Friday, December 31, 2021

Daily Wellbeing - A Therapist's 5 Key Elements for Graceful Living With Uncertainty

Image by Aziz Acharki at Unsplash

“Today, well lived, makes every yesterday a memory of happiness and every tomorrow a vision of hope. Look well, therefore, to this day” 
― ancient Sanskrit proverb

Daily Wellbeing 

A Therapist’s 5 Key Elements for Graceful Living with Uncertainty

These past few years have been so challenging for many of us. Living through a global pandemic, climate change, and social unrest means living with uncertainty. Change is the one constant we can all depend on; difficulties and pleasures coming and going at every stage of life. 

The human brain is an anticipation machine, making predictions about future events is what it does. When there is so much uncertainty in so many areas of our lives, we are unable to effectively predict what we can expect and what’ll happen next; this contributes to feelings of anxiety and exhaustion. 

Figuring out what is still true about what you need and want, two years into a global pandemic, is a way of focusing on what is in your control.  You can be intentional with your time and mindset even during difficult times to remind yourself you are not powerless. You get to decide how you want to go through this time of uncertainty. 

For over 15 years, I have worked as a psychotherapist and coach specializing in helping adults struggling with anxiety and life transitions. The ideas I share below come from psychology, mindfulness, and communication theory and have helped me deal with my own self-doubt and feelings of loss during the pandemic. (A life transition is any change, big or small, that impacts your life in a significant way). 

Whether it’s the beginning of a New Year, new month, or simply a new day, checking-in with what is working well for you and identifying what is needed during these tough times will help you forge a path towards graceful living with uncertainty. The five elements of daily wellbeing I describe here include self-awareness, centering, connection, perseverance, and fun.

Self-Awareness - knowing how you feel about things as they happen and what matters to you, identifying your values and priorities
Centering - the practice of calming the body-mind, focusing, & shifting negative evaluations 
Connection - with self and others you feel supported by
Perseverance - doing the work, taking action in the areas you figured out are important to you; health, family, self-development, career, etc. 
Fun - spend some time on enjoyment and pleasure, it’s essential for wellbeing

Self -Awareness

Self-awareness is a key element of wellbeing. As we spend time getting to know ourselves, looking inward, we learn how we think, how we feel, and how to discern what matters to us in real time. With deeper exploration we can see our habits of thinking and behaving, noticing when or if we follow through or don’t follow through on our plans. Self-awareness helps us discover if we are living by our rules, or the rules we were raised with but no longer make sense for us.  Self awareness includes awareness of the physiological sensations we feel.  It offers an opportunity to look at a situation from different perspectives, to see the complexity of our many selves with our competing values, such as wanting to be an attentive parent and wanting to sleep in on Saturday mornings. Self awareness allows us to see ourselves in multidimensional ways.
Pema Chodron, the American Tibetan Buddhist teacher and nun says, “You are the sky. everything else - it’s just the weather.”  We are more than our thoughts, feelings, and circumstances. Thoughts and feelings aren’t facts, they are mental events moving through our minds like clouds, sometimes the sun is shining, other times raining, or storming.  We can learn to observe our mental events rather than see them as the entire story of who we are.

Imagine a time when you said something to someone you care about that hurt them, and then regretted it. Reflecting on this “event,” the words and situation you were in when that happened, see if you can recall how you felt right before you said the words.  Every interaction is happening under specific conditions. 

Below are 3 examples of contextual factors impacting our perceptions, each of them influencing the meaning of what was said/felt/heard. Depending on what is going on inside of us during any given moment, depending on the quality of the relationship we are in, and depending on how we see ourselves we will have different interpretations of a conversation.

When tired or hungry, or if we just dealt with a stressful experience, then we may have less patience with loved ones and feel more easily irritated, angry, or annoyed. In other words, on a different day or a different time the same conversation might  elicit a completely different response from us. Our internal state influences how we interpret conversations and other events happening outside of us.

