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Does life suck? Go from crappy to happy

In her new book, “Get a Life That Doesn't Suck,” consultant and life coach Michelle DeAngelis serves up a combination of street-smart wisdom and cheerful irreverence as she shares how to enjoy life regardless of the roadblocks or potholes along the way. DeAngelis shows that joy is a repeatable by-product of living one's life in integrity and of making conscious choices every day that kick misery, worry and guilt to the curb. She explains how most people are not naturally equipped to deal with life's challenges and then introduces foundational tools and effective techniques to take readers from crappy to happy. In this excerpt, she writes about how you can take control of your choices.

Aha #1: ChooseThere once was a court jester who was known throughout the kingdom as a very smart, clever, and funny man. He had a knack for choosing the right jokes at the right time and was one of the only people who could make the king laugh. One day, however, the jester went too far and insulted the king in such a way that the joke was deemed to have treasonous intent and was therefore punishable by death. The king, feeling compassion for the jester, told him that he could choose the way he would die. Many people, without thinking, would have chosen a quick and painless death. The jester, however, had been practicing making choices his entire life. He paused to think for a moment and then replied, “I choose death by old age.”

You always have a choice.

Ha! You gotta be kiddin’ me. Always have a choice? You obviously weren’t there when I had to listen to my friend gripe for an hour about her blind date or when my boss made me stay late and I missed front-row seats for the play-offs. These are classic examples of how some people are really bad at choosing. They haven’t been taught how to do it.

Why aren’t we given the big picture and the tools to understand that the life we create is a series of choices — profound and mundane? Is it because the thought of every choice being so weighty and influential paralyzes us? Is it that the moment outweighs the future? Is it that we just don’t know ourselves well enough to even grasp the importance of those choices? Teenagers are one thing, but 30- or 40-year-olds are another. Don’t you think we’ve had enough life experience by now to have some of the basics figured out? Why don’t we have the tools, the perspective, the wisdom? As I sit here, I realize that I just kind of “did” my biggest life choice moments. I mean, I carefully considered them, evaluated alternatives, and then “just did” what seemed like the best choice at the time.

There seem to be three camps when it comes to not choosing. The first set of campers believes that life just “happens,” seemingly without any choices (“It’s not my fault”). The people in this camp need awareness and education. They are unaware that choices exist and need to learn how to see their choices. The second camp can see their choices, but they are afraid or reluctant to make them (“Something bad might happen”). They need skills. Finally, there are those who can see their choices but think they all suck, so they don’t consider them real choices. These people need a spanking.

Back in 1989 when I was still enmeshed in corporate America, I faced what seemed to be a somewhat desperate situation and had to make some good choices fast. I was leaving for the (then) Soviet Union later in the evening, and, as I was taking care of last-minute details in my office, I found out that I had to rewrite my division’s budget — cutting 15 percent off the total. The deadline was 3 days away, but my flight was leaving in 12 hours and I still had to pack; leave notes for the housekeeper, pet sitter, and gardener; and call my parents.

First, I cussed. Then I cried. How could I run my division with a randomly chopped-up multimillion-dollar budget? And then I turned that question into, “How can I accomplish this task in a way that won’t hurt my division and still make my flight tonight?” Bingo! I sat at my desk, wiped my eyes, and took 15 percent off of every line item. It might be hell to live with later (15 percent pay cut, anyone?), but I was willing to take that risk. Then I smiled serenely and left. Early! I had a choice and I made it.

Why choosing is important Your life is defined by the decisions you make. Choosing one thing over another, or over four others, shapes what happens next. And what happens next is your Life, with a capital L. (Hey, no pressure. I guess that explains why some people avoid choosing.) This can be a small “chocolate or vanilla” choice that changes your moment, or it can be a big “take that job in Portugal or stay here” choice that changes your life. And some of those seemingly small choices can end up being life-changing.

If there were choices you could make that would make life better, wouldn’t you make them? It sure seems so, but that’s not what most people do. And that really sucks because choosing is what allows you to live the life you want to live, not only in the big decisions, but in every moment of every day. Consciously choosing puts you in charge of your life. It effectively transforms you from a victim into a victor because you are actively deciding what you will do and how you will do it. If you choose, you are not kicking and screaming while other people run your life, and you are not stagnating in a puddle of indecision.

Contrary to popular myth, you can and do choose how you feel. You may not realize that you’re choosing, though, because over time your emotional “choices” have become a function of automatic pilot. For instance, when someone says something that seems like an insult, your “I’m upset” emotion gets triggered. But you can turn off that autopilot function and consciously “choose” how you want to feel: neutral, understanding, or perhaps even compassionate.

