I’ve always been a sucker for late 90s, early 2000s rom-coms. The soundtracks! The star power! The good person getting the job and winning the man!
(there’s always the man. more on that in a sec.)
I still love me a good rom-com for sentimental reasons. But the most clichéd ones? They’re now rough to watch. Many require you to majorly suspend your disbelief as you watch a completely problematic and unrealistic situation magically work itself out, and many (at least many of the early ones) reinforced a trope created in decades prior that looking, acting, and responding in a very particular way will get you what you want and deserve in life.
My main issue with rom coms when I watch them now, however, is this:
In many of these so-called “girl powered” movies, the storyline follows women positioning themselves as experts in a field, but somehow, they’re unable to tackle the problems they’re so good at solving when those problems hit the closest to home (dating expert, advice columnist, wedding planner…you get the gist). That’s usually when the man – or someone else – comes in and saves her or shows her the light. It’s rare that we’re shown how to move forward fearlessly when things gets real, and how to do it on our own.
And the message is that when darkness or hardship looms, someone or something will swoop in to save us and make us feel worthwhile again.
We need a new model for what to do when it all feels like too much.
You can be a pro at shifting your self-talk…when life is going pretty well overall. But what happens when the you-know-what hits the fan, and it keeps hitting the fan? What happens when you’re in major need of a WIN, and that win just isn’t coming your way?
Here are five strategies for when life won’t let up:
1.) Focus on getting to NOW-Normal instead of BACK-To-Normal.
When things suck, we want to make them not-suck. We want to “get back to normal” or “the way things were back then.” THEN, of course, being a time when there were limited obstacles and you felt in control. This is totally expected and totally natural.
However, normal NOW isn’t the same as normal THEN. You’ve got a new normal in the Now.
Instead of trying to force old habits into a new set of circumstances, focus on accepting this new normal – not trying to adjust to make things like “what they were,” but maximizing “how they ARE.” What might have been easy or routine for you before simply might not work as well for your lifestyle right now.
Making lifestyle choices and developing positive habits, then, become like a game. What WILL feel good? What WILL stick? A friend of mine once told me that when her father died and she was too overcome with grief to do anything, she treated her life like she was recovering from amnesia. Trying things out, from foods to workouts, to see what resonated and what didn’t. ZERO pressure to stick with one thing, and ZERO ties to what once worked.
When life feels the most challenging, be like my friend and do a scavenger hunt to find your Now-Normal. If something doesn’t really stick, you have full permission to move on. If there’s a spark there, try it again. And again. And again.
2.) Perform a simple act of self-care.
When your heart feels heavy, when life feels too complicated, when getting out the door is a feat worth celebrating, perform a small yet highly effective ways to keep yourself going. It could be folding your laundry, taking a shower, or sending one single email. Self-care isn’t about luxury, it’s about taking time to pay attention to the life you’re living and making a proactive choice to move forward in some way – any way.
3.) Schedule out white space.
I am NOTHING for ANYONE if I am not GROUNDING for myself. And so when shit starts to hit the fan – or when everything, good or not-so-good, feels like it’s coming at me all at once – I schedule what’s called “white space.” It’s time that is all your own, that you don’t plan to fill and don’t schedule over. It’s both everything and nothingness.
It can be an hour. It can be three minutes. It doesn’t need to be formalized “meditation.” It doesn’t need to be productive OR unproductive. But I’ve learned that white space time, time that belongs to ME and ME ALONE, time that’s like the “white space” on a canvas – TBD, no paint, open to possibility – is a deal maker or breaker for me. If I don’t take time to reconnect to myself with no external stimuli or things to answer to, and don’t take time when I need it most, I end up going off the rails.
A couple years ago, I shared on my social media pages that I’d been the subject of internet bullying. I had many people write to me privately about their experiences with harassment and, specifically, others telling them to feel compassion for their bully as a coping mechanism. And how INFURIATING that can be. For me, it’s moments like these that remind me why I practice white-space-moments on the regular. So that when things gets real…when I’m hurt, when I’m highly emotionally triggered…I can pause even for a SECOND and remember who I am and what I stand for. Without anyone telling me who I am or what I SHOULD BE. It’s in these moments, these seemingly-millisecond moments, I’m able to do the thing that’s most proactive, not reactive (see last point). That I’m able to be the way I know I’m meant to be, not the way someone else told me I should respond.
