of my close family or friends). If you allow yourself to have a deep and troubled reaction EVERY time something happens, you are in for a tough life my friend because that kind of shit happens all the time. 

The good news is that there is something that can be done about it. First, as with any problem, recognize that there is a problem, otherwise you will never set out to change anything if you can’t identify what behavior you are trying to improve. For me, that problem was recognizing the adverse effect that overstimulation or over-connectedness, for lack of better words, were having on my mental health. Step two is addressing the problem. If you feel similarly, begin with taking a good look at your thought processes. In an example such as this, the Stoics are a great source of wisdom to turn to, as they so often are. Remember that perhaps the most important stoic virtue is the power to recognize that which is in your power and that which is not, and to recognize that you can do nothing about that which is beyond your power. As Epictetus says: “The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control. Where then do I look for good and evil? Not to uncontrollable externals, but within myself to the choices that are my own.” 

So, if you find yourself disturbed by something in the news, first ask yourself: is there anything I can do about this? If the answer is yes: then do something. If the answer is no, then you need to let it go, at least to an extent. I am not suggesting you turn yourself into a cold-hearted narcissist who only cares about themselves, but I am suggesting you learn not to take things personally (those who know me will laugh because I take EVERYTHING personally – but I am working on it and I still think it is good advice). There is an important distinction to make because in today’s world there actually is much that we can do. Social media and the internet, the same tools that constantly bombard us tragic news the world over, are the same tools that give us a greater capacity to help. Go-fund me, global charities, internet donations and more, mean that we can now lend a helping hand to a person in need half the world away, all without ever having to get off the couch. No, you won’t be able to give to every charity, or help with every disaster, but if something particularly moves you then by all means give. Such compassion is the most important quality we have as humans and is what links all souls across the planet into one. As Edmund Burke said: “Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could only do a little.”

While you may be able to assist those in need, no amount of charitable giving, prayer, thought, reflection, concern, or stress is going to stop things from happening. This is here you have to have the ability to tune things out and recognize that most of what happens in the universe is and always will be outside of our ability to control. Another helpful thought on the matter comes to us from the stoics which is the notion that things that occur are neither or good, they simply are, and only our opinions of them shape them as good or bad. Epictetus said that “it isn’t events that disturb people. Only their judgements about them,” while his partner in stoicism, Marcus Aurelius, added: “When you are distressed by an external thing, it’s not the thing itself that troubles you, but only your judgment of it. And you can wipe this out at a moment’s notice.” 

It is easier for us to change or control our opinions of certain things than others. For example, rush hour traffic is something we all hate which, allegedly anyway, arises from purely natural circumstances of lots of people getting in their car and driving on the same road at the same time. Nobody likes traffic but instead of letting our blood pressure shoot up high enough to pump fuel into a jet, we can remind ourselves that this is a purely neutral and natural event and that the anger we feel does nothing except harm ourselves. On the other hand, natural disasters that kill thousands of people are truly devastating. This is harder to wrap our heads around but there is nothing that can be done about such things. We are ultimately just a bunch of people existing for but a brief speck of time on a rock hurling through space at thousands of miles per hour, and natural phenomenon will occur, some of which will result in loss of life. If you are able to do anything to assist in recovery, by all means do it. Our compassion and empathy is what allows us to endure, maintaining our interconnectedness. Even stoics like Marcus Aurelius knew this, remarking: “For in a sense, all things are mutually woven together and therefore have an affinity for each other—for one thing follows after another according to their tension of movement, their sympathetic stirrings, and the unity of all substance.”  But, recognize that no amount of sorrow can reverse what happened nor can it prevent the next tragedy. Instead of wasting energy lamenting what happened, recognize that this sort of thing happens, and get busy doing what you can, if anything to help. Siting in sorrow and wallowing in misery will do nothing. 

I mention all of what I just described as a reminder to myself of the type of thought patterns that are going to be serve me well moving forward and they will serve you well if you ever find yourself overwhelmed in a tsunami of information and stimulation. I believe that reflecting on the need to recognize what is within our own control and what is beyond will lead to greater happiness and less feelings of helplessness. Likewise remembering that events are neither good nor bad, that they simply are, will allow us to feel happy and be less in despair. 

A great read on how to avoid negative behavior and thought patterns

For me it isn’t just the need to reset in terms of empathy and feeling too much feelings about too many events. It is also that I am a perfectionist, something I alluded to in a recent post. Part of the problem for me, like many perfectionists is in comparison to others. I once quoted the Dalai Lama who said: Our feelings of contentment are strongly influenced by our tendency to compare.” The problem with those of us who struggle with self-esteem is that we never believe we are good enough and part of this is always finding someone who does X better, or has more of Y. One doesn’t have to look far on social media to find someone with a better physique, more money (anyone with a green number in their bank account in my case), more excitement, more friends, or simply more happiness. First, recognize that what most people to present to social media is just a façade, emphasizing only what they want you to see, and often overstating if not outright lying about that. Second, yes there are some people who actually do have more of X,Y, or Z than you. But why should this cause us any distress? We should be happy for the happiness and success of others, so long as they have not committed any transgressions in the realization of their happiness. 

That being said, I would say that if something causes you distress, stop doing that shit (to quote Gary John Bishop). If you are struggling with negative thought patterns, or are feeling diminished ability to feel happiness, and social media is the trigger, then by all means cut that shit out. I know for me that a permanent hiatus from social media is not likely, in many ways it brings me great amounts of joy, but in the short term I need to work on reinforcing positive thought patterns and the best way to do that is by taking a step back. Remember that happiness is a choice, not a reaction. If it were a reaction, it would be next to impossible to ever be truly happy in the face of what happens. Remember that we cannot control most of what will happen and only our opinions of things make them truly bad. If you feel like you are losing sight of this, take a moment to consider what lies within your power to be done about it. It is of vital importance to keep a positive outlook and a strong resolve if we are to choose happiness in this life. 

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