I’m someone that people often tell, “you’ve been through too much for someone your age.” I actually agree with them: loss of family members, loss of jobs, major heartbreak, major injuries and illnesses, robbery … you name it, it’s probably happened. Now thinking back on all that adversity, the aftermath of each incident has one commonality: at the time, I couldn’t stop thinking about what happened. Then, the more I thought about what happened the worse I felt because my mind would weave intricate stories about what it said about me.
Getting dumped and getting fired in the same week: you’re a loser.
Getting mugged: you should have been paying attention, what were you thinking?
I know this is a very sad way to start out a blog post; don’t worry it’s going to get optimistic in a second. Plus, I’m not being (almost humiliatingly) honest so someone can get out the sad violin. I’m talking about this openly because I hope someone out there struggling reads this and feels things will not only get better but also realizes there are some things you can do to move the healing process along.
From experience, I can say rule #1 to moving your life forward -- when you’re ready -- is this:
When you feel like a worthless pile of garbage, find someone to help and help them.
Look I get it, the last thing you want to do is come to someone else’s rescue when lying in bed eating brownies and taking Xanax is much more soothing, but I’m going to imagine you’ve done enough of that already. When you’re ready to create something different in your life, you have to do something different to get new results, otherwise you perpetuate what you’re used to. Make sense?
To back this up, here are a few ways helping others is going to help you:
Helping someone else makes you feel useful, which makes you feel like what you do matters
Happiness expert Shawn Achor was recently on Oprah’s Super Soul Conversations Podcast talking about his book Before Happiness. In the interview, he said giving back is a happiness multiplier because you’re able to look back on the experience and have something in your mind that makes you smile. On top of that, doing something for others shows us how much power we have to change the reality around us. We are socially conditioned to notice the things in the world that make us powerless, but when you do an act of kindness it shows you that you can change your level of happiness in addition to someone else’s.
Helping someone else gets you out of your own head, so you can stop obsessing over your problems
Positive psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi explains that when we engage in activities that require focus and immersion, it elicits a “flow state” where the brain loses its sense of self-consciousness and quiets the inner-critic. So, if you volunteer for a weekend building a house for a family in need, or offer to help replant someone’s garden, you’ll get a temporary mental escape because you’ll be too busy getting dirt underneath your fingernails to run old stories through your noggin. While it is important grieve your story, taking a break is just as important so you don't get sucked down the rabbit hole.
Helping others makes you feel less alone in your imperfections
When it comes to debunking what you think is true, evidence is everything. So if your mind is telling you, “because xyz happened to me, that makes a pile of garbage, and because I’m a pile of garbage I don’t deserve to be loved,” give yourself evidence that supports the contrary. For example, after losing my dad I worried that someone wouldn’t fall in love with me because I didn’t have the perfect family, which made me feel really lonely. But when I started bringing flowers to other people my age who also lost parents -- and I spent time getting to know their journeys with grief -- I realized, these people deserve to be loved just as much as anyone else. Just because they’ve been through something hard it doesn’t make them unloveable, in fact their adversity makes them more dynamic, compassionate, and resilient. When I saw that in them, I was able to change the way I thought about myself.
Because we are human, each of us has our own unique imperfections, which makes us more interesting.
Helping others changes your brain chemistry
Have you heard of the helper’s high? Turns out, altruistic acts can decrease stress because the process makes the body release endorphins: the feel-good chemicals that induce a happier state of mind. Some studies have shown that people who engage in volunteer work live longer, exhibit higher levels of life satisfaction, and are overall more healthy.
Helping others makes you feel more grateful for what you do have and less sad about what you don’t have
Someday, I hope you get the opportunity to build someone a home. When I went to Mexico with the Greatness Foundation last year, we visited migrant camps, orphanages, and spent time in a poor neighborhood where people live in shacks built from scrap materials. When it rains, it turns the dirt floors inside their shelters to mud and because they are exposed to the elements, it increases their likelihood of getting sick, which means they have to miss school or work, which perpetuates the cycle of poverty. After experiencing something like that, you begin to see what you have so much differently. You don't have to build someone a home to feel more gratitude for your life, though. There are plenty of things to do that will help you shift your perspective.
To change the world, start simple
When you're in a vulnerable state, it is much easier to achieve a really simple goal then build from there than it is to set out on an impossible task from the get-go. To get the best result -- and highest likelihood that you'll follow through -- pick something relatively low effort to start with. Remember that it is important to be kind to others, but it's also just as important to be kind to yourself.