Riding Waves

There’s one thing I know for sure: life is full of ups and downs. I visualize these ups and downs as an oscillating line, with each peak and valley representing my emotional strength–or lack thereof–at that point in time. I can’t control the flow of events that cause these ups and downs, but I can manage how I relate to them. In other words, life feels like riding a big ocean wave.

Oscillating wave
Waves: traveling oscillations

Depending on who you are, the distribution of emotional highs and lows might be gentle and spread out; or, they might be sharp and condensed. I’m regularly in the sharp column: as my career has exploded and I’ve gone from one high point to another, I've started to experience more impactful lows. Sometimes I think, “if I was just more disciplined, I could be a gentle, measured emotional being.” But that’s not who I am. My mode of operation is the opposite of playing it safe. I'm playing a high risk, high energy game that I often win, but sometimes I lose–I put myself out there too far, and I crash and burn.

Success & downtime: yin & yang

If you give so much of yourself that you burn out, you’re left depleted for energy and purpose until something causes that wave of emotion to switch direction and rise you up again. For me, that something is usually a change in perspective, be it from solid exercise or doing something to break out of the routine. It could also simply be a good amount of time passing. However, despite my best efforts, sometimes a pileup of negative factors can make it hard to avoid powerful lows. It’s like I’m off on a negative vibes ice flow I can’t paddle back from at the moment.

What causes this, and how do you manage it?

A change in jobs, mourning the loss of a dear pet, the end of a relationship, endless side projects, unproductive self criticism after conference talks I practically ran toward–that was 2015 for me. In the past, I’ve been okay at managing life’s ups and downs. But this year was different. No matter how I tried to improve my mood, I kept tripping over my emotions and landing in a heap.

It was only after I started experiencing an upswing that I realized I’d had 3 big life events in one summer–no wonder I felt so lost. Any time a major event happens in your life, you’re bound to have some stress. Except, on top of normal life stress, I also beat myself up all the time. Each valley in my oscillating wave is a low point where I doubt, criticize and self-sabotage. I started wondering: what if, instead of beating myself up, I gave myself the same empathy I have for others?

An oscillating wave with arrows pointing to highs and lows. Feeling good: empathy for others. Feeling down: empathy for self.

Not too long ago, I received some life changing advice from Minh-Hai Alex, a nutritionist here in Seattle: she told me to “treat yourself like you would treat a friend.” I wouldn’t feel disgust for a friend who was down, so why would I pile that on myself? If we allow ourselves to feel self-compassion, we are able to grow stronger each day and start to feel better. Sometimes it’s difficult to get into this state of mind, and I often need reminding.

It takes time to work through the emotional fallout from major life events. I’ve found a few things that help the process along; I’d also love to hear your strategies for managing life’s highs and lows.

Getting out of ruts

…With exercise

For me, any form of physical exercise can make things feel better (at least temporarily). But when I’m at a really low point, my emotions and mind are at odds. Emotions say, “who cares, exercise won’t change my situation...” while, my brain says, “go for a bike ride, you’ll feel better.”

The genius of exercise is that it gives you more resolve and optimism to weather your situation even when you’re not exercising. It builds self-confidence and gives you space to detach from your troubles. So it’s worth doing, even if your emotions are sabotaging you. By starting small and keeping low expectations, each thing you do can help turn the boat around. Plus, you’re making your heart happy in more ways than one.

…By breaking out of your routine

Changing my perspective has been the most successful way to break out of a rut. Going to a movie or an art museum can help shake up your emotions for a few hours, leaving you with new (and hopefully good) thoughts. Every time I go on a trip somewhere I’m given freedom to look at things in a new light. When I come home, I undoubtedly feel better than I did before.

Jumping on a trampoline or baking a pie would also be be worthy ways to focus your time, assuming your stress is not pie or trampoline related. :)

…By spending time with friends

People who know you well can help you see the bigger picture. They know you at your baseline self, at equilibrium; by spending time with them, you can hopefully start to feel more centered.

After stressing over something minor because my tolerance for BS was empty, I got a particularly memorable comment: “I don’t know why you let those little things bother you, you’re such an f'ing badass.” It sort-of knocked me upside the head (in a good way), and my perspective started to shift. By now, a few weeks later, I can point back to a handful of personal conversations where I started to feel different.

…By choosing to be happy

When I’m at the start of an upswing and my emotional tank is slowly filling with self-confidence and calm, I still feel okay when negative vibes pop up–with less stress and more emotional bandwidth, I can choose to be happy.

Sometimes the only thing separating a good day from a bad day is your perspective. If you're beating yourself up about something, give yourself a break. Take the time you need to destress and heal, and then get back on the boat. Life is simply too valuable to miss out.

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