You always have a choice

“May your choices reflect your hopes, not your fears” – Nelson Mandela, a total peaceful badass

In today’s world, we are constantly being bombarded with the latest diet and exercise program, how to get rich quick, the one magic trick for becoming successful, etc. Sometimes these things work for us, but most of the time they have little long-term effect on our lives. The problem is, so many of these programs are trying to change what is external without focusing on the internal. If you try a new diet, it may work for you for a week, or a month, or even a year, but eventually you will revert to your usual patterns if you haven’t done any work to change your fundamental behaviors and beliefs that lead you to eat unhealthily in the first place. If we truly want to change something in our lives, we need to start at the source and work out from there.

Placing the blame

It’s not hard to find something or someone to blame other than ourselves. Most of us use and hear these kinds of excuses multiple times a day:

“I eat poorly because there are always snacks available at work”

“I don’t travel because my job doesn’t pay enough”

“I rear-ended her because I was distracted by a billboard”

“I stood up at his wedding and told him I loved him because Taylor Swift told me to!”

We can pretty much always find some external cause to blame our behaviours on, but the truth is that we always have a choice and we alone are responsible for those choices.

Of course, there are many factors in our lives that are outside of our control. We cannot control another person’s actions, but we can control how we communicate with them and how we respond to those actions. We cannot control being let go from a job because the economy is down, but we can control how we move forward and search for new opportunities. We cannot control being rear-ended while sitting at a stoplight, but we can control how we handle the situation and how we will let it affect our day.

We have to step up and take responsibility for our actions. To be clear, this is different from blaming ourselves for everything that goes wrong in our lives. Taking responsibility means recognizing when we’ve made a mistake and owning up to the consequences of our decisions. It means recognizing that we have the power to control our responses, even when we have no control over what has just happened. Not only does this mean we are acting from a place of integrity, it releases us from the victim mentality that so many of us cling to and gives us ownership over our own lives.

Winter is coming

For the past year and a half, I have been summer-hopping. I had spring and summer in Portland, left in the fall for spring and summer in New Zealand, and left again in the fall to return to another summer in Portland. Now that I’m settled back in my hometown for a little while, I am finally going to have to face the winter and it’s bringing me down just thinking about it! I have never been a huge fan of the grey, rainy winters we get here in the Pacific NW and I always dread the season and it approaches, winding myself up worrying about how wet and miserable I’m going to be for the next several months.

At the same time, I have always been horrible at preparing/dressing for rainy weather. I never seem to have a proper rain jacket, umbrella, or boots and I tend to simply struggle my way through the cold weather, waiting it out until it finally gets warm again (6 months later) and suffering in the meantime. This behaviour allows me to continue justifying my hatred of the winter because I am always damp and freezing cold. If I’m unhappy in the winter, it’s not my fault, it’s the weather.

Do you see how this is a vicious (and completely unnecessary) cycle!? Because I hate the winter, I try to avoid it by not preparing for it (logical) and then because I am not prepared for it, I spend the entire season being uncomfortable. Not only that, I spend most of autumn worrying about how cold it is getting and reminding myself on a daily basis how awful it is going to be as it gets darker and wetter and wintery-er. Instead of obsessing over my impending doom, I could be enjoying the crisp cool air, the chance to wear warm sweaters, the beautiful changing leaves, being cozy inside, and LITERALLY EVERYTHING being pumpkin spice flavoured.

This winter, I have finally accepted the absurdity of this paradox and have decided to make a positive change. I will invest in some warm clothes that will keep me dry and will do my best not to complain about the sun going down at 4:30 p.m. I will find positive things to notice on a daily basis and will focus my efforts on being grateful for everything I have that keeps me warm and healthy when the weather is cold and wet.

And while I won’t be able to spend as much time outside, I can spend more time reading and working on craft projects. I can have board game nights with friends and go to shows and concerts. I know that, for me, being social is an important aspect of my well-being and I have a tendency to shut down and go out less in the winter, which makes me less and less happy over time. Because I know this is something I need, it is up to me to be proactive about making sure that I get enough social interaction, even when I don’t feel like going out because it is so gross outside.

Letting your past control you

Another part of this taking responsibility thing is letting go of the events of our past that we let define who we are in the present. Sometimes, being defined by your past may be helpful, such as being proud that you made it out of a bad situation and now have a happy life and a beautiful loving family. Maybe coming from that bad situation allows you to have more empathy for others, to understand where people are coming from, and to be truly grateful for what you have today.

