How I Found the Good Within the Difficult

“Inner strengths are the supplies you’ve got in your pack as you make your way down the twisting and often hard road of life.” ~Rick Hanson

“I had a rough day. Can we talk?” I asked my husband in 2015 after coming home from work. He nodded, and we sat down on the couch.

I continued: “I got really challenging performance feedback from my manager today. It was hard to hear because I know it’s true.”

It was the most significant critical feedback I had received at once. All afternoon, I’d ruminated on the conversation. I had sat in the meeting speechless, with my heart pounding, as my manager, kind as he could, gave examples of ineffective ways I had been showing up.

While we discussed what I was doing well too, I couldn’t stop thinking about the opportunities to improve. All I remember being able to say at the end is: “I need time to process what you’ve shared.”

I hadn’t realized until that conversation how much what I was feeling on the inside translated to how I behaved.

Inside, I constantly felt frustrated, stressed out, and overwhelmed. And that was the basis for how I interacted with others. I often reacted poorly when things didn’t go smoothly. I repeatedly interrupted others, not fully listening in the first place. I complained a lot in and outside of work. It felt so far from what I knew I was capable of.

Underneath, I was in pain, and I had just become aware that I was taking it out on myself and others.

I had recently been diagnosed with “unexplained infertility” and was preparing to start fertility treatment.

I was having a difficult time coping: I blamed everyone and everything, including myself; I was so self-critical and beat myself up; I felt deeply ashamed; I tried to resist my painful feelings.

When I look back, I have a lot of self-compassion for my past self throughout this experience. I didn’t yet know how I could cope better, and it was incredibly hard.

I shared the feedback I received with him and went onto say, “What happened to me? I used to show up better: calmer, kinder, more approachable. I know I’m capable of showing up like that again. I want to try to improve. I want to learn how to meditate. I think it will help.”

This was my moment of noticing.

In the noticing, I had a choice. I could choose to take responsibility for my behavior. I could choose to try to improve.

I had tried meditating previously and thought I was a “bad meditator.” My husband, on the other hand, meditated daily and taught meditation workshops. He had exposed it to me for years. I had seen how he had benefited from it. However, I had thought meditation wasn’t for me. Until now. I was at a point where I knew I couldn’t keep operating the same way. So I figured, why not try again?

In the few months prior, we had started listening to podcasts and Dharma talks focused on mindfulness that resonated with me. It helped me realize mediation could benefit me.

Taking in the Good

One of the first things I did was to look at psychologist and best-selling author Rick Hanson’s book Hardwiring Happiness. I learned about what Hanson calls the brain’s red and green zones.

The red zone, Hanson explains, is the brain’s reactive mode, where you go into fight, flight, or freeze. It’s when your mind focuses on fear, frustration, and heartache. It serves an important function when there is a threat, but it’s supposed to come in brief spurts.

Unfortunately, Hanson shares, in modern life, the reactive mode has become a new normal for many people. I suddenly realized: it had become too common for me. I felt like my brain was in the red zone much of the day.

The green zone, in contrast, is the home base of the brain, according to Hanson. The brain’s responsive mode. Your mind in this mode experiences peace, contentment, and love. When you are in this state, you can respond to life’s challenges without getting overwhelmed by the stress of them.

Through Hanson, I discovered there is a lot we can do to strengthen our responsive mode by taking in the good, no matter what is going on in our lives.

And that’s what I wanted to start doing. I would need to be intentional to take in the good, I learned, since the brain has a negativity bias.

I wanted to take in more contentment—the antidote to frustration. I started with committing to thirty-day daily lovingkindness and gratitude practices.

In the morning, I did a ten-minute lovingkindness meditation. In the evening, my husband and I would say three things we were grateful for, really soaking them in.

At the end of the thirty days, I did feel more contentment toward myself and others. I felt less frustrated. I became more aware of when I was getting triggered. And sometimes, I would remember to pause and give myself space before responding. Other times, I would catch myself after reacting negatively and apologize. It was a start.

I was surprised that there was so much I could do to change internally without changing my circumstances. Did I suddenly become monk-like, where nothing fazed me? No. And that was not my aim nor is it realistic.

Dan Harris, a former ABC News anchor and prior meditation skeptic turned advocate, asserts in his book 10% Happier that practicing mindfulness and meditation will make you at least 10% happier. That was something I could attain.

Perhaps I was 20% less frustrated after a month. Perhaps I had 10% more awareness of my triggers and reacted that much less.

Whatever the exact amount, the changes made a noticeable difference to me. And, over time, I heard positive feedback at work that I was “showing up better.”

The thing with practices is once you start them, to maintain the benefits, you need to keep them a part of your life. In my case, I kept taking action to build upon what I was learning.

Next, I began a daily mindfulness meditation practice, which I continue today. Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, defines mindfulness as: “awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally… in the service of self-understanding and wisdom.”

Three months later, I attended the “Search Inside Yourself” mindfulness and emotional intelligence two-day program. As the name suggests, I learned tools and did exercises to grow inner resources for accessing my own self-awareness, empathy, wisdom, and resilience—the me in the green zone. It was the spark that catalyzed more deeply nurturing my well-being.

That was the start of me taking ownership of my experience to improve my well-being. What began as wanting to show up better became so much more than that.

Reflections on the Noticing

Those examples of actions, along with many others over time, transformed my relationship with myself and my life.

They were the first steps for me to develop a more nourishing relationship to myself—one that was more self-compassionate, kind, and loving; one where I could be present enough to take in and enjoy the good; one where I allowed myself to experience the difficult emotions I was facing without judgment.

It was from this place that I could then show up more whole, responsive, and kind.

Within a year period, I grew more than I had in the previous five years combined. This experience of profound growth gave me something positive and exciting to focus on. Something I did have agency over, during an incredibly challenging time in my life. Where much felt out of my control. And it gave me greater skills to get through the hardships that I would continue to face, including burnout and fertility challenges.

I’ve reflected on this time as one that woke me up. It was when I stopped acting like a victim to my circumstances, became more aware, and started doing inner work to grow. Choosing this path was a gift I gave myself.

While my experience with career burnout was complicated and would continue to have ups and downs, it became more manageable after the noticing. It was another two years before I became pregnant naturally, after choosing to stop fertility treatments when it no longer felt right following failed IUIs.

I don’t want to know what those years would have looked like without my focus on inner work. It taught me how to cope. It enabled me to focus on what I could control, which made it all the more endurable. It showed me how to experience goodness—peace, contentment, and love—daily, no matter what was going on. Most of all, it gave me something meaningful to focus on.

I did not wait until I had a child for the next phase of my life to begin, my original mindset when we started trying to get pregnant. I lived more fully than before the noticing. I learned how to experience the beauty along with the brokenness.

It was the moment of noticing that started me on a path that would significantly transform my life. And it would set me up for creating a life and career more on my terms, with well-being at the center, in the next phase of my life.

About Rachael Gaibel

Rachael Gaibel works as a career, life, and well-being coach who helps women address obstacles to uncover possibilities and make meaningful change in their life and work. She also works as a leadership development content writer and consultant. She is a writer, mother, wife, nature lover, and aspiring creative. Visit her website here. Check out her newsletter here.

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