When we have unresolved conflicts with the people we care about, we may misunderstand what they are saying because we are hearing a “tone” related to a previous conversation, or have an interpretation based on past resentments.  As a result we may actually “hear” something more harshly than the other person said or intended; because our minds are making sense of our experiences in the context of the relationship. When old hurts go unacknowledged, we are more likely to combine the past and the present. It’s a lot easier to give someone the benefit of the doubt, even when we feel slighted, when we generally feel understood and cared for by them. Self awareness helps us distinguish and evaluate what was said in the current context, reflect on the past, and notice our assumptions. Asking questions rather than jumping to conclusions generally leads to better outcomes.

If we see ourselves as some kind of “no goodnik,” someone incapable or unloveable, we hear other people’s comments and feedback through that lens. So when we hurt someone we care about and regret it, along with feeling sad, guilty, and possibly anxious, we may also feel ashamed. If our inner story is about how we aren’t “good enough,” our shame gets amplified when we make mistakes like doing something we regret. If that happens, here are some ways to take care of ourselves:
    • reflect on what happened
    • label the emotion as shame if that is what you feel
    • turn your attention inward towards your body and label the physical sensations - heart racing, tightness in chest, sweaty palms, rapid thoughts, etc.
    • remember shame is an emotion leading us to isolate, hide away, believe we have to somehow be different to feel better 
    • learn not to believe everything we think, lots of us are working off of old data or have internalized other peoples messages to us from our younger years
    • build a loving kindness practice as a buffer for when shame is activated.  Offering ourselves a loving approach can help us take responsibility for our actions and treat ourselves reasonably after making mistakes. Loving kindness is a practice of cultivating love and applying it as a life-changing force.
    • develop the perspective, even when we feel disappointed or embarrassed, that we are more than our mistakes. 

One of the hardest skills to learn is not believing everything we think. As mentioned above, our brain is an anticipation machine making predictions about the future.  Once we start seeing our thoughts and feelings as mental events, not universal truths, it gets easier to create space from those thoughts, to observe our minds and stay curious about what is happening inside and outside of us.  Life gets more interesting the more we can hold our thoughts and feelings loosely, allowing more room for spontaneity and novelty. 

Thinking about mental events and our inner experiences benefits our wellbeing. We can learn to separate from the stories replaying in our minds, look for alternative explanations to unsettling situations, and take care of our hurts and unmet expectations once we know how we are feeling.

Self-awareness is the root element, fundamental for centering, connection, perseverance, and fun. Incorporating the 5 elements of Daily Wellbeing into your life is a path towards graceful living with uncertainty. 


Centering is a practice to help bring a sense of ease to the mind and body, it can strengthen our attention and focus, and improve our overall mood.  Some people will experience stillness as their practice develops. Centering strategies come from mindfulness and help us notice our negative thinking habits. 

Ed Halliwell, author and mindfulness instructor, defines mindfulness as “paying attention to what's happening in our bodies, minds, and the environment in a manner that's open-hearted, aware of but not caught up in our habitual patterns of thoughts, emotions and behavior. It's knowing what's happening as it's happening, and learning from that in a way that leads us to act from a place of greater skill, choice and compassion.” 


As mammals, we are wired for connection; when we have positive interactions with others we feel good. A sense of safeness, the feeling of acceptance,  knowing we won’t be harshly criticized or humiliated, is important for wellbeing. Some of us find this in family and/or friends, and for others it's our furry mates that contribute to the experience of safeness.  There is nothing more human than the need to feel loved and to love.  Making friends is not always easy, staying open throughout our lives to the possibility and potential opportunities is a worthy endeavor.

Connecting to yourself the way you would a good friend, with honesty and kindness, builds inner confidence and trust.  Loosening up negative self-evaluations such as ongoing criticisms about mistakes made in the past, Maya Angelou said “...when you know better, do better.” Practicing forgiveness, and accepting personal limitations can enable us to move our lives in the direction we want. If you have been feeling stuck for a while, start noticing the way you think of yourself or speak to yourself in your head. Do you use a soft gentle tone, is it harsh and critical, or maybe somewhere in between? Repairing the relationship we have with ourselves is a necessary part of daily wellbeing, helping us move towards graceful living with uncertainty.  


