How to overcome the “If only” game

Going through rough times can make us question things in our lives, a habit borne out of utter frustration, exhaustion and sadness.

“If only I had grown up differently with different parents in a different part of the world then I’d have less problems in my life, be more successful, could easily do what other people seem to be able to manage so effortlessly.”

“If only I had gotten that job I applied for, had not failed my exam, if my health were better, if I had found the love of my life, then…what? 

Then my life would be so much better and I’d be happy, had no problems…”

Really?

Sounds as if there was a parallel universe somewhere, pain-free and perfect with endless happiness, and we just didn’t land in it by taking a wrong turn. Or even worse, something completely outside of our control – call it fate or bad luck – decided to drop us into the miserable universe. And so we are dwelling in the past, imagining what could have been. What we lost or presumably missed out on. Wasting our time by thinking “if only”. 

Not so long ago I had a conversation along these lines with my mother about the difficulties my father encountered in his job decades ago. Difficulties which “would not have occurred if this job had been in a big city rather than in that small village he worked, where so much was only about politics”. As if she thought of it as a cloud somehow dimming his otherwise impressive achievements. 

Who you are meant to be evolves from where you are right now. Learning to appreciate your lessons, mistakes and setbacks as stepping stones for the future, is a clear sign you are moving into the right direction. (Oprah Winfrey)

Whatever path we decide to embark on, it always comes with a mixed package of joy, sorrow and clouds. There is always a chance that it might not turn out as expected. We cannot expect things to be easy, and there is certainly no such thing like a perfect life.

A difficult experience however, does no de-value your chosen path in life, because in fact, it’s the difficult things that determine who we become.

And that’s what we usually tend to forget: adversity actually makes us who we are. Always. 

Without it we would not evolve in life. Like it or not – it is the painful things that shape us and make us more resilient. 

Sure, you lose something, but you gain something else for it. Living through a tough experience, you transcend into another person, thereby coming closer to who you are supposed to be. 

It is of course, hard to see it that way, particularly when you are right in the middle of it. And it might sometimes feel impossible to even see the tiniest bit of light. 

We seem to have a reflex going into denial, fighting against it in fear and frustration, which is useless as we cannot make what’s happened undone. We cannot change the past. And over a lot of things we simply do not have any control. Like other people’s minds and their decisions, luck or chance, accidents, illnesses, disasters…

Complaining about life treating us unfairly and that we have done nothing wrong to deserve it, will not change anything either. Life is not fair, there is just this notion in our head that it should be. Also contrary to what some of us believe: what happens to us is not retribution meted out by a higher force to punish us. John Kabat-Zinn calls our daily struggles “full catastrophe living” which I find a very fitting description of human existence.

We only make it harder for ourselves by thinking “I do not want this – where is the reverse button in my life?”.

So, what’s the better option? Stop fighting it.

Don’t mourn your loss in a way as if you were never able to recover. As if you had fallen down into a hole and things would inevitably get even worse from now on.That’s not what it is like. 

You need to mourn for sure, but when you are done you will still be there. The earth will not have opened up and swallowed you. 

And then you get back up.

Owning our story and loving ourselves through that process is the bravest thing we’ll ever do. (Brené Brown)

Giving up this struggle is an advice I find very difficult to take myself. Finding the trust and confidence to go through a bad experience while waiting for the pain to subside and learning to live with it often feels like a tough order. More than we can (or are willing to) take at that very moment.

It might take some time before we can arrive there. Re-visiting painful time periods and events in my own life years later made me realize how much I have learned and grown since then and how they made me turn into a different direction. How some of them even brought me closer to the point where I am right now. 

Without them it might have been easier – sure, but it also would have taken longer to learn a lesson I needed to learn. Some doors apparently were not meant for me to open, but others did instead.

Maybe it is about re-arranging things in our mind in hindsight, to make them fall into place, and – more importantly – to make our peace with them as part of our story.

Life is about the journey to understand yourself. Stay curious.

Finding our Purpose

“Your purpose is changing throughout your life. Your skills and unique qualities remain the same, but what you are using them for can of course change, as your life situation changes, you learn and evolve.”

This thought I heard while listening to Oprah Winfrey’s podcast “Super Soul” is actually very true. It taps into the multitude of interests and talents we have. And it offers new perspectives. We do not have to stand still in life but move forward and enjoy how we grow while doing it. 