That doesn’t mean you won’t experience sadness — you will — or that life will be perfect — it won’t. Learning how to choose just means you’ll have the tools and the emotional wherewithal to deal with life in the best possible way.

Why people don't choose
Some people love to choose (Cool! I get to pick!), and others dread it (Bummer. I have to decide.). If you love the self-determination and power of making choices, choosing is a breeze. You feel secure in choosing, and you trust yourself to make the right choices. But if the prospect of making a choice creates anxiety, indecision, or conflict, you need to learn the skills that can help you work through those things. You need to get into making decisions. Choosing can be scary. Not choosing can be scarier.

  • There are all kinds of reasons people don’t choose.
  • They’re afraid. I’m scared she’ll get mad.
  • It hurts. Don’t make me deal with all that stuff. What a pain.
  • It’s too much work. Yech, I hate the pressure.
  • They want to be liked. They’ll think I’m a bitch.
  • They don’t see any options. I had no choice.
  • The options they see are not acceptable to them. No way in hell.
  • They don’t want the responsibility. There was nothing I could do.

And what if your choice bombs? What if you hate it and feel like a big goober, or lose a bunch of money, or get fired for your choice? What if somebody stands up at the next office meeting and sarcastically asks, “Who was the Einstein who made that decision?” You own it, and you stay awake. You’re about to get smarter if you just pay attention and don’t block the learning with anger, a third glass of wine, or tuning out in front of the TV. Sit with the discomfort and digest your lesson du jour. If you do it right, you’ll only have to eat that meal once. Your mission is to get out of avoidance and fear and know that you can learn to make choices with confidence. You are building your “choice muscles.” You can say no to dessert. You can say yes to getting up early. You can do whatever you choose.

And hey, if you don’t like the results of making one choice, you can always choose something else.

Show up. Be present.Have you ever woken up during a really fantastic dream and willed yourself to go back into that dream when you went back to sleep? I have a friend who did this the other night when she woke up while waiting for George Clooney to pick her up for a date. (Two-timer!) She was so into the dream that when she fell asleep again, she managed to pick up where she had left off. Dreamy. After she told me about it, I had my own little Aha. No, not about George. I found myself wondering, “How often do we will ourselves to get back into the moment when we’re awake?”

Awake, of course, as in not sleeping. With some people, it’s hard to tell the difference.

If you’ve ever lost your car keys, put the milk carton in the cabinet and the cereal box in the fridge, or missed your exit while daydreaming, then you know what it’s like to tune out and be unaware, if only for a moment.

But moments count. Moments are when life happens. Not in hindsight, or tomorrow, or whenever you think you’re ready for it. Right now. And since life happening is what got you to this point, this now, you’d be a smart cookie to pay attention so you can shape your next now. Bring all of yourself to the moment: your energy, your thoughts, your intention. Show up fully present and engaged. If there’s an experience happening, you can bet a choice is soon to follow, so be conscious in the experience. Note my emphasis on conscious. Conscious choosing means you are fully aware and making the best choice you can. You are mindful.

Some people never see that they have options or they make choices every day that they aren’t aware of: unconscious choosing. Wake up on time or roll over and be late. Meet your buddy at the gym or pull a no-show. Eat right or wolf a doughnut. Keep reading the newspaper while your kid is talking to you. Stay in a damaging relationship because it’s easier than summoning the guts to leave.

These are the people who think that life “happens to” them. They don’t associate the choices they’ve made with the results that show up in their lives. If you are an unconscious chooser, you probably don’t know you’re doing it. This is what is known as a blind spot — something you do that you aren’t aware of. It is being clueless about the joy opportunities around you. So you have to look for clues that alert you to make changes. These clues show up as problems, blame, feeling like a victim — all stuff that sucks. What doesn’t suck is that you can make internal changes to your “chooser” that will positively affect your external world. Your choice affects the outcome you get. Once you become aware of the options presented to you, you can connect your choices to your life circumstances, and then you will experience the awesome power of choosing. You’ll know that you control your weight, your mood, and your actions by your choices. And when crazy things happen that you can’t control (tornadoes, flight delays, premature babies), you can choose to respond in a way that makes those situations a little easier to deal with. You always have a choice.

Let’s revisit those earlier examples that reeked of “I had no choice”: You obviously weren’t there when I had to listen to my friend gripe for an hour about her blind date or when my boss made me stay late and I missed front-row seats for the play-offs. Time out! You always have choices; you just have to learn how to see them. And you can’t confuse having a choice with liking the choices available to you. You could choose to tell your friend that you only have 10 minutes to listen. You could choose to ask your boss if you could come in early the next morning instead.

Want to see more options?

