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Ask Nat

Accepting that sometimes life just sucks

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Editor’s note: Ask Nat is a bi-weekly advice column by Natalie Rand, a seasoned senior who’s seen it all. If you need advice on any burning issues in your life, you can anonymously submit your questions here.

Dear Natalie,

Am I doing things right? I’m an 18-year-old enby who’ll be applying to the architecture major in the spring. I have friends, a boyfriend I love, am on okay terms with my family, am doing decently in school, and am getting better in terms of mental health thanks to therapy/meds, but I don’t feel like I’m doing enough.

I’m taking the steps to help my mental health, but therapy and meds can only work so quickly, and while I can handle everything, it feels like the past 5 years of my life have been a constant exertion of energy into just getting by like the average person. These are issues that everyone deals with to some degree, but life has never felt “good” for a long period of time like I hear it can be for others … Maybe I’m not positive enough because my life is objectively good … Maybe this feeling is something everyone deals with. Maybe this is depression talking. Maybe the idea of being completely happy, content, and at peace is a myth.

Anyway, I don’t want to coast day to day. I want to live my life right. What would I do to do that?

Sincerely,

Above Average Anxiety

 

Dear Above,

First of all, I want to commend you for staying strong and doing everything you can to stay mentally healthy, and I’m also really sorry to hear you’ve been struggling despite your efforts. Depression’s a b----.

Secondly, as someone who’s had their fair share of depressive struggles, I want to say that I relate to you so much on wondering if things ever get better. When we’ve worked so hard to get to a place mentally and situationally that’s not totally awful and then still find ourselves thinking, ‘Wait, is this it then?’ all of our efforts can start to feel hopeless.

I’d love to give you some positive reassurance about how you should just have hope because life gets better, but honestly, it doesn’t — at least, not by itself. Rather, you have to take action yourself to make your own life better. In my experience, there are two main (non-pharmaceutical) ways to go about that: change the situation you’re in or change the way you feel about it.

One way to change the situation can be to add something positive to your own life. You could try going on weekly bike rides, hanging out with a friend you haven’t seen in a while, or even adopting a cat ⁠— anything fulfilling enough to be a reason you get up in the morning.

You can also take away the negatives in your life, or else try to fix them. Maybe your life would be a lot easier if you were taking 12 credits instead of 18, or if you were to enforce boundaries with a toxic friend, or if you were to curb your TikTok addiction.

However, I get the impression from your letter that you’ve already been doing everything you can to change your life for the better. At this point, it seems like doing anything else to fix things might end up being more exhausting for you than rewarding. In this case, I offer you the alternative route to happiness: changing your outlook.

Because here’s the uncomfortable truth, Above: Sometimes, no matter what we do, life just sucks. It’s a part of the human condition, and part of living in a capitalist society full of social injustice in the middle of a pandemic and climate crisis, but I digress. Even more cruelly, as you pointed out in your letter, sometimes life really does suck more for us than it does for other people.

But if there’s nothing we can reasonably do to make our lives suck less, we can at least make ourselves feel a little less sucky in response to life sucking. This idea, that we can try to reduce our suffering — if not fix our circumstances themselves — has been more eloquently described as “radical acceptance.”

Radical acceptance is one of the basic principles of dialectical behavior therapy (DBT). DBT is one of the most common therapy modalities and was (fun fact) actually invented by Dr. Marsha Linehan, a former psychology professor at UW. To honor the Husky spirit, I’m going to summarize Linehan’s methods for radical acceptance from her “DBT Skills Training Manual” into three steps that I like to call the triple A method: acknowledge, assess, and appreciate.

First, acknowledge that the bad thing exists. Observe whether or not you might be trying to deny your reality, and remind yourself that you can’t — everything in history has led up to this bad thing being in your life, and at least in this very moment, there’s nothing you can do to change it.

Secondly, let all the feelings flow through you and consciously assess them. For example, it may help to say to yourself, “Man, I’m stressed out because I have way too much friggin’ schoolwork and that’s sh----.” Feel the feelings in your physical body as well: does it tighten your throat? Hurt your chest? Observing our emotions this way not only helps us to feel more validated in them, but also allows us to feel more in control.

Now that you’ve recognized and grieved the bad, your third step is to shift your attention toward the good and find some joy instead: what are some positive things you can appreciate in your life? I want you to write down a list of five things you’re grateful for. It could be as deep and meaningful as having supportive friends you can depend on or something as simple as the food from your favorite place on the Ave.

The last piece of advice I want to leave you with is that happiness isn't something that a so-called "perfect life" can guarantee. Many of us have been sold into thinking that if we were to just reach this goal or have that thing, everything would naturally work out and life would be amazing (again, I blame capitalism for this). Sometimes this is true, but many other times, when we finally do get these things, our thinking patterns stay the same and lead us to just find other things to be unhappy about instead. Therefore, we ourselves are the final deciding factor in our own happiness by choosing to accept the bad in our lives and be grateful for the good.

I hope all of this was somewhat helpful to you, Above — I know that “just accept that life sucks” might not exactly be the advice you want to hear, but from one struggling person to another, I really encourage you to at least try this mindset out for a bit and see where it takes you. Best of luck on your mental health journey and with applying to your major — stay safe out there.

Sincerely,

Natalie

Reach columnist Natalie Rand at opinion@dailyuw.com. Twitter: @airbudfan

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