I practice those white-space moments not for the moments I’m necessarily in. But for the moments in the future when I’ll need them most. It’s sunglasses in the subway and walking back and forth outside before I go and join the party. It’s hiding in the bathroom before networking not because I’m scared but because I can’t bear to not be myself. It’s what I do when the stakes are low so I know where to go when the stakes are high. It’s not the most sexy or socially acceptable thing but it’s what keeps me going. It’s not easy work, but it sure is right.
4.) Nix the one-sided emotional labor and replace it with a two-sided emotional investment.
This one is maybe the most profound (and hardest) for me. Emotional labor is what it sounds like: doing the emotional work to make something function. It’s actually a good thing, but becomes dangerous when it is ridiculously one-sided…and in which case, it’s usually the women who are doing the work.
Emotional labor can look like being the one who is constantly dissecting your friend’s toxic relationships and convincing them to see the light (then they do it again and you do it again, and so on and so forth). Emotional labor can look like putting on a happy face for your partner and “being a light” for them as they continuously stew in their own troubles. Emotional labor can mean decoding the unspoken subtext at work so that everyone can actually get things done. Emotional labor is brushing off micro-aggressions because they’re “not really that big” and “not really worth it” and excusing your bully in the name of “compassion.” Emotional labor is why it’s so exhausting to be a barista or a server or in the service/hospitality industry in any capacity: you’re soaking in the emotions of each and every customer, many of whom are taking their daily aggravations out on you. It’s your job to keep the peace and “put a smile on their face.”
If you’re in the service/hospitality industry, there are going to be parts of one-sided emotional labor that are unavoidable – you need to figure out your own personal boundaries, makes, and breaks. But let’s talk outside of those instances.
Emotional labor is taxing, and gives all your good stuff to others while leaving zilch for yourself. You can’t drink from an empty well, so to speak. And it’s when we’re feeling empty, depleted, and emotionally dehydrated that things turn really dark.
An emotional INVESTMENT, however, is different. By definition, an investment is “an act of devoting time, effort, or energy to a particular undertaking with the expectation of a worthwhile result.” Start-ups present investors with data, proof points, and projections for a reason: to let them know their money isn’t going to waste and their investment won’t make them go bankrupt.
With an emotional investment, if you’re devoting your emotional time, effort, and energy to something, you’re going to see a return. Emotional investments might not be two-ways in the moment, but you’ve got proof points that when you need it, you’ll be getting that investment back in your direction. That’s why investors don’t just pour money into companies that sound cool, and why you shouldn’t invest in people who aren’t going to ever give back to you. That’s not being a friend. That’s being a savior, and dehydrating and bankrupting yourself of your most valuable assets.
When you’re feeling like the bad stuff won’t stop, immediately cut ties from one-sided emotional labor. This is the time your emotional investments should be making a return in the form of love, check-ins, and support while you slowly start to build up your emotional funds again. It’s not the time for you to mindlessly spend as you continue to overdraft.
5.) Ask yourself: is this decision PROACTIVE or REACTIVE?
When making decisions during tough, emotionally heavy times, I always ask, “Is this decision proactive, or reactive?” Its a practice that got me through a really horrible breakup in my 20s and it’s yet to fail me. Am I reacting to my situation and letting it dictate my actions, or am I proactively moving THROUGH the darkness, the fear, the anger, the confusion, the whatever-it-is, to make my way through to the other side?
Above all, know that the know is not the forever. This is a moment in time – a chapter of your story. And while it’s just one chapter, how you choose to read it will inform how you view the other chapters to come.
The storm will pass and the dust will settle, and you’ll still be standing. But the great thing is, you won’t need saving, and you won’t need anyone to “show you the light.” You get to be the star, and you get to write your own success story.