  • Think of a role model — someone who’s really good at choosing. What would he or she do? What would the court jester do?
  • Think “and” not “or.” Some people think choosing means picking between two things,
  • Force yourself to write out at least two options that you have. It may feel like slim pickings, but they’re actually the first two on a list of endless possibilities.

How to make choices: The skills
People who are unaccustomed to choosing often feel they have no choice because they don’t like what the act of choosing requires: inconvenience, clarity, discipline, willingness to risk something new, courage. But those near-term hurdles are what let you win the long-term race. It’s worth being inconvenienced if you have a lighter conscience. It’s worth being gutsy if your choice lets you sleep at night. It’s worth being a little more disciplined if it lets you feel your strength and inner power. It’s worth sticking your neck out because that is how you get a life that doesn’t suck.

Tips to consider

  • Base your choice on reality — how things are now.
  • Be crystal clear about your desired outcome.
  • Break it down into bits.
  • Seek the input of people you respect.
  • Balance messages from your heart and head.
  • Consider all options, then narrow them down.
  • Set a deadline for making your decision.

Traps in decision-making

  • Unaware of your biases or filters
  • Over/underestimate input from others
  • Too analytical
  • Too emotional
  • Ignore your gut feelings
  • Not clear about your desired outcome
  • Too many or too few alternatives
  • Frozen
  • Distracted

Part two: The 10 life-changing Ahas

Some questions to ask yourself when you are choosing
Here’s an example of making a difficult choice: Rebecca had been dating Jim exclusively for several years. She loved him dearly, and they were very good to each other, yet she had the feeling that the relationship had stalled over the last year or two. It just seemed like it wasn’t offering growth and actualization to either of them. How could she address this proactively, yet not just end a relationship that still felt good? She ran through these questions to help her choose.

How soon does a decision need to be made? Well, it’s not urgent, but it is important. In order to honor our relationship, I need to have a conversation with Jim about this in the next 90 days — if only just to talk about what’s on my mind.

What, exactly, is my desired outcome? I would love to hear how Jim feels. I want to be honest with him about how I feel. I don’t want to hurt him.

Do I have enough info? I do. The only way I would get more information is by talking to Jim directly.

Can I consider/brainstorm a variety of options? Now this is an interesting question. I guess I only see two options: Take action to revitalize our relationship or end our relationship. It’s not really an option to keep it as it is. But wait. Maybe we could do something kind of crazy, like redefine our relationship. Maybe we could still see each other but also date other people. Or take 30 days “off” to see what we miss about each other. Or maybe Jim has some other ideas.

Can I take the steps to really do it, once I decide? Holy crap, it makes me really nervous to bring this up with Jim. What if he gets fed up and breaks up with me? What if my choice is to break up with him? God, am I really ready to do that? It’s not like our relationship is bad.

Can I live with the consequences? You know what? I’ve already decided that something needs to change, and just because I don’t have the exact answer doesn’t mean I shouldn’t talk about it with Jim. I trust him. We’ve had a great relationship based on candor and being kind to each other. Why should this be any different? If I feel something has to change, then my decision is made and, yes, I can live with the consequences. I guess it’s time for us to have a serious talk.

How to make good choices
Okay, so you are aware of the options available to you, and you know how to choose. What are some techniques you can use to minimize the casualties? I’ll spare you a detailed rendition of decision-making theory. Here are some practical tips.

Practice.

  • If you usually defer to someone else, it’s your turn to pick.
  • For any of the dozens of day-to-day decisions, give yourself a time limit and then choose. Five minutes is plenty of time to peruse that dinner menu — get on with it!
  • For weightier decisions, list the pros and cons of each option (an approach made popular by Ben Franklin) so you can actually see the reasons for and against making that choice.

Trust your gut. The answers are inside of you. I always encourage people to draw their own conclusions before asking for advice from others. Most people undervalue their own opinions, so learning to trust that the answers are inside of you — first — shows you value your own wisdom. Sure, your conclusions may occasionally be warped by emotions run amok, and you may need to get advice from others. But your conclusions may also contain a few valuable notes that need to be heard. And even if you’re not great at finding those answers inside of you at first, it’s a terrific way to learn from your mistakes. When you decide, you are more likely to be happy with your choice because, after all, it’s yours.

Choose with your greatness in mind. Holy hell, why didn’t anyone tell me this before? I’ve been making all kinds of decisions for 40-plus years now, and only recently did I begin choosing with my highest and best purpose as the guiding factor. For the last 10 years I have consciously asked myself, “What would the best me do?” And when I ask that question, it’s like pushing in the clutch on fear and doubt so I can shift into overdrive with confidence, and a vision of myself being great. When you’re 23 and feeling pressure to make some major life decision, you go for money, security, the least painful option — hell, whatever might be behind curtain number 3 — but you sure don’t ask yourself which decision will lead to your greatness. Or at least I didn’t. Maybe I was out sick the day they covered that in school.

