How is it that one day you can feel full of beans come bedtime – and another you’re dragging yourself to the dinner table in a fit of exhaustion? On the surface, you’ve eaten similar things, done the same job, spent time with the same people and had similar levels of physical activity. But the chances are, what’s different is what’s been going on inside your head.
If you think of yourself as a bit of a worrier, you’re not alone. So many people spend their time obsessing over what has happened – what they did or didn’t say, how they should have done this or that – and what is yet to come. It can sometimes feel as if we’re living our lives in constant fear, reacting to our own thoughts, to other people’s words and behaviour. Even what we think they might be thinking. No wonder we have no energy spare at the end of the day if we operate in this mode for any length of time!
Women especially are prone to this reactive way of living, in my experience. We can be particularly “other”-centred. If we’re parents, we may be particularly focused on our children – their wellbeing, their behaviour, their achievements, etc. If we’re in a relationship, we may concentrate our energies on what our partner might be thinking, or try to second guess why he or she behaved in a particular way. On the job, we may ruminate about a colleague whose attitude we don’t like, or worry about whether we’ll get that promotion or look silly when speaking in a meeting.
If you would like to spend less energy worrying, living in your head, and reacting – and have more energy for living – read on.
Learn to say “no” to what you don’t want. People-pleasing is a habit many of us learn from childhood when we’re taught to be “nice” all the time. And of course it’s natural to want to be liked. But saying “yes” to others to the detriment of yourself serves no one. If you already have plenty on your plate, say “no” when you’re asked to help out on the PTA committee, “no” when your teenage child treats you like a taxi service for the 8th time in a weekend, “no” to the piece of work your colleague is trying to palm off on you. Saying “yes” when you really don’t want to do something makes you resentful, and shows other people that you are willing to be treated badly. Feel all the fear that saying “no” involves. And then say it anyway. Chances are the world won’t cave in, and you’ll feel nothing but relief.
Beware energy drainers. We are hugely affected by the moods of those who surround us. It’s not possible to avoid the office dullard who chews your ear off about the weather every day, or the old lady at the bus stop complaining about the youth of today or the price of milk. But we can limit our exposure to people who are consistently negative. We need to be there for our loved ones when they’re going through a bad time. But if every phone call to your mother involves listening to an hour-long tirade about her neighbours, or each time you meet up with a friend she monopolises the conversation with how terrible her latest boyfriend is, put some limits around them. Some people you can cull from your life completely – do you really need to have coffee once a week with the bitchy mum on the school run? – while others may require more careful handling. Maybe you decide you will call your mum, but only chat for 20 minutes. Set some boundaries – and keep to them.
Be aware of how you talk to yourself. When you make a decision to quieten the negative voices in your life, make sure you include your own! The thoughts we have and the words we use have a huge effect on our experience. Try and tune into your thoughts and see if you can catch yourself imagining the worst case scenario, or imputing the worst possible motives to someone’s actions. Listen also to your conversations with people. In Britain especially, complaining can be part of our currency of smalltalk. Putting ourselves or our lives down can be an icebreaker – but if you find yourself doing it too often, it will affect your mood, as well as the way others think of you.
Be still – regularly. One of the most effective tools for keeping a handle on your emotional energy is meditation. Just stopping and sitting quietly – even if only for a few moments a day – can have a profound effect on our mental and emotional wellbeing. It’s incredibly helpful when you find yourself reacting strongly to something or someone. Allowing yourself to feel all your feelings without trying to change or fix them means you’re more likely to move through them quicker – and learn from the situation.
Give up trying to control other people. No matter how much we think we can, we can’t control other people – and we’re on a hiding to nothing if we believe anything different. Sure, we can ask for certain things and expect particular behaviours from others, especially our loved ones. But we can’t make someone feel something, or force a particular situation to go the way we’d like. A lot of our emotional energy gets wasted on what we think “should’ be happening in our lives, and how other people “should” behave. Work out what you want or need from someone, ask them directly, listen to their response, and then go from there. We can’t turn other people into who they’re not. Sometimes there are no happy endings to a particular situation. Maybe it just is sad or disappointing. Or it didn’t work out. But as soon as you stop trying to force life, you set yourself free, and you set others free to be themselves too. Things flow much more easily when you accept people and situations as they are. And you suddenly discover that you have a lot more emotional energy than you thought!