That all changed for me one day when I got a phone call from my sister. She said that our mother was found unresponsive and she’d been taken to the hospital. My husband Lincoln and I jumped in the car and rushed to the hospital. We couldn’t imagine what could be wrong. My mother was only 51. She didn’t have any history of any kind of health problems.
When we got to the hospital, doctors explained she’d had a brain aneurysm. And within 24 hours, my mother, who used to wake up in the morning saying, “It’s a great day to be alive,” passed away. That news was devastating to me. My mother and I had been very close. As a therapist, I knew on an intellectual level how to go through grief. But knowing it, and doing it, can be two very different things. It took a long time before I felt like I was really healing.
And then on the three year anniversary of my mother’s death, some friends called, and invited Lincoln and me to a basketball game. Coincidentally, it was being played at the same auditorium where I’d last seen my mother, on the night before she’d passed away. I hadn’t been back there since. I wasn’t even sure I wanted to go back. But Lincoln and I talked about it, and ultimately we said, “Maybe that would be a good way to honor her memory.”
So we went to the game. And we actually had a really good time with our friends. On the drive home that night, we talked about how great it was to finally be able to go back to that place, and remember my mother with a smile, rather than all those feelings of sadness.
But shortly after we got home that night, Lincoln said he didn’t feel well. A few minutes later, he collapsed. I had to call for an ambulance. His family met me at the emergency room. We waited for what seemed like forever, until finally a doctor came out. But rather than taking us out back to see Lincoln, he took us back to a private room, and sat us down, and explained to us that Lincoln, who was the most adventurous person I’d ever met, was gone. We didn’t know at the time, but he’d had a heart attack. He was only 26. He didn’t have any history of heart problems.
So now I found myself a 26-year-old widow, and I didn’t have my mom. I thought, “How am I going to get through this?” And to describe that as a painful period in my life feels like an understatement. And it was during that time that I realized when you’re really going through tough times, good habits aren’t enough. It only takes one or two small habits to really hold you back.
I worked as hard as I could, not just to create good habits in my life, but to get rid of those small habits, no matter how small they might seem. Throughout it all, I held out hope that someday life could get better. And eventually it did.
A few years down the road, I met Steve. And we fell in love. And I got remarried. We sold the house that Lincoln and I had lived in, and we bought a new house, in a new area, and I got a new job. But almost as quickly as I breathed my sigh of relief over that fresh start that I had, we got the news that Steve’s dad had terminal cancer.
And I started to think, “Why do these things always have to keep happening? Why do I have to keep losing all my loved ones? This isn’t fair.” But if I’d learned anything, it was that that way of thinking would hold me back. I knew I was going to need as much mental strength as I could muster, to get through one more loss.
So I sat down and I wrote a list of all the things mentally strong people don’t do. And I read over that list. It was a reminder of all of those bad habits that I’d done at one time or another, that would keep me stuck. And I kept reading that list over and over. And I really needed it. Because within a few weeks of writing it, Steve’s dad passed away.
My journey taught me that the secret to being mentally strong, was that you had to give up your bad mental habits. Mental strength is a lot like physical strength. If you wanted to be physically strong, you’d need to go to the gym and lift weights. But if you really wanted to see results, you’d also have to give up eating junk food. Mental strength is the same. If you want to be mentally strong, you need good habits like practicing gratitude. But you also have to give up bad habits, like resenting somebody else’s success. No matter how often that happens, it will hold you back.
So, how do you train your brain to think differently? How do you give up those bad mental habits that you’ve carried around with you? It starts by countering those unhealthy beliefs that I talked about, with healthier ones. For example, unhealthy beliefs about ourselves mostly come about because we’re uncomfortable with our feelings. Feeling sad, or hurt, or angry, or scared, those things are all uncomfortable. So we go to great lengths to avoid that discomfort. We try to escape it by doing things like hosting a pity party.
And although that’s a temporary distraction, it just prolongs the pain. The only way to get through uncomfortable emotions, the only way to deal with them, is you have to go through them. To let yourself feel sad, and then move on. To gain confidence in your ability to deal with that discomfort.