The mole just above my knee was malignant, said the doctor. What I heard was: "You have melanoma, and this is super freakin' scary, and you could die from this thing, and you don't have time to deal with this, and who will fold the whites if you aren't around to do it."
Of course, nobody ever actually said any of those things. At least not out loud. Those were my inner voices chiming in, creating a story around a single sentence. And just like that, a one-sentence diagnosis veered off the path into an anxiety-producing drama.
So often in life, our stress is not a result of the reality we're living with, but the story we tell about it. The drama we build around it. We hear there are going to be layoffs at work and immediately create plot lines about how the boss never liked us and we're bound to lose our job, and our house, and all our designer jeans. Soon enough, we've created a story about what it's like to live on skid row even before a single layoff has been made.
Or, perhaps you and your partner didn't communicate well today. In your mind's eye, you create the story about how you two NEVER talk anymore and how you've grown apart and all you have in common is a your mutual love for reality television. Within moments, you've gone from a single day of disconnection into a scenario filled with anger, hurt, frustration and fear when the only reality right now is that you didn't talk much today.
The dramatic storylines actually create the drama in our lives. By focusing on future uncertainties and fabricating the details around what might happen, we get plenty of present-moment stress that fires up our cortisol levels and makes it harder to cope with the reality of our situation.
When you strip that story away though, when you stop to see the truth, to really get a good look at what is real for you right now, in the moment, the drama disappears.
Of course, this requires a good dose of acceptance, and that can be a toughie. Because in order to reach acceptance, to fully become aware and engaged with your current situation, you've got to look at it without judgment or criticism. We are not in the habit of this.
Many of us tend to look at life through a filter of good and bad, right or wrong. We judge, blame, criticize, analyze and all those states allow us to slip out of the current reality of what is into what if, and what might be -- which makes it pretty tough to deal with our life right now.
When you slip out of the present, and start living for the future, you have no factual information to deal with. Because you don't know what will happen next, you can only predict and create and imagine, and that's where the drama comes in. This is where the monsters show up under the bed. I mean, what if they are under there, our mind reasons -- we need to be ready. So we create scenarios and begin living with the anxiety and stress that they create even before they've occurred. Usually, they never do.
For example, my experience with cancer wasn't all that scary. It really wasn't. But the stories I created, the "what ifs," were bone-chilling. "What if it spreads." "What if it's untreatable." "What if I die."
But, before I went too far down the drama road, I caught myself. I stripped the story away and accepted the truth of the moment, which was, "I have a malignant mole that I will have removed."
That's all that it was. Nothing more.
Stuff is going to happen in our lives. Experiences are going to come in and out of our lives and we won't be too excited about some of them. In fact, we might be darn pissed off by the diagnosis or the divorce, or the bankruptcy. We may feel angry at some of the things that show up. But when we can drop the drama to see what is true in each situation, we can actually use acceptance to embrace the messiness. Then, we get to move through the crap with a little more grace and ease rather than getting stuck in it.
For me that's just an easier way to live. A more peaceful way to be in the world. A more helpful way to experience the ups and downs that come into our experience.
Ready to ease the stress in your life? Well, give this acceptance thing a try. Here's how to do it.
1. Pay attention. Notice what's going on inside. How are you feeling? Are your shoulders tight, are you impatient? Or feeling loose and in flow with life? Catch the thoughts drifting through your mind. Are they about what you are dealing with now or foretelling of some future catastrophe? Are they judgmental or open and compassionate? Just notice what's going on in your experience.
2. Uncover the truth. Now, take a closer look at the areas where you aren't feeling as good as you would like. Notice the pockets of stress or upset, the tension in your shoulders, the thoughts of unworthiness or fear, and explore them a bit. Look closer. For example, if you noticed you were having judgmental thoughts about your weight or your body, go behind those thoughts and see what's fueling them. Perhaps you are unhappy with your weight, but that unhappiness and excess weight is driven by feelings of loneliness and depression. Find the truth in your experience right now.
3. Declare your truth. Write down or say aloud what you discover. This helps you get clear and keeps you out of the drama. Speak your truth without judgment. So, the story line you've created about how you are overweight and therefore unworthy of love -- pure judgment -- changes to, "I weigh more than I'd like to." Your drama about how you'll never get the promotion because the boss hates you transforms to, "I didn't get the promotion." In this stage we are taking out the fuel for the fire and just looking at what is. Know, too, that what is can change for the better in the very next moment.
When you do this, strip the story away and accept what is, possibilities show up. Acceptance provides accurate, real-world information for you to work with. You no longer have to muddle through the story line. You see what you have to work with. This prompts action. Movement.
Acceptance gives you a chance to fix what you can, make changes, or decide not to do anything at all. You no longer have to fight, push, excuse, hide, or control. Instead of being worried and reactive because of the cliffhanger you've created in your life, you can live peacefully with the truth. You can make choices and create momentum and move toward what is working instead of the worries of all that could go wrong. When you see that truth, when you get a clear-eyed view of the present moment, you also get to see all that you are: a marvelous, powerful being who is enough to deal with whatever comes.
Portions of this blog were excerpted from Imperfect Spirituality: Extraordinary Enlightenment for Ordinary People, by Polly Campbell (Viva Editions, 2012).
For more by Polly Campbell, click here.
For more on emotional wellness, click here.