We all struggle. It doesn’t matter who you are, how much money you have, or how good you look to the outside world. Life is hard—even painful sometimes.
As a clinical psychologist in private practice, much of my work is helping people address internal struggles: anxiety, chronic worrying, depressed moods, and destructive patterns of behavior. Out of this clinical work, I’ve observed a powerful agent of change that is often overlooked and underutilized. That is, the pathway to freedom is accelerated when you learn how to act with meaning and purpose in the midst of your struggle. You can’t necessarily control the anxiety or unhealthy craving from showing up but you do have a choice in how to respond. You can tap into the human spirit and use the nervous energy or problematic feeling as a reminder and catalyst to express the best parts of who you are. Here’s an illustration:
Recently, a woman in her sixties came to see me to address a fear of flying. My client’s daughter had just given birth and lived on the opposite coast. The client was determined to lay eyes on her new granddaughter but the thought of the long flight was an anxious one.
From the beginning of treatment, this client’s personality shone brightly. She was a warm, vivacious woman who naturally encouraged others. It was her trademark. She was known as the bright light who lifted people’s spirits. You couldn’t help but smile and feel good in her presence. Unfortunately, it was this very part of herself—the part that was a blessing to others and personal source of joy—that the anxiety squelched. When she was caught up in a cycle of anxious worry, she found it difficult to be the person she wanted to be. The bright light faded as she clammed up and turned her attention and concern inward.
In preparation for the upcoming flight, we worked on leveraging and tying her gift of encouragement to the anxious energy. Instead of the anxiety clamping down on a beautiful part of her personality, we explored how she could use the anxious energy as a way to bolster this positive part of self.
As the day of the trip approached, she had a plan. Regardless of how she was feeling, she had a focus and a heartfelt mission. Instead of going away in her mind and investing in the worries, she was determined to use the anxious energy for positive action—to be an encourager.
She found plenty of opportunities. She thanked the ticket agent for her professionalism and helpfulness. On the escalator, she complimented a woman on her outfit. While going through security, she thanked a TSA agent for his patience and sense of humor. Winding her way through the airport toward the gate, she left a wake of warm feelings and lifted spirits—a disposition she carried throughout the trip. Instead of allowing the anxiety to stifle her personality, she used the historic struggle to express the best of who she was.
You can do the same. You can transform your struggle into an opportunity for purposeful action. To get started, try following these three steps:
1. Reflect on those times in your life when you expressed the best parts of who you are. As you recall these memories, ask yourself, What behaviors was I engaged in? In other words, start making a list of concrete actions you take when you’re living out your values and in a positive flow with life. Maybe it’s encouragement or engaging in acts of service or expressing gratitude. Whatever it is try to list 5 to 10 specific behaviors that reflect your best.
2. After you have your list, predict the challenge and make an action plan. Maybe it’s a predictable urge to drink at 5PM or an upcoming dentist appointment. Identify the upcoming challenge and be ready to act on one or more of the positive behaviors on your list. For my client above, on the day of travel she was prepared to be a super encourager. Find your own superpower.
3. Keep responding to your internal struggle with purposeful action. This is not a one-and-done situation. If you keep applying step 2 you will create a new response pattern that will transform your life and struggle. The very source of pain can become an automatic reminder and catalyst for positive action. This is very satisfying! You get to flip the struggle on its head and use it for good.
Whatever your struggle is, begin acting with purpose today. Don’t let your personal challenge constrict your life or steal your joy. Use the worries or overwhelming feelings as a reminder and springboard to express your best. Engage in a loving action or do something that reflects a bright part of your person. Try following the three steps outlined above for a couple of weeks and then let me know how it goes!
Dr. Scott Symington is the author of Freedom from Anxious Thoughts and Feelings: A Two-Step Mindfulness Approach for Moving Beyond Fear and Worry. He is a licensed clinical psychologist dedicated to helping adults overcome worry and anxiety, negative moods, addictive behaviors, and other conditions stealing people’s joy and freedom. For more information, please visit, www.drsymington.com and connect with him on Twitter, @drsymington.