An excerpt from my latest book, Learning to S.M.I.L.E. Again: 5 Simple Steps Toward Joy. For more specific examples of how to apply this mental high method, scroll down and enjoy the See The Good photo gallery!
The first clear memory I have of receiving advice to accentuate the positive was during a counseling session. I had developed awful anxiety while driving thanks to my dear kids’ regular screaming fits whenever we traveled. Anywhere. Even a short trip to the grocery store could mean multiple stops as I pulled over and waited for the tantrums to end. I couldn’t drive safely under the pressure of the screaming and kicking. It stressed me out too much. It seemed like my kids were afraid of driving, so it was hard to be mad at them. It was still really hard for me to handle though.
I tried to save driving for the evening, when I could leave my darlings with my husband and run errands on my own, but I couldn’t always do this. Grocery shopping could happen on my schedule, but appointments were usually during the middle of the day. According to the doctors and therapists I’d seen, I was supposed to be getting out to places like the park or library to help me fight my depression. This meant I needed to be driving. However, with my children’s crying and my mounting anxiety, it wasn’t happening.
When I brought up the challenging situation to my counselor, her answer shocked me.
“Just be grateful,” she told me. I stared at her, clearly confused.
“Grateful?” I answered. “For what?”
“Just be grateful your kids have lungs. Be grateful they can make sounds! When they’re yelling, be glad they’re healthy and can scream as loud as they do.”
I’ll be honest. At that moment, I thought she was more mentally unbalanced than I was. She was completely out of touch! She had no idea how severe my anxiety and depression was. If she did, there’s no way she would have been making such crazy suggestions.
Perhaps that sounds cruel, but these moments of anxiety were torture! It meant sobbing, falling apart, tears streaming down my cheeks as I sat in a parked car with my kids. It meant feeling like I was an inadequate mother, ill-prepared and unequipped to handle the easiest tasks. It even meant frustration with God for giving me great kids, but no skills to take care of them. Why couldn’t I enjoy motherhood? It felt like a cruel joke!
I was just supposed to be grateful? I was supposed to see my blessings while I was breaking down? I didn’t see how. Why should I be happy while I was falling apart? That didn’t make any sense to me. It didn’t seem possible. How was I supposed to be happy about anything with this level of anxiety?
But, she was right. Looking back on that moment, I’m eternally thankful for her advice. It’s another milestone in my recovery because her suggestion was a great one. I needed to be grateful.
After all, the situation really could have been worse. My kids could have been choking. Or my kids could have already passed away due to an illness. That might sound dramatic, but it’s true. I hadn’t had to deal with the pain of a miscarriage or other health problems with my children. It was just me, with my mental health issues, and I preferred that. I even wondered if that had been my choice or our choice as a family in our premortal lives. That’s entirely speculation, but I knew I would have gladly chosen to take on an infirmity if it meant my kids wouldn’t have to.
As I tried to see more of the good in my situation, I realized I could not have had a car to use at all. I remembered what it was like to be home with kids and with no vehicle to get out around town. It’s hard! Pushing a double stroller in the snow was miserable. Whoever invented snow blowers did not have the width of a double wide stroller in mind when they came up with that design. At least I had a car to drive around and be screamed at in. That was a huge blessing, even if it wasn’t always easy to enjoy.
I came to understand that there really always is a sunny side if you choose to see it. It may not be your initial reaction. The sunny side may be more about what you’re getting out of the experience than the experience itself. It may take some time to gain the perspective necessary to see the silver lining in that massive storm cloud, but there are two sides to every coin, a yin to every yang, and a good for every bad. We are happier when we choose to focus on that good.
As I tried to See the Good, I learned to see, feel, and appreciate every bit of good I could. Instead of picking apart things I didn’t like, I learned to notice details that could cheer me up. Maybe it was the smile of my child or a surprise kiss from them. Some days it was just the freedom to be outside that helped me. I wasn’t in a jail cell and that was something to smile about. I could open a window and get some fresh air when I felt stifled by my circumstances. I could sit outside or take a walk. That independence was liberating and I chose to be grateful for it.
Some days I found happiness in being able to brush my hair. At that point I wasn’t in shape, so exercising or getting dressed up wasn’t always enjoyable since I was still learning to See the Good in my body. But I was able to enjoy my hair. I was healthy enough to grow it and it was pretty no matter what my weight was, so I was thankful for that. Being free of cancer is something I try not to take for granted since there’s a strong history of it in my family. I’m also BRCA-1 positive making my risk for cancer even higher. So, I saw the blessing it was to be able to grow my hair out, brush it, and style it. Also, I was free of food addiction now, and that was a blessing. My body wasn’t everything I wanted it to be yet, but I still had a lot to be thankful for.
We are all in different circumstances. I’m sure we could list a variety of challenges that are hard to see as blessings. Some are very serious, unfair, and unexpected. The hurt may be greater than we ever expected to endure. I’ve had days, weeks, even months like that, when I wondered if I could make it through another minute of living because I was so burdened. I am not trying to belittle those trials. Feelings of heartache should be recognized and honored, but do not let them stay forever. Move forward.
Choose to step back into the sunshine. I know trials do not have to take away from the happiness and beauty this world has to offer. The cup is still—at least—half full. Especially since you have a cup! Being here, alive, means there is a chance for change. Maybe you don’t see that hope right now. But whether you can see it or not, the potential is still there. It’s real. That is the good we need to seek after if we want to feel joy in the midst of adversity.
Some circumstances may be so painful, it’s impossible to find joy in the event itself. I’ve had situations in my life where people made poor choices and negatively affected their lives and hurt others, including myself, in the process. Sometimes there was absolutely nothing good about their actions, except that it was a catalyst or opportunity for change. That’s when I realized some situations have no good in and of themselves, only good that can come after it, as a reaction. Maybe the devastating event leads to our increasing our reliance on God, inspiring us to pray and fast more. Maybe it leads to a change in the person who made the poor decision, once they deal with the consequences. I can’t write every possible blessing here, but I do know I’ve had major traumas and tragedies in my life and have still found good that came from them—eventually.
In time, we can all learn to See the Good. It’s not fair to see the world as black just because a few (or many) ink blots have splattered their way onto our glasses. Maybe things didn’t turn out how you expected. Maybe you got more mud thrown at you than you wanted. Clean off your glasses. Look beyond the smears and dust. Even the prettiest gardens are planted in dirt. Don’t dwell there. Look up and around. There is still beauty. There is still joy. There is still light. Let it contrast the dark. We must See the Good if we want to live in it, and it is possible to, starting right now, if you just choose to do it.
So, do it! Make a list of all the good in your life. If something negative makes its way into your mind, think of three positive aspects of it instead. Or think of the good that will eventually come after it. Sometimes if I’m getting discouraged I’ll think, ”And then what?” I’ll tell myself, “Yes, that hard thing happened, but what am I going to make of the situation? What am I going to do about it? What other good things are in my life?” I don’t have to dwell on the downside. I can move past it and find the sunny side.
Even if you don’t believe every silver lining you list when you’re contradicting the negative thoughts, list them anyway. I dare you. Eventually, if you stick with it, you will learn to believe the positive thoughts again. Seeing the good in your reality, instead of just your reality, is the bravest, best gift you can grant yourself. Allow yourself that gift.
(To read more order Learning to S.M.I.L.E. Again: 5 Simple Steps Toward Joy by clicking here.)
See the Good Photo Gallery