In today’s world, there’s a lot of pressure to constantly take care of yourself.
“Drink water and you’ll feel good, have a bubble bath and you’ll feel good, wear a fuzzy onesie and you’ll feel good, do Yoga and you’ll feel good.”
Self-care is important, don’t get me wrong, but it can be exhausting. Sometimes when you’re feeling truly miserable, you don’t even have the energy to move, let alone get into a complex contortion pose like your limbs are made of elastic and hold it for five minutes, or go out to buy a bath bomb or some other indulgent product.
The narrative that we can do many small things to make us feel instantly better sometimes works, but sometimes it doesn’t. Self-care can’t cure everything, and as well as developing short-term habits that help us, we need to work on the long-term habits too.
One such habit that I have found particularly useful is this: to focus on the constants.
Now, the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus once famously said “all is in flux”; this is something many people believe to be true, myself included. Life is ups and downs and side-to-side, and swirls and loop-de-loops and curve-balls, good surprises and bad surprises; our brain just happens to be clever enough to programme these rather chaotic and turbulent emotions, events and random occurrences into a nice, neat(ish) story for us. In fact, the only consistency in life is change.
With the constant stream of change happening around us, it can be very easy to focus on the transient; the awkward moments, the bad days, the arguments, the failures, the setbacks. These are all things that all of us experience, but some of us have the rather troubling ability to latch on to the bad, seeing the negative events tumble endlessly on in our lives, creating the impression that these situations (which are momentary and fleeting) culminate into our total tale. Our negative mindset produces a negative narrative. But it is false.
It’s easy to see how this happens, because if our mindset is negative, then we will look out for and register the negative events more than the positive ones, because that’s how our brain is currently functioning; it is actively searching for the negative, so of course it is more likely to find it, and focus on it.
Yeah, it’s true, bad things happen. And it’s also true that they’re probably not going to stop happening because that’s the nature of living a life. But we are not the sum of all the bad things that have happened to us; we are so much stronger, and so much more. We need to reclaim our stories, reclaim our narratives, and reclaim our lives.
So, how do we do this?
By focusing on the constants.
For instance, today, I could probably name a few ‘bad’ things that happened; I got my leg stuck in the gap between the train and the platform, I felt so ill I had to go home, I burnt my tongue on some tea, and I got charged twice for a pair of shoes. Yes, these are negative events, but they are totally transient, and most likely won’t matter to me in a week, let alone a month or a year.
Instead, I’ll focus on the good that is always trundling along quietly in the background; yes, my leg got trapped, but I’m lucky I have a leg in the first place, yes, I felt so ill I had to leave the library, but I’m lucky to have access to an amazing place full of knowledge, yes, I burnt my tongue on my tea, but I’m lucky enough to be able to make myself a hot drink whenever I want during the cold months.
This may seem like a silly exercise to do, but it’s vital to changing your mindset. Plus, practising gratitude is always a great way of improving your interactions with the world and all the people in it, including yourself. This is because it will stop you from focusing on the menial negatives and get your brain thinking about, and refocusing on, the great positives in your life instead.
However, sometimes we don’t have the mental energy to concoct such responses whenever bad thoughts occur. So, there’s a slightly easier way of achieving the same outcome for the times where you don’t feel quite up to it.
Make a mental list of four or five positive ‘constants’ in your life, whether that’s a job, family, friends, a pet, a plant, a significant other, and remember them. This will give you ammunition to fight off any small, bad events that happen. If you remind yourself of those constants whenever things go wrong, you’ll see the negative stuff for what it really is; small, transient and amongst the strong tapestry of good constants, relatively unimportant.
But, I hear you say, what about when things really go wrong, like a break-up, getting fired, a large argument with a person close to you, or a moment where you feel like you’ve lost everything. You may well be wondering, does this trick still work?
In fact, I would argue that this practice is even more important when faced with something that seems insurmountable. This is because there are always positives, always. Sometimes it takes a lot to find them, so having a mental store of the good things that remain is vital when you find yourself in a dark moment.
This is because even if you’re feeling truly terrible, even just a fleeting thought cast towards the light in your life can make you realise that yes, even though things are bad now, there’s still hope, still a world to go back to, still things to hold on to. The practice of refocusing on the positive constants filters down into your subconscious, meaning that when things do go wrong, which they sometimes will, your brain will automatically recall the good things, and soften the blow of emotion.
If we see our life’s base-state as being full of ‘constant good’, then we change our attitude to negative things, as they become small blips on the radar of our lives, and not large objects flying towards us at great speed. A good way to imagine it is to think of your mood as a still, peaceful ocean. Sometimes a riptide comes along and disturbs the water, sometimes large waves form and crash against it, sometimes a storm hits, but the ocean always remains, and will always be there. You are a calm, peaceful person, sometimes things don’t go quite how we planned, but even when they go badly, this is but a ripple, and we’ll eventually return back to our previous relaxed state.
Coming back to Heraclitus, yes, he did say all is in flux, but this is a man who also believed that everything was “made of fire”, so let’s not take his word too seriously.