The Big Happiness Interview: How to use stress to find joy

‘Existing in a perpetual state of stress has a way of unravelling the fabric of your well-being until you completely come undone, says Rachel Macy Stafford, a special education teacher and New York Times bestselling author. ‘But if we take time to listen to what our uncomfortable feelings are telling us, we can live a more authentic life.’

Twelve years ago, Rachel was overwhelmed, busy and stressed, trying to manage work and her young family. In a painful moment of realization, Rachel knew she was choosing distraction over connection with her two young daughters – and she decided enough was enough. In 2010, she started the Hands Free Mama blog, where she documented her journey to slow down and focus on what truly matters.

Since then, Rachel has become the New York Times bestselling author of four books, and her fifth, Soul Shift: The Weary Human’s Guide to Getting Unstuck and Reclaiming Your Path to Joy, released at the end of March, promises to ‘show us how to recognize and utilize our emotional triggers as invitations to release limiting beliefs, build healthy connections, and expand our capacity to flourish.’ Hurray! Here talks to Rachel about how to do just that.

How can we start to feel happier?

I know it sounds strange but feeling happier starts by noticing what triggers uncomfortable feelings. It could be a facial expression on a loved one’s face, or it could be a comment that someone makes, or it could be a difficult memory. And instead of pushing that uncomfortable feeling away, you allow it to be felt, and acknowledged. Every major transformation that I’ve had in my life began with acknowledging a painful feeling and asking: ‘What is this trying to tell me?’

I believe these messages come from the core of who we are. And if we take time to listen to those uncomfortable feelings that we push away, we can be led on our path to being our true authentic self. I call this process a ‘soul shift’ – responding to one’s deepest truths in a way that inspires positive change and transformation.

Many of us run away from our feelings because we don’t want to acknowledge that they’re telling us to make changes. How do we become braver?

I ran from my feelings and the deepest messages by keeping myself constantly distracted. I was trying to prove my worth by achieving, by ‘winning’ accolades at work. Then I had massive ‘aha’. I was out for a run and was thinking about the question that everyone asked me: ‘How do you do it all, Rachel?’

It was a compliment to me for so many years. But then I realised my answer was that I can only do it all because I’m missing out on the living, the laughing, the connecting and the relaxing. Acknowledging that for the first time allowed me to realise the painful truth that I’m missing out on my life. I had to stop on my run and watched the tears dripping on to my trainers. I was upset but also relieved.

Once you can acknowledge the feelings, you can finally admit what you don’t want and that’s the starting point. It’s the first step to working out what you do want.

I realised the painful truth that I was missing out on life

What are the signs you’re on the wrong path?

Notice when you’re constantly reaching for something that helps you ‘escape’. For me, it’s my phone. It’s an escape route rather than a tool. What’s your way to distract yourself from feeling your feelings? Wine, overworking, food? Notice how you treat other people. What woke me up was seeing the pain in the eyes on the faces of the people around me. I was so maxed out with stress, I would overreact and explode at the slightest thing and I would see the pain on the faces of my children and my spouse.

If you’re not responding in a way that you’re proud of, if you’re going to bed at night thinking: I hurt the people I love and I didn’t connect the way that I hoped – take this as an invitation to change. Also notice how you react to feedback. My parents told me to slow down and I would get defensive. That’s a warning sign.

Extreme stress can be caused by perfectionism and people pleasing – why do we fall into these traps?

We are conditioned from a very early age. We notice that we get praise for being accommodating, for being a helper, for being selfless. I know I felt loved by doing things that made my parents and teachers proud. There are also the messages we hear from society: it’s selfish to take care of yourself and to ask for what you need. You get criticised for being ‘bossy’ and ‘difficult’, simply because you’re not going along with what others want you to do. You decide to try and keep the peace at the cost of your own inner peace.

The way to change this is to stop looking to others to validate you, and find ways to validate and value yourself. I realised I was basing my worth on appearance, and status, and accomplishments. But when I thought about it, I realised I didn’t value someone else because of how they look, I don’t value someone for what they can give me or how much money they make. So why on earth would I try and gain approval myself for those things?

I call this find your ‘meaningful measures.’ I suggest we designate an hour or a day to stop running, pushing, perfecting, judging, critiquing, overachieving to stop and listen to the priorities of your heart. I invite you to immerse yourself in what makes you feel fulfilled, at peace, and alive, just as you are. The way we choose to measure ourselves impacts the kind of life we live.

How do we listen less to the inner critic?

The first step to changing or shifting that critical voice is to identify it. Most of us don’t even realise how often we criticise ourselves or judge ourselves. For me, the inner critic is most vocal when I look at myself in the mirror. My inner critic says things like: ‘You can’t go out looking like that.’

You have the authority to talk to yourself in a loving, compassionate way

Once I identified that voice, I started to question it. Would I say this to my daughter? Would I say this to my best friend? No, I would not say that to them.

Instead, I asked how I’d respond if one of my daughter’s felt that they didn’t feel good about their body or couldn’t go out because of how they looked. I would say: ‘We all have these moments when we just don’t feel great in how we look. But does that mean that you should stay home? Because someone’s going to miss your contribution and your presence.’ I had to learn that I’m worthy of that same compassion I would show my daughter or my best friend. We can all decide how to talk to ourselves. Know that you have the authority to talk to yourself in a loving, compassionate way.

What’s your favourite happiness tool?

A simple exercise is to write down the moments when you feel the closest to grasping what matters – and when you also feel the furthest. For example, when I’m standing at the kitchen counter, inhaling my lunch, I do not feel closest to what matters, it feels like I’m not worthy of sitting down and enjoying my food. I feel the closest to what matters, when my daughter and I will go for coffee, and we leave our phones at home. We roll down the windows, we sing to the music, we feel like we’re in this little bubble, just the two of us. This exercise helps you know what fulfils you and what depletes you.

Three questions to ask to beat perfectionism:

Soul Shift: The Weary Human’s Guide to Getting Unstuck and Reclaiming Your Path to Joy by Rachel Macy Stafford is out on 28 March.

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