It happens around this time every year—I get that feeling of loss. Autumn is known as a time for reflection. For many of us, during this season, it becomes clear what we didn’t accomplish during the first half of the year.
While my friends are excitedly breaking their favorite hoodies out of the closet, taking their kids to the pumpkin patch, and indulging in pumpkin spice everything, I can’t help but grieve over another year of failed New Year’s resolutions, being stuck in a dead-end job, or listening to the biological clock ticking away. These thoughts leave me feeling empty, desperate, and hopeless.
One thing that always remains true: the phases of nature often mirror our lives. Autumn should be a time for letting go and releasing things that have created anxiety and shame during the year, not reflecting on what didn’t happen.
When I feel like I’m falling behind in life, here are five things that I do to refocus my attitude and get back on track:
1. Stop social comparisons.
Comparison is the biggest reason many of us feel “less-than” or like we’re falling behind. If we weren’t so wrapped up in comparing, we would probably feel pretty good about where we’re at in life right now.
My husband and I are childless middle-agers still pursuing academic degrees while our friends are spending time with their growing families and settled into their careers. Sometimes, it can be hard watching others experiencing what we feel like we should have too.
The best (and quickest) way I’ve learned to stop social comparisons is by cleaning up my social media accounts. A recent survey of 231 young adults linked Facebook use to a greater degree of negative social comparison. This is related negatively to self-perceived social competence and physical attractiveness.
I unfollow friends on Facebook and Instagram that make me feel unworthy. I don’t spend too much time analyzing why someone’s posts make me feel envious; I just unfollow them until I start to feel better. Over-thinking it only leads to further self-criticism for feeling jealous about someone else’s happiness and success.
2. Focus on today.
Another very common reason we might feel like we’re falling behind in life is because we’re either too focused on what we want to happen in the future or dwelling on past regrets. We have to make a very conscious choice to do what we can just for today and not overthink it too much.
I have huge goals for myself in the not-so-distant future and that can feel incredibly overwhelming—especially if I’m not meeting my milestones along the way. I can have the best-laid plans, but something seems to always come up to throw me into a detour.
By getting too hyper-focused on plans, goals, and expectations, we set ourselves up for massive disappointment. When things just aren’t going our way, we need to remember that it’s happening this way for a reason. Being mindful during life’s detours (instead of resentful) can help us appreciate and understand that it’s happening to teach us something important and make us better prepared for when we are closing in on our big goals.
As a bonus, focusing just on today and practicing mindfulness may also be linked to improved symptoms of ADHD and anxiety according to a study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology.
3. Reflect on the good stuff from the last decade.
My life hasn’t been what society would consider successful. I’ve never held a job for longer than four years at a time, and I cringe every time I think of my retirement fund. Sometimes, it can feel like I’ve traded family life and financial security for adventure and self-development.
I didn’t have the same upbringing that many folks had. My childhood immediately set me back in life. After overcoming several adversities and making big shifts in my mid-twenties, I did a lot of great things. I’ve achieved and experienced things many people will never do in their entire lives.
We can reframe our societal failures and setbacks by reflecting on the great things we’ve done in just the last decade of life. Sitting down with a journal and writing out all of the accomplishments and experiences we’re proud of shifts our perspective back to the positive.
4. Make gratitude a daily practice.
A very simple way we can all bring ourselves out of the dumps is to remember all of the little reasons to be thankful. In the morning (before I get caught up in my to-do list), I allow myself to feel blessed to wake up another day feeling good about where I’m at in life. I contemplate all of the interesting things that may happen during the upcoming hours of the day. As I lay in bed in the evening, I’m grateful for a warm place to sleep and a good book to read. I reflect on the things that made my day just a little brighter.
Time magazine reports that even celebrities have gratitude practices that help increase their happiness when they run into roadblocks. Actor Will Arnett says, “Every single morning, I write a gratuity list. I write down ten things I’m grateful for every day—and it always starts with my kids.”
5. Add value to others regularly.
When we’re feeling low, the last thing we often want to do is help someone else. We might feel like we have nothing to offer anyone. But that couldn’t be further from the truth.
According to one study, being kind (which happens when we’re helping others) is linked to greater happiness and motivation to perform. Recounting our kindness throughout the week also increases our happiness.
I spent nearly three years volunteer mentoring at-risk children. For one hour each week, I stopped thinking about how my life didn’t match up to where I thought it should be. Instead, I was focused on being of service to the kids who needed me the most.
Not only does someone else benefit from our service, but we also profit by interrupting the pattern of self-centeredness. By giving away our time to others, we can come back to our lives feeling reenergized with purpose and focused on what we can do to keep moving forward.
Did any of these practices resonate with you? What do you do when you find yourself facing major setbacks?