After we take the time to figure out what we want, we have to take the steps needed to move our life in the direction of what is meaningful. Simple right? Taking such steps brings us face to face with other parts of our selves, the parts that would rather sleep in than get up and exercise, the parts that resist the effort of preparing healthy foods over picking up takeout at the end of a long day. Even when our motivation levels are high, these other parts sometimes trip us up. There are strategies we can use so we don’t get blindsided by these other parts. 

We are multifaceted, complex beings, with competing goals and values at play. Was there ever a time you intended to take care of something on a particular day, such as paying bills, exercising, or washing dishes, and then when the time to do it arrived you shifted into “I’ll do it later, or I’ll start tomorrow?” This is an example of how your “present self” borrows and over-promises on the back of your “future self.” Putting the unpleasant task onto “future self” temporarily alleviates the distress of having to do the task in the present moment. 

To combat a pattern of putting things off, it’s more effective to come up with a reliable system like finding an accountability buddy or connecting new habits to existing habits, rather than to keep borrowing from one’s “future self.” 

Accountability buddies help us get through challenging tasks, like exercise, healthy eating, and creative projects. Having someone to check in with or show up for usually leads to better follow through, as an example, most of us wouldn’t think of hitting snooze on our alarms if we are meeting a friend for an early morning run. Throughout covid, there are online support groups and chat rooms available for weight loss or financial budgeting strategies helping people stay accountable to their goals. 

Connecting a new habit to an existing habit is when you tie the new task to something you already do on a regular basis. For example, if you were trying to declutter the papers in your home, every time you pick up the mail, immediately sort out supermarket fliers and junk mail from the important mail, and toss them into the recycling bin.  Picking up your mail is the existing habit, the new task is sorting and throwing out junk mail so it never lands in your home. This step requires having a designated space for the paper trash you just sorted. It’s way more efficient than saving all the mail for your “future self” to have to go through at a later time.

Before a new habit has built traction and becomes a regular part of your daily routine, the opposing internal parts mentioned above have greater impact, like a loud voice in a crowd, often getting a greater portion of attention than quieter members. Internal pushback to changing behavior is natural, don't let it take you off your game plan. Celebrate all your incremental changes as mini-victories, changing behavior is really hard. When we continue to make changes, even at a slow pace, we progress. Proper planning and support make a plan stickier, and therefore easier to follow through on. 


Having fun is one of the most underrated aspects of wellbeing, and unfortunately it is minimized by many adults as frivolous or shallow. Fun restores and recharges us. The concept of fun shared here refers to something enjoyable and lighthearted, not something that requires a recovery period, hijacks our senses and memory, or numbs out emotions. I am not promoting a decadent hedonistic lifestyle, not only is this unsustainable and generally unsatisfying in the long run, but chasing happiness turns out to be one of the most reliable ways to feeling unhappy.  

Dancing has always brought an added dimension of joy to my life. It’s not that I am particularly good, it’s that I feel good during and many times even after I have been dancing. Moving to music brings me joy, laughter, and sometimes tears.  It is one of the ways I feel most alive. 

Making time for fun on a regular basis is not only enriching in the moment, feeling the sweetness of something enjoyable, but having fun also balances out stress, boosts creativity and energy which in turn helps us cope with all the tough stuff we have to deal with in life.   

Think of the things that lift you up—mind and body—figure out a way to carry them out regularly for greatest impact. Take in natural beauty whenever you can: look out your window, walk in nature, listen to the birds singing, etc. Laugh as much as you can.  Moments of lightness help us get through hardship and suffering. Prioritize activities you enjoy. Some examples are painting, coloring, fishing, cooking, dancing, singing, reading, sewing, etc.

Exercise, good nutrition, and sleep are also essential elements of daily wellbeing. There are countless resources available explaining more on them, including an earlier piece I wrote on emotional wellness. For the sake of brevity, I won’t go into more details here, please remember to include these components in your daily wellbeing routines as well. 

Change is the one constant we can all depend on, difficulties and pleasures, come and go at every stage of life. A daily wellbeing practice using the 5 key elements as a guide offers a mental map, a framework for thinking about how to take care of yourself, a regular practice of checking in, and being with what matters to you, offering a strategy for graceful living with uncertainty.

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