Counseling Keys

How counseling and its mental health focus aids in faster healing, recovery, adaptation, and overall satisfaction in career, family, and other relationships in one’s life.

8 Essentials for a Happier Life

How to open yourself up, and connect more deeply with others.

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Have you ever found something you wrote long ago and, as you read it, its wisdom seemed to ring truer today than it did back then? That happened to me recently when I found topic notes from a workshop I used to conduct. They made me realize that, like so many of us, the more I learn, the more I complicate things.

These salient reminders from my old workshop materials are simple, which probably explains why many are common to many cultures. The wording changes, yet the wisdom remains the same. If you’re feeling a little frazzled—about anything—may these simple pearls of wisdom remind you of what you probably already know but just need to be reminded of, to reduce stress and reclaim peace of mind:

  1. Breathe. It sounds simple, but a lot of us forget to do it. Literally, stress makes us take fast breaths and we don’t get enough oxygen. Sometimes, we even get little dizzy spells or headaches from it. So, breathe. Take a couple of deep breaths. It grounds you and gives your body rich oxygen to help you actually manage a situation better.

  2. Look Within. Don’t be afraid to look within yourself to try to understand what you're feeling. Sometimes we get so wrapped up in all of our responsibilities that we go into autopilot and just react. But then time goes on and we forget to feel, or think it’s a selfish luxury. It’s not. Feelings don’t go away just because you don’t acknowledge them—they move. Unaddressed feelings can manifest themselves in a number of ways—such as physical ailments (headaches, stomach or back aches) or damaging habits (drinking, compulsive shopping, eating disorders). It’s when we turn away from our feelings—from ourselves—that problems arise. And then we’re no good to anyone. All you need to do is acknowledge what you’re feeling. And honor your feelings. That’s why sharing troubling things in a group or with a counselor is so helpful. Journals and tape recorders can also be a nice way of expressing your feelings.

  3. Remove the Judgment. This is probably one of the hardest things for us to do because we’re so conditioned to it. We judge. We judge each other and we judge ourselves—probably even more harshly. Think about it: What do you tell yourself all day long? What does that inner critic say when you’re running late or when your project has failed? How about when you look at yourself in the mirror? Remember how feelings move? Well, our inner critic creates a lot of feelings—fear, self-doubt, shame, embarrassment, sadness, loneliness. Quiet the critic and you’ll save yourself a lot of pain.

  4. Permit Joy. Some of us feel we deserve pain. Or that pain somehow makes us better people, or will serve to get us rescued. It goes back to a lot of the stories we heard growing up—Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, but also Rocky, Batman, and others who pulled themselves up. These stories help frame the way we look at suffering in our lives. Sometimes we become attached to the suffering, never realizing that we’re denying ourselves the chance to experience joy. In doing so, we numb ourselves to life. You’re not a self-centered hedonist if you experience real joy. Life is full of ups and downs—just don’t be afraid to experience the ups. You do deserve it. Honor yourself.

  5. Honor Others. By honoring yourself, you can honor others, because how you treat yourself often reflects how you treat others. For example, you’ll be more comfortable with other people’s feelings when you’re comfortable with your own feelings. Perhaps the best way you can honor someone else is to be comfortable with their feelings—and not by not mistaking your feelings for theirs, or their feelings for yours. The biggest problems arise when people incorrectly assume what someone else meant by an action, word or expression. The receiver of the message may be hurt, so they’ll interpret the message as hurtful. Or the messenger may be angry at himself or herself and take that anger out on the receiver. It’s a lifelong process, but try to clearly differentiate your feelings from someone else’s, so that you can honor them and their feelings.

  6. Self-Soothe. If you’ve lived even a little, you’ve probably been hurt. We all have. And so we’ve developed scars, fears, and triggers to protect ourselves from further pain. Sometimes, these triggers can create irrational reactions. For instance, a trigger can bring up feelings of panic when someone says the exact same phrase used by an assailant just before they robbed you. On the other hand, a person, a sound, or a smell, can also remind you of happier times. Triggers are normal but become a problem when they interfere with relationships by making us react to previous events rather than the distinct event happening in this moment. Then we set ourselves up for feeling judged and may respond defensively if our feelings aren’t honored. The key in these situations is to self-soothe. Understand your feelings and triggers and calm yourself down. Recognize that, emotionally, two events are simultaneously occurring for you, one past and one present. Take a deep breath and share that with the other person if you feel safe. Otherwise, take a deep breath, reassure yourself that the events are separate, and refocus on the moment. Then you can listen and respond with more neutrality.

  7. Use Focused Listening. Real listening is a lost art, which probably explains why so many people so often feel hurt and defensive. When people just don’t feel understood, even simple communication becomes a struggle. We are all guilty of interrupting, assuming we know what someone really means, or just zoning out when someone else is speaking. The key is to make a connection with someone and really focus on what he or she is saying. Notice their facial expressions. Listen for their feelings. You’re less apt to interrupt or think about your own response when you’re completely focused on what they’re saying or feeling.

  8. Understand "Time Zones." It is so easy to forget where people are and what they are doing. Any unreturned message feels like a slight. Conversely, too much contact from someone can get annoying. The reality: We are all in separate time zones, with distinct deadlines, responsibilities, demands—and energy levels. Some people will always just be busier than others. Think about it: Have you ever had time on your hands and decided to reach out and call some people? Did you feel a little feel hurt when they weren’t available? How about when you were so busy that you couldn’t return a loved one’s call for two weeks? Try to be more understanding about people’s differing availability and you'll be happier.

Best of care and more to everyone on the path!

Kimberly Key is past division president of the American Counseling Association and author of Ten Keys to Staying Empowered in a Power Struggle.

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