When I was younger I couldn’t really make up my mind about what exactly I wanted to do in life and what would be “the right decision”. My creative interests were very broad, but it didn’t occur to me to use any of them to earn a living. Work, I thought, had to be something more “serious”. Well…

Then I started studying the law. This very serious profession turned out to be not my calling at all, nevertheless, I finished the education. The idea to switch to journalism frequently popped up in my head but I dismissed it after encountering too many obstacles. Trying unsuccessfully to get a job in law, I later got into the Tech world, building on my analytical strengths.

“The only unique contribution that we will ever make in this world will be born of our creativity.” (Brené Brown)

The concept of dabbling at a few things for fun and learning through the creative process was not clear to me at that time. I also restricted what I enjoyed doing – like painting, singing or writing – to be merely private interests or hobbies. Time went by and I began to neglect these things that were actually so close to my heart, not realizing how much I was missing out.

According to Brené Brown, everybody is creative, the question is just whether a person is making use of these very unique talents or not. She even says that not allowing ourselves to express our creativity is harmful for us. Thinking back on that period of my life I certainly agree that I robbed myself of a source of joy and enrichment which could have been an important influence on my work-life-balance. 

Reactivating my creative interests more than 2 years ago has brought a lot of enjoyment back into my life. To see my fast development in the creative process gave me a boost of energy. Interestingly enough it helped me approaching even my tasks at work in a more creative way. Definitely win-win.

“The resources you need to fulfil your dream will gravitate naturally toward you.“ (Jack Canfield)

Some people find their purpose when they are very young. Others find it later in life, and some might decide not to follow it at all. It has taken me quite a while in my life until I finally began the journey to finding my purpose by following my inner voice, and since I have started writing I feel like coming closer to it. It is also an active decision not to stagger through life on auto-pilot but to take control, be present and question and change my approach. 

What is also very true: Simply by focusing on your dream you will notice things which were in fact, always there, but now you are paying attention. And you will find likeminded people once sharing your thoughts with others. Talking to friends or colleagues of mine I often found them to be on a similar quest. Maybe we should more often start a conversation with the question “What is your dream?”

Re-visiting that old idea of mine to more seriously engage in writing and sharing what I learned, I finally pushed aside previous concerns from long ago. It’s never too late to give it a try.

“The dream does not come unless the capacity to achieve it comes with it.” (Jack Canfield)

What I have learned and realized since then on this journey is that living your life’s purpose means essentially: Doing what you love to do, what you are good at, and accomplishing in life what’s important to you. Finding your very personal answer to the question which difference you want to make.

And once this becomes the driver in your life many things suddenly fall into place. It takes discipline of course to stay on this pathway. Fortunately, you notice the recurring theme in many podcasts, books, TED talks, articles etc. which gives the needed impulses and serves as a welcome reminder from time to time.

Like the little book from John Strelecky which my brother recently gave me as a gift: “The Cafe On the Edge of the World” which is a wonderful tale on the importance of finding one’s purpose. An inspiring and impressive read, it speaks to the heart asking exactly those questions, another reminder for me reinforcing my resolve.  

Because this very individual journey takes as long as it takes, figuring it out. 

What I really enjoy: discovering new insights and learnings along the way, realizing that I can trust the right time for my next move will come. I do not need to know all the next steps lying ahead to get started on something. 

Having a preference for structure and planning, it was of course not so easy for me to take that approach. But moving out of my comfort zone in that regard has worked well for me so far, and surprisingly, I am feeling more in tune now with my inner voice. 

“The world belongs to those who believe in the power of their dreams.”(Eleanor Roosevelt)

So, coming back to Oprah’s quote that “our purpose is changing”: it makes perfect sense, considering what we pick up and learn on our personal quest, broadening our horizon and always asking questions while moving forward. There is no need to restrict ourselves. And the more we learn the more we can give back to others. 

There will never be a time in life when we are finally “perfect” or so accomplished that we would not need to learn anything new anymore. We are constantly learning and trying out new pathways. Our decisions shape who we are and who we become, and our mistakes teach us. It’s important to acknowledge this as a part of life – inevitable, sometimes of course, very frustrating, yet enriching. 

Looking back, I think now that life is not about “taking the right decision”. There is no such thing as a cookbook about life (important to convey this to the younger generation!). Deciding to turn into a different direction at some point leads into a new world, brings new insights or makes us change our preferences. Being able to use our unique personal talents and skills for these different bus stops we encounter in life is a gift.

Actually, our path itself – in a constant state of flux – is the destination. Once you give it a try walking down on it and be open-minded about what you may find, you’ll surprise yourself.