Stop mulling over the options. Accept the option that seems most likely to give you your desired outcome. Once you make that choice, stop reviewing all of the options. You decided, already! That’s what a choice is. It’s a decision, and part of it is choosing to live with all the ramifications. Now saddle up and move on.

Get great advice. If you aren’t quite sure what to do and need more clarity, consult your wisest, most trusted advisors. These must be people who have some knowledge of the subject and who are unbiased in their opinions. Ideally, they should know you but not have a vested interest in what you decide. You may get terrific ideas. You may get confirmation of what you already thought. You also may get advice that you find yourself bristling at. It is up to you to determine if you are bristling at a growth opportunity or if that physical response is telling you not to follow their advice ... which is a choice!

If all else fails
If I’m really torn, I flip a coin. Seriously. If I’m okay with the result, that’s my answer. If I’m not okay with the result (“Oh hell, let’s go for two outta three”), that, too, is good information. It tells me I’m not comfortable choosing whatever that coin toss told me to, so I pick the other choice. Either way, it’s a decision.

You know more than you think you know and you know things that you don’t know you know. Good to know!

As you go through the experience of life — the everyday — you take in tons of information that you are not consciously aware of and you store it for use at a later time. Your brain organizes it for retrieval, often without your even realizing it’s there. That may sound far-fetched, but once you successfully retrieve surprising or even odd information a few times, you’ll be surprised at how quickly it starts to feel natural.

The key is to tap in to that inner knowledge regularly and frequently by using a technique you practice alone, such as being silent, writing, talking into a tape recorder, meditating, praying, yodeling in the shower — whatever does it for you. Sometimes simply rephrasing a question will allow your mind to give you the answer. You may even have to patiently ask the question several times before you benefit. I have clients who look at themselves in the mirror and ask their inner selves for the answer. Other people can tell by paying attention to their gut feelings and letting those physical sensations register. For example, if you’re tense and uncomfortable, be aware and think twice about the person or situation in question and how it is affecting you.

My client Danielle recently shared a story about how she chose to take a vacation with her family in the middle of a major work crunch. She said the trip had been planned months earlier, but as the week approached, she started to feel a lot of anxiety about leaving work. Danielle is a writer, and she had one project that was behind schedule and two others that were due in a few weeks. She said she kept fixating on how much work she could get done if she stayed home. But then she’d think about how disappointing it would be to miss those vacation days with her husband and his daughters, and the thought of not going felt awful. She said, “I was exhausted by not being able to decide what to do. I felt like I weighed a thousand pounds. I had to make the damned decision and get on with it. I knew the right answer was in my head; I just wasn’t sure how to retrieve it.”

Danielle said she’d been putting in long hours for months. While skipping the vacation could alleviate some of her anxiety, it would also mean missing a needed break. She understood clearly that while she loved her work and wanted to meet her deadlines, she didn’t want to let work interfere with spending quality time with her loved ones or taking some quality time for herself. She said, “I determined that I really wanted to go, but I didn’t feel comfortable about being out of the office for a whole week, so I decided I’d compromise and go for 4 days.” She knew that was the right decision but still had angst about the projects and clients she’d be putting on hold. I asked her how she shifted into vacation mode, and she said, “I wrote e-mails to my clients reminding them I’d be out of the office until Wednesday, and then I took a deep breath and said, ‘From this minute until Wednesday at 8:00 a.m., I am on vacation and I choose to be happy about that.’” She said, “The funny thing was that just a half hour earlier, my husband saw me being total gloom and doom. When I emerged from my office with a big smile and said, ‘Kiss me, I’m on vacation now,’ he tilted his head sideways and looked like a confused puppy. He was really happy that I was going with them to the lake but couldn’t understand how I shifted my mood so quickly and dramatically.”

There’s no right or wrong way to tune in to your inner answers, but you usually have to turn down the volume on life to hear the message. The next time you hear yourself say, “I don’t know,” say to yourself, “Okay, and if I did know the answer, what would it be?” It’s amazing what nuggets can pop out if you ask. Getting good at accessing your own knowledge is profoundly helpful and makes for one helluva joyride.

Excerpted from “Get a Life That Doesn’t Suck: 10 Surefire Ways to Live Life and Enjoy the Ride,” by Michelle DeAngelis. Copyright (c) 2008, reprinted with permission from Rodale Books. Does life suck? Take this quiz and find out!

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