But so often, we hold on to harmful events, or events that we perceive as negative, and allow them to control everything we do, possibly without even realizing it. These might even be things that weren’t really that bad, or were choices we made, but that we blame on other people. We say things like:

“If I hadn’t listened to my dad when he told me to take that job, I could have traveled the world instead of starting a career, which I now am unable to leave”

“If I had gone to the college I wanted to instead of following my girlfriend, I wouldn’t have taken out so many student loans and still be paying them back today, which stops me from doing anything else I want to do”

“If only my teachers hadn’t all hated me when I was a kid, I would have tried harder in school instead of giving up and dropping out. Now I can’t get a good job because of them”

I know several people who can always find a path back to some event from their past which caused all the problems in their life today. They get completely stuck thinking that one or several events from their past, which were probably largely out of their control, defines everything they do today because it somehow ruined their life or stopped them from being able to do the things they wanted to do. But here’s the thing: every single day, we make hundreds or thousands of choices that are within our control, which have nothing to do with the events of our past. When we give up that control and decide to live in a victim mentality, it is so hard to be effective and direct the course of our own lives.

I also know several amazing people who have dealt with unimaginable circumstances with incredible strength, compassion, integrity, and love and have come out the other side stronger and more incredible than they were before. These are the people I want to be like. So many of the most amazing people in history have overcome seemingly insurmountable struggles to become inspirational, successful, effective leaders. Look at Nelson Mandela! He helped end apartheid, won the Nobel Peace Prize, and became South Africa’s first black chief executive, all AFTER spending 27 years in prison. I know we can’t all be Nelson, and just because one person’s struggles seem worse than our own doesn’t make our own struggles any less meaningful, but he is a great example of a badass who did not let the actions of others define how he lived his life. He saw that there were things he COULD control and worked towards changing them.

Time Travel

Most of us have heard that regret is a useless emotion. We know this, yet it’s hard sometimes not to regret certain choices we have made. As an avid Orange is the New Black watcher, I was pleasantly surprised when the mostly unlikeable Mr. Healy comforted a schizophrenic inmate by telling her “Everyone wants to go back in time sometimes. To go back to the moment when everything was still possible, before they made a wrong turn, so that they could go on the right path. But it’s not possible. All we can do is make the most of right now”. Usually I really don’t like Mr. Healy, but this was a rare moment of wisdom for him that I appreciated. His character grew up with a schizophrenic mother and has pretty much been searching for external sources of love his entire life. Even though you do feel sorry for Mr. Healy, he alone is responsible for his actions and how he treats others (which isn’t always great…I mean, you do get the sense that he is trying, but he just hates himself and lets fear and jealousy run his life…anyway…).

My point is this: maybe someday time travel will be possible, but assuming that day is not within our lifetimes, we can only ever move forward on the space-time continuum. Regretting actions from the past or thinking about all the ways we could have handled a situation differently or made a better decision does us no good in the present, or the future for that matter. We can only take stock of what we have and where we are at and move forward with that knowledge. We can learn from our mistakes, or the mistakes of others, and use that information to grow into better people.

Of course, having remorse about something you’ve done and taking actions to rectify a wrong is a totally different matter than just regretting something. In my opinion, it is never too late to apologize or to try to make something right, as long as you have no expectations for how the other person will respond. They may or may not decide to forgive you or let you back into their life, but that decision is out of your control. Again, it is important to know the difference between what you can control and what you cannot.

To sum it all up…

We all have baggage – you reach a certain age and everyone has issues that they are dealing with. While some people’s baggage may seem more intense or more unfair than others, everyone has something in their past that they would probably like to forget or change. It might be something you did, or something someone did to you, or a terrible movie that you wish you hadn’t wasted the last hour and a half on. That’s just life, that is part of being human, and nobody can protect you from shitty experiences, including yourself. I mean, I suppose you could live in a bubble and never explore the outside world because you are afraid something bad is going to happen, but then what’s the point? (Alright, living in a bubble does sound like it would be kind of cool for a little while, but only for like, a day).

When something bad happens to you, don’t let it continue to hurt you by allowing it to define the rest of your life, by shutting down your heart and never letting anyone else in, or by blaming everything on that event and giving up control over your own future. Accept what happened, grieve deeply, find a way to learn from it, and move forward with your life. If you need professional help, get it. If you need support from friends, ask for it. It may take days or it may take years to work through your trauma, but at some point you will have to let it go so you can take back control. Life is what we make of it and we have a lot more control over what goes on inside our mind than what goes on outside of it.

Remember that you always have a choice and that is powerful. Let those choices be a result of your hopes, not your fears, and let them empower you to create a fantastic life for yourself.

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