We all have moments in life when we have no choice but to move forward – situations where we simply have to do our best, such as passing a job interview or having a difficult conversation. Or it could be a situation where you have to face your deepest fears, such as the fear of speaking in front of a larger audience.
In moments like these, it’s vital to remain calm, but this is easier said than done. Most of the time, it’s precisely in these situations that we stand in our way. We feel nervousness creeping in and then forget what we wanted to say. The fear of failure becomes stronger and stronger, and then we hear our inner voice whispering sentences like, “You don’t have what it takes,” “You’ll only embarrass yourself,” or “It was clear from the start that this won’t work out.”
It’s easy to give in to the pressure of this voice. But there is an alternative to deal effectively with those difficult thoughts and feelings. The next time you face a challenge like this, you can follow a simple four-step formula that will help you prepare mentally and better deal with the stress.
Step #1 Give space to your difficult thoughts and feelings
The first step is perhaps the most difficult one because it’s about opening up to your unhelpful thoughts and feelings and to give them space. I know, in a demanding situation, this is probably the last thing you want to do. You want to get rid of these thoughts and feelings or run away from them.
However, the fact is that it does not work to run away from difficult thoughts and feelings. Trying to shake off self-doubt and nervousness often only makes them stronger!
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Instead of fighting or pushing unpleasant experiences away, it’s much more effective to invite them in and to create some space for feelings like self-doubt, nervousness, anxiety, and all the other undesirable guests that inevitably show up in everyone’s life. Then it’s like this: Destructive self-doubt? “Come in!” – Debilitating fear? “Make yourself at home!” – Painful envy? “Take a seat! – Come all in and leave when it suits you!”
By inviting all these unpleasant feelings and thoughts in and making room for them, you take away the power they have over you and your mind. They lose their control over your actions, and now it’s you who is back in the driver’s seat of your life and decide on the next steps.
In other words, you no longer have a problem experiencing complicated thoughts and feelings, but you don’t get caught up in them and give up control over your actions. In concrete terms, this means that you can think, for example, “I am not made for this task,” and still dedicate yourself to the task and do your best. Or you can feel that “This task is too big and scary” and still take the step to try.
Giving space to difficult thoughts and feelings is a skill that requires practice
Unfortunately, it’s not enough to just know this; you also have to practice it. And like with any other skill, you can learn to get better and better at it.
A simple exercise for this is to greet difficult thoughts and feelings and invite them in as if they were old friends: “Hello, I’m-going-to-embarrass me-nervousness” or “Nice to see you again, I’m-not-good-enough-thought.” Let these thoughts and feelings in and ask them to sit down; allow them to be there and watch you.
An alternative is to spell out difficult thoughts. If you notice a difficult thought, spell it out while you are focusing on precisely what the thought is trying to prevent you from doing. For example, if you are running and the thought “I can’t run any longer” comes to your mind, spell out “C…A…N…T…R…U…N” as you continue running.
Just experiment a little bit to find out which practice works best for you to give space to your difficult sensations.
Step #2 Focus on the here and now
Once you have succeeded in opening up to your difficult thoughts and feelings, you can focus on the essential: the present moment. The task or challenge you are facing probably requires your full attention anyway, and with this step, you can focus on the things that matter now.
An excellent way to do this is to take a few seconds to notice what is happening in your body. What do you feel right now in a particular part of your body? Can you feel your toes? Your feet? Your legs? Your stomach and chest? And how do your arms feel? Or your face?
Do a short body scan to feel your whole body. And if you feel a tightness or tension in any part of your body, take a deep breath in and out of that exact spot. Give the accumulated energy room to move.
Get out of your head and into your body
The better you can notice what’s going on in your body, the easier it will be for you to leave your head, ground yourself, and focus on the essential. Body awareness is a crucial skill – not only to master the challenge ahead of you but in life in general. Give your rationale thinking a break more often and focus instead on what is happening in your body.
Alternatively, you can focus your awareness on what is happening around you. What can you see? What can you hear? Can you distinguish between the sounds? And what can you smell? Do not answer these questions, but focus on your senses. This is not a thinking exercise but an awareness exercise. So, practice more often becoming present – both with yourself and with your surroundings.
Step #3 Connect with your goals and values
You have opened yourself up to your difficult experiences, and you have grounded yourself in the here and now. Now it is time to reconnect with your goals and values because the crucial question is, why did you put yourself in this stressful situation in the first place? You might as well go and do something else that is a lot easier for you. But you have chosen this path because it’s something fundamental to you.
Whatever it is that is important to you, now is the time to remember it. Is it about professional or financial success? Yes, maybe it is. But perhaps it is something more substantial, like being faithful to yourself and the people you care about, taking care of them, and protecting them…
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The better you know why you are facing the difficulties, the easier it will be for you to meet the unpleasant thoughts and feelings involved. Therefore, I want you to connect with your deepest motivation, with the purpose for which it’s worth giving everything. Because behind this purpose are exactly the goals and values that will help you move forward – no matter what difficulties or challenges you encounter along the way.
Step #4 Make a move and act
All other steps before have led to this moment: (1) You have opened yourself up to difficult thoughts and feelings; (2) you have grounded yourself in the here and now, and (3) you have connected with what is important to you.
Now it is up to you to go one step further and act.
How you act depends on you and your situation. For example, it could be knocking on that horrible door to have that critical conversation, taking that first step on stage to speak in front of a larger audience, or opening your laptop to write the first lines of that book you have wanted to start for so long.
Act in the spirit of what is important to you
Yes, it can happen that things don’t go as well as you had planned. You might embarrass yourself, say something stupid, and miss the target. There are no guarantees, but the important thing is that you act according to what is important to you. That makes the difference!
With all the other steps, you’ve learned that your difficult thoughts or emotions don’t have to be changed or eliminated before you take effective action. You know that you have the option to notice your inner experiences while behaving effectively.
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So take the first step towards your goals and values. And then another one. And then another one. Now it is not fear or nervousness that makes the decisions. Now you make the decisions – with courage in your heart and determination in your head. Congratulations!
You can do it!
Whenever you face a challenge or need to overcome a crisis, you can prepare yourself mentally with this four-step formula:
- Open yourself to difficult thoughts and feelings.
- Ground yourself in the here and now.
- Connect with what is important to you
- Act and take the first steps.
None of these steps need to take long. In fact, with a little practice, you can do all these steps in a few seconds. Even better, you can make it a regular ritual by mentally walking through the four steps before you get into a difficult situation.
The best thing is to write down the four steps on a small note card you can take with you in your wallet. Open yourself, ground yourself, connect with your goals and values, and then move forward.
I know you can do that!