One writer shares her experience with redefining what it means to flourish.
I’ve spent much of my adult life experimenting with how to feel better. Like many people, I’ve been through my share of struggles: I spent most of my twenties in a precarious and risky love affair with alcohol, stopped drinking, started again, then stopped for good; a writer since I was a pre-teen, in the face of run-of-the-mill rejection and normal fallow periods I’ve wanted to quit; I’ve felt growing despair in my search for lifelong love; and I’ve been really, really broke. But I’ve moved forward in life despite lesser or greater odds. I’ve endured. Persevered. Survived.
And because of this, my tolerance for mediocrity is low — in myself and in my life. As the saying goes, I don’t want to just survive . . . I want to thrive. This does not mean that we are bright, brilliant, flourishing, and flowering no matter what happens. It means that a storm comes and a storm goes, and though we may get knocked down, we don’t waste time getting back up.
We ask for help, we grow, we take risks, we experiment with hope. We go farther than we thought we could, arms full of gifts and gratitude and mettle. We keep our inner worlds in shape. We thrive.
Here are the ways I keep my inner world in shape:
1. Seek out inspiration
This sounds nice and easy and pleasant — who doesn’t want to be and feel inspired? During personally challenging times, it’s easy to forget this — I can forget that it is my responsibility to get and stay inspired. Yes, inspiration is something that can rain down on us when we are minding our own business, going through our day, but that’s the random kind. At the times we need it most, we can’t really afford to sit around with our fingers crossed hoping it picks us.
I have to actively seek out those things that make me excited to be alive. Sometimes I have to really work at it. But, for me, it’s not a choice, it’s a requirement.
Sometimes, it can be a flash, the tiniest moment where something opens up inside you. You might find yourself inextricably moved. You might get the actual chills. You might have 10 or 20 seconds, or 20 minutes, or 20 hours, where you feel unexplainably fearless.
The first time I experienced this, I was in my adolescence, hiding out in my bedroom with my headphones on. I lowered the record needle down on U2’s new album, War, and felt like I was the only person in the world who had ever felt what I was feeling: music was not just music, music was everything, music was about love and God and all the reasons why we are here.
It doesn’t have to be this strong. It can be more subtle, and usually will be. More likely, it will be a gentle but certain tug, encouraging you out of yourself and into the world.
2. Get out of your routine
Optimism and forward thinking do not come naturally to me. If I am left to my own devices, I fall into dull thinking, easy but unrewarding ways of going through my day, and bad habits that can make me feel worse (there’s already a pile of dirty laundry over there, why not just add a few more things?). Perhaps you aren’t someone who has to work hard to stay on the sunny side of the path. Either way, if we want to thrive and grow (and, in my case, grow up), we’d do well to change it up.
The way I do this? I get out of my apartment and do things. And it’s usually better if I do them alone. I drive 2.5 hours to Boston, for example, to go to a talk at a museum by a favorite artist, even though it’s far, even though I don’t know where the museum is, or where I’ll park, and afterward will have to find my way out of a strange city in the dark (and it might snow, and there could be ice!). One weekend night, I might have to enter a local venue that’s hosting a dance — because despite how self-conscious I might feel going by myself, I want to dance! I have to take walks out in the world, take myself out on dates. It doesn’t matter in the end if I actually want to do these things. What’s important is that even if I don’t have an incredible time, I will have gotten out of myself, done something different, put myself in the middle of life.
This doesn’t mean to go crazy, spread yourself thin. It means if you see something — an event write up in a paper or a flyer for a reading or a workshop — and you feel that tug — especially, do you hear me, ESPECIALLY, if it’s something you wouldn’t normally do, act on it. If that you know that submitting to the tug might cause some discomfort in the preparing for or the getting to or the planning out, all the better!
To stay within the confines of our own brains, to rely only on our own familiar mental loops and memories and what is close at hand in our own worlds, is to ask a lot of ourselves.
3. Be brave.
Most of us know what being brave feels like, and how it feels when we pull back from the opportunity. You will recognize, often instantly, when the universe offers you the chance and you don’t grab it. You will wish that you could turn back time and have a redo. I’m talking about the kind of brave that might possibly embarrass you but might also change you in a glorious and lasting way.
You don’t have to be hard on yourself when you miss an opportunity to look fear directly in its crazy eyes. Sometimes this is the only way to know how to rise to the occasion next time. You miss it, and it hurts your heart, your bones; you feel the consequences. Next time, you will be more apt to break through your own silence and take an exciting, unexpected, I-want-to-feel-more-alive risk.
Important note: It only matters that it feels brave to you. While it might be easy for a friend to get up at an open mic and play a song, for you it may feel like parachuting from a plane at high altitude. The brave thing can be as big as walking out on a stage or as subtle as initiating a necessary conversation. It must only be out of the usual for you.
4. Practice (loving) self-discipline.
Healthy self-discipline is the modern-day warrior’s version of self-care. It’s a statement of faith and belief in our best selves. It is our kind, inner parents pushing us toward goals we know we are capable of, or into spiritual practices of some kind that we actually want to do (not that we feel like we should do).
We know we are in the land of unhealthy self-discipline if we feel panicky about whatever it is we’ve promised ourselves we’d do (exercise? lose weight? meditate? write?). It can feel like we are punishing ourselves (for our own good!). Maybe we’ve set an impossible bar against which we will now measure our worthiness. We’ve failed before we’ve even begun.
Healthy self-discipline feels exciting — we are beginning something new, we are intent on meeting a challenge we are ready (and willing) to take on. It will require our full attention, our stamina, our grit. But the act of showing up for ourselves will pay us back in rewards like we’ve never received.
Thriving is about maintaining a kind, patient, no-nonsense relationship with ourselves. We pay attention to how our decisions — from eating a bowl of ice cream to forcing ourselves to exercise madly right afterward — make us feel. We think about ourselves as a best friend whom we want to see succeed in all they do. We keep in mind that self-care is a tricky and complicated subject: Practice self-control or stop depriving ourselves? Push ourselves to our full capabilities or ease up and let ourselves be “average” for once? Stay home and put our feet up, or go out and live it up?
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to daily living. When we are thriving from the inside out, our goal isn’t perfection or arrival or, finally, figuring it all out. It’s about being right where we are and living like it matters — because it does.
Laura Didyk is a writer, teacher, and illustrator who lives and works in Great Barrington, Massachusetts.