Mantra: This Stress Is Shallow

A mantra is an audible call to reconnect yourself to your spirit, the foundation of your strength and ability to navigate hardship. Mantras originated in Buddhism as a word or sound to repeat in meditation. They can be anything, really: a single word, a specific phrase, or whatever you need to return to a present mind under pressure. 

This month I’m excited to present a mantra that has the potential to be a freeing epiphany. As someone who regularly navigates intrusive thoughts, mantras are ways to help quiet them, and this one takes the cake. 

My favorite moment of any day is the five seconds when I inexplicably allow myself to just feel good about my life — or rather, to not feel badly. They sneak up out of nowhere, and suddenly I’m happy with my body as is, I’m satisfied with the progress of my writing projects, I’m grateful for my job and friends, and just feel good enough as I am. Inevitably, that feeling slips away as quickly as it comes, and I’m left wondering how I get it to stay. Weekly gratitude lists are an attempt: clean home, running car, connective bonds to people who inspire me, supportive team at work. How can I feel so conflicted when I’m grateful for a wonderful life? Don’t worry, I always figure out how.   

Think about the last time your wheels were really spinning: the emotion tied to your mental fixation knotted up like a delicate chain necklace, getting worse the more you picked at it. I figured out a while back that the more obsessive my stress is, the more likely I’m the villain at the center of it all. But beyond that there’s also another common denominator: This Stress Is Shallow. 

Surface level worries distract us from having a richer inner life. They’re disproportionately upsetting on purpose — to keep our focus on external or image-based concerns that ultimately have pretty small stakes. They’re the mental equivalent of cleaning your house to avoid doing your homework; both are laborious, and the important work usually gets put off. 

So what exactly constitutes shallow stress? 

Social circle stress 
Supportive individual friendships are the best thing on the planet, but group dynamics can be a bitch. It’s not realistic for twenty-five people to all have equal levels of closeness, but the pressure is there, especially if you’re a woman. There’s an extra push for all the females of a co-ed group to have a stronger bond, as witnessed in the infinite number of “Ladies Only” hangs or events. I never doubt how my platonic male friends feel about me. We hang when we hang. If we don’t chat at every party, it’s fine. There’s a security there because it’s a no pressure situation, and I don’t feel any less supported by them than I do their female counterparts. We have to allow each other, as women, more room to breathe in friendships. More grey scale in connection. It’s not all or nothing. 

Ambiguity can often be another huge stressor in social circles. Dealing with a hot and cold person who leaves me wondering where I stand drives me insane, especially if they’re very close with someone I also spend a lot of time with. It’s only when I remember that the worst possible outcome is that they just don’t like me, that I calm down. Someone not liking you, or not liking you as much as you like them, is relatively unimportant in the grand scheme of things. 

Lastly in this category, conflict with friends can be difficult, but in a social circle it gets exponentially more difficult once you discuss it with anyone not directly involved. The best way to avoid the stress of a peanut gallery weighing in on a personal matter is to either:

 A: Remember that conflict happens. Have a respectful adult conversation with the person directly involved in the matter as soon as possible, and work towards a resolution. 

or B: Pick your battles, forgive, and (actually) let it go. 

Cultivate your one-on-one relationships as much as you can, be mature with the people you care about, and accept that you aren’t going to win everyone over. This stress is shallow. 

Comparison stress
Being a woman in your thirties can be the fast track to the worst questions on the planet: You getting married? When are you having kids? Oh god, you want kids?? You still smoke pot? So you just don’t drink anymore?  

We’re living in a very expansive  time, where there are finally a lot of options for women, but that also means more opportunities for second guessing and looking at your neighbor’s metaphorical plate. I’ve felt comparison stress in ways I didn’t expect; it’s not impatience from an eager grandparent-to-be that I stew on, but rather the judgement I assume I’ll receive from my non-traditional creative pals who want nothing to do with children. Whether you’re concerned about meeting the expectations of those around you, or feeling like you’re still under the thumb of your childhood dreams, there are no stakes here. You can criss-cross different paths, try a little bit of everything, pivot to newer goals. 

Career-wise, especially being in your thirties, it’s easy to get impatient or even angry at not being exactly where you’d like to be. That kind of emotional response, though, will exhaust your spirit with no reward. Even if we’ve achieved some level of success, we train ourselves to seek the next level up, and compare ourselves to the people already inhabiting it. The only thing you can do is be present where you’re at and keep doing the work. We’re in the multi-hyphenate age, and you can build your life at whatever pace or shape you’d like. This stress is shallow.  

Validation stress
Feeling misunderstood is another useless, approval-seeking excuse to ruin some perfectly good downtime. Feelings of failure, while heartbreaking, are often primarily tied to your own self-image, and both are about feeling validated externally. When I first started using this mantra, I felt heavy disappointment. All that time spent thinking about myself was exhausting and fruitless because it lacked actual introspection. I was treading water by putting my focus on how I think I’m being perceived. There’s nothing internal there. My own view of myself, even, was an external one. 

Once that initial gloom wore off though, I got to experience the benefits of the mantra: a quieter mind. This mantra can be the sweater string that leads you to ask every time, whether the stress you’re enduring has any actual stakes. There’s a really great passage in Carrie Fisher’s Wishful Drinking that’s pertinent here: “In my opinion, a problem derails your life and an inconvenience is not being able to get a nice seat on the un-derailed train.” 

This mantra offers you the chance to bat away the inconveniences swarming around your head like pesky flies. It offers you quick access to the present, and the ability to specifically tune in to your own inner voice, because you can actually hear it. It can help you understand what thoughts are worth your time, and what are simply making you feel bad with no reward. And, if you’re dealing with actual problems, giving yourself a quieter mind in any way is a real and generous act of self-care. 

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