Devan Sipher will lead Memoir: How to Tell Your Story, Insightful Guidance for Writing
By Devan Sipher
Do you ever spend too much time worrying about the status of your career or your health or your love life? Do you ever doubt yourself? I do. And I learned that a way for me to stop doing so is to go on what I call “a happiness diet.”
Let me rewind a bit. A funny thing happened to me on the way to writing my first novel, well, actually a not-so-funny thing: I threw out my back. Somehow it never occurred to me that sitting for 12 to 15 hours at my desk every day would not go over well with my lumbar vertebrae.
Pain became a part of my life. It was there when I lay down, when I stood up, and especially when I was sitting. When I thought about the pain, which I did about every fifteen minutes, I feared it would never go away. I also feared that I would never finish my book. Or go running. Or be able to lift a child again. Such thinking would send me down the rabbit hole of self pity. And straight to my freezer for a carton of Ben & Jerry’s.
And while sometimes it can feel good to let yourself feel bad. I was overindulging — especially on the ice cream.
I also started to notice something: the more I thought about my back, the more it hurt. And the more it hurt, the more I thought about it. And the more I ate. I decided I had two choices. I could continue feeling stymied and cursed (and fat). Or I could do something about it.
Of course, I couldn’t just erase the pain (though I was doing all I could via traditional and alternative medicine to heal my back). And I certainly didn’t want to punish myself for having pain. But I could decide not to be so unhappy about it.
Now I know that can sound a little simplistic. After all, I hadn’t “decided” to be unhappy. It was a rather natural outcome. But everything in life is a choice. Including happiness.
My first step was to go on a diet. Since I hadn’t been able to exercise, I had packed on almost 20 pounds. But I realized that I didn’t only need a food diet, I also needed a thought diet. Just as I needed to beware of what I put I in my mouth, I needed to be equally cautious about what I allowed inside my head.
I made a deal with myself to go 30 days without empty calories or negative thoughts. So the next time my back spasmed, I initiated a three-step process:
Feel the pain. (That part was easy).
Acknowledge the pain. (Accept that it was unpleasant and unavoidable.)
Dismiss the pain. (No dwelling on it.)
The last step was implicitly the tricky one. But there are times when we all must do our best Scarlett O’Hara and say “I’ll think about it tomorrow.” Or, in my case, “I’ll think about it in 30 days.” And perhaps unsurprisingly, the less I thought about my back, the less it hurt.
After 30 days, I committed for another 30, and I’ve now become a bit of an evangelist for the 30 days of happiness approach to life. It may sound like I’m championing avoidance, but it’s more about finding a way to overcome obstacles, both external and internal.
As a writing teacher, I see students stressing over everything from not having enough time to not having enough talent, and I believe that part of helping people to write is helping them to get out of their own way. And when they do, that’s when they move forward, not just in their writing, but often also in their personal and professional lives.
We have so little control over the world around us, but we do have control over what we think about it. Or as the Greek philosopher Epictetus said “It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.”