Resources:

You find Oprah Winfrey’s podcast Super Soul on Spotify or Apple Podcasts

Brené Brown is a researcher and author of several highly recommendable books: 

Check out Jack Canfield, success coach and co-creator of “Chicken Soup for the Soul”: 

More about author John Strelecky and his inspiring books – here

Enlightenment

Light and darkness are two sides of the same coin, essentially. They belong together. There is no light without shadow, no day without night, no good without evil. Although we would very much prefer to keep the negative, the uncomfortable, difficult and painful out of our lives, it doesn’t work that way. 

Nothing’s a constant in life, it is merely a sequence of ups and downs. It’s scary that we cannot take anything for granted. That’s why we are trying so hard in many ways to create some form of continuity. But we need to learn how to live with incertitude, how to navigate these winds on the ocean. And sometimes it might feel that this is all too much for us and we just want to shout out “Why can’t it all be different, easier?” Especially now.

We are yearning for getting one state without having to face the other, but we cannot have it, as all such antipodes are inextricably interconnected. And that is actually necessary to remind us of how fragile life is, and to really appreciate happiness as something special and cherish it in our hearts.

Life is frustrating right now, we want this pandemic nightmare to end, to get on with our lives and return to some kind of normalcy. We expect a well organized conduction of the vaccination process in our countries, or at least good enough project management driven by common sense. Interesting to see though that more or less all our governments fail in the process. We are facing a chaotic and desperate situation; even in my home country Germany (often hailed as the lead example of good organization) things go pear-shaped.

However angry it makes us, we cannot control or change it. It’s a learning curve for all of us, also for our governments. This is the first time they are confronted with a task on such scale, and they try, fail and learn. In the end it will all work out, it just requires more patience from us  – which is a tough call of course – since we have already gone through a very difficult year and we very understandably want a break.

But we still need to hold on, hang in there and simply trust. Finding the confidence that things will work out eventually. And convey that to others around us even more.

What always helps me is focusing on what has been already achieved: the progress I see, the learnings and changes, overall and for me personally. Let’s remember:

– We got an efficient vaccine developed in a very short timeframe – what an achievement!

– The focus has shifted on dealing with and speeding up resolution to some long standing issues.

– Things which were not thought to be possible before suddenly are.

Being grateful for what I have and what I still can do is equally important to me. And not to waste my time worrying too much.

We have a responsibility toward ourselves to take good care and keep us mentally sane, and not to give up at the last moment, after braving all these obstacles. That responsibility extends as well to inspiring hope and confidence in others, especially to those going through even harder times.

What keeps me sane for the most part are the people I talk to, in person on a safe distance or on video, messenger, email, phone. We are sharing our thoughts and feelings, our joys and concerns and encourage each other. It’s what keeps me going, allowing me to calm down and make it to the next day.

And sometimes, we become witness to an omen of a better future.

That’s how I felt last week while listening to the amazing young poet Amanda Gorman reciting her poem at the inauguration of the 46th president of the US, Joe Biden. Her powerful, wholehearted words, her determination speaking about the light in times ahead really struck a nerve. It brought tears to my eyes.

She incorporates the pure antithesis to darkness, doom and despair: a young black girl, a poet wise beyond her age, using words with meaning and kindness, projecting hope, inspiration, a foreboding of better times to come.

In fact, she looked like a beacon of light herself, marking the start of a new era.

For there is always light, if only we’re brave enough to see it. If only we’re brave enough to be it. (Amanda Gorman “The Hill we climb”)

The light is always there, we just need to see it, acknowledge it, in the small things in life. And let ourselves be enlightened and spread it to others.

Not surprisingly, the internet is full of praise for this poet, calling her the secret star of this event, bringing back hope to Americans. Some of the unanimously positive comments I read on YouTube, from people watching her being interviewed by James Corden:

“This girl is like a ray of light”, “The world is a better place with her in it”, “When God shows up, He really shows up. A woman brought peace into this world before, and I believe it will be a woman who brings peace into this world again.”

It shows how many people are longing for a signal of hope, especially in these times. How much we want this world to be a different one. How much we want to leave hatred, lies, division and fear behind us, how desperately we need unity, equity, justice and peace. 

The words of this extraordinary young woman resonated with us, her clarity highlighting the simple truth that words should always have meaning and purpose. It makes me happy to see the accord of so many people from around the world sharing these feelings. 

The significance of her recital, a much needed inspiration, is like a precious gift bestowed upon us at the right time. It certainly helps me to re-focus.

What we witnessed was a unique moment in time showing to us a glimpse of what is possible and how things ought to be. 

It’s a roadmap for the future, a call to action, and it’s up to us to carry and pass on the light.

Change has begun. This is only the start.

%d bloggers like this: