Updated: 3 days ago
When I was 9, the Iran hostage crisis happened. I recall watching the news about the 52 US citizens who had been separated from their families. What I don’t recall is that I apparently told my parents that I’d trade places with a hostage so they could come home. Clearly that was not a viable option; but, and maybe you can relate, I hated then and still do today when I can’t just make things “better,” for myself or others.
Whether it’s big issues and changes in the world around us or challenging situations closer to home, it can be painful to face what we feel we can’t fix the way we want to or make it go away entirely.
Worst-case scenarios can seep in, bringing on feelings of paralysis, helplessness, and a loss of energy and motivation for handling what’s right in front of us.
After all, if you can’t make it all better, if there’s no guarantee that things WILL get better; if you can’t get the job done efficiently and with the excellence you or others demand, then: What’s the point? Of putting the time in? Of risking failure or continued suffering? Of getting only partial rewards? Of hoping?
Going to dark thoughts and predictions is a common way we sabotage ourselves and cause ourselves unnecessary suffering.
One example of this is from, for those of you old enough to remember it, the 1984 movie The NeverEnding Story, where the main character’s horse sinks into the Swamp of Sadness, having succumbed to despair and a loss of hope along the journey to save their world.
This is a great metaphor for what happens when our mind pulls the “what’s the point” card in the face of painful situations we care about in our immediate lives and in the greater world: we SINK. You might even notice a sinking feeling or drop in energy in your body when you go there....
We can all lose our way when the journey gets tough and when fear, uncertainty and doubt jump in. I know I have, which is one of the reasons I find it especially rewarding to coach people who struggle along the way or feel stuck.
So, what can we do when that voice in our head goes to “WHAT’S THE POINT?”
Here are 3 steps to try when sinking into fear, despair and negativity:
Step 1. Notice what’s going on in your mind
Notice the negativity and the thoughts driving it. Is your perspective fixed & rigid? All-or-nothing? Always/never? Good or bad, with nothing in between? Redundant?
This might sound like: “This will NEVER get better. I am ALWAYS going to be like this. There’s NOTHING I can do. NOTHING matters.” On repeat.
When we lose the ability to see more than 2 polarized options (for example, I can either stay and suffer or go and escape), then our thoughts are stuck in the fear-based part of our brains. While this part of our brain is great for helping us initially react to threats in the moment, it’s not able to see the big picture or to generate good options from there; it’s not made for that.
You are not actually sinking in a Swamp, but your brain and body are operating like you are. In other words, our unchanging negative thoughts and feelings are related more to where in our brain they're being processed from than the situation itself.
Step 2. Move your attention to a neutral part of your brain
Hit pause. Take a few breaths, then train your attention on a single sensation such as your sense of touch or your breath and hold your attention there.
For example, put your hand on your belly and breathe in and out for at least 15 seconds, putting 100% of your attention on the sensation of your belly meeting your hand on each breath. When your mind wanders, just bring it back to the same sensation awareness.
When we consciously direct our attention away from redundant fear-based thinking to a more neutral place, and hold it there, it not only helps us access a better part of ourselves in the moment but it also builds up mental fitness muscles in our brain over time. Every time we successfully redirect our negative thoughts, we build our capacity to do it on command.
Step 3: Try on a different perspective
There are many ways to step into a new perspective and here’s one I find works for me when I'm sinking into a space where it feels like there’s no point of putting in the effort.
Ask: WHAT DO I WANT THE POINT TO BE?
A question like this helps us access a more inspiring, spine-straightening, curious, resourceful part of ourselves.
When our mind and body are calmer, the lights can turn on in the parts of our brain designed to think creatively and act proactively.
What happens if we ask ourselves this question without doing Step 2? Our answer will be a limited, negative one, perhaps sprinkled with sarcasm, criticism or expletives. A sure sign we're still stuck in our saboteur brain.
When we do Step 2 (and it can take doing Step 2 exercises awhile and over time before it works well), a question like this can hand the mic to our greater sense of Self. This core part of us can thank the over-functioning protective parts of ourselves that show up as Fear and Judgment and ask them to go backstage.
What answer might you hear then?
You may hear nothing at all, just the blissful sound of thinking without Fear and Judgment at the table.
Or, you might hear something like: "I want the point to be that…
I stay true to who I am and what I value, and regroup and reset when I'm thrown off-track. Or,
I show up for myself and others when the chips are down. Or,
I bring compassion, courage and grit [or other qualities] into every situation I can, no matter what’s happening around me. Or,
I bring the best of myself to the table and accept the uncertainty of the rest.
These are just examples; you may hear something very different.
The point is that we have control over the point for us, because we create the meaning and purpose in our own lives.
There is no situation, personal challenge or even other human being that can out-meaning our life, or strip us entirely of our sense of Self or purpose.
We can point ourselves to this meaning and purpose with questions like:
What quality or qualities do I want to bring to this situation?
Who do I want to be in the face of this?
What am I willing to let go of in order to face this situation in a fresh way?
Flash forward to my future self, waiting for me 10 years out: looking back in time from there, what’s important to consider about this situation? What’s NOT important?
When we recognize that our brains are made to scan for threats 24/7, to react FIRST & think SECOND...
When we know that this alarm system comes with a built-in "exaggerate the negative" feature to make sure we stay alive by reacting quickly...
We can REDESIGN how we proceed after the "what's the point" alarm has been sounded to a perceived threat and, instead of letting rigid thoughts drag us down, invite in our own customized perspective that helps us rise again and bring our best to our world.
P.S. If you find that you're often in "what's the point" mode and feel unable to get out of the "swamp of sadness," then you might benefit from hiring a coach if the problem is related to feeling stuck, or a therapist if you believe you may be depressed.