What to Do When Life Gives You Ick: Coping with Hard Things

Mar 06, 2023
coping with hard things

There's a super professional term that I routinely use...ick. 

Sometimes, I'm talking about inside ick, the uncomfortable thoughts, feelings, sensations, memories, or urges that arise in so many situations. Sometimes, ick might refer to external circumstances that are hard or gross or upsetting or less than ideal. (Truthfully, though, what makes those situations "ick" is the internal reaction we have to them.) So, ick is the unpleasant, uncomfy, unwanted experiences, both inside and out, that get thrust upon us.


The ICK Factors

A few years ago, I gave a talk called Everyday Practices for Trumping Fear & Chaos. I was asked to give the audience tactical strategies for coping with ick in the face of political turmoil and increasing polarization in the U.S. and to build hope and happiness. In that talk, I introduced what I call the ICK Factors. A few weeks ago, I ran into someone who was in the audience that day, and she shared that she still holds on to those ICK factors. Given that world events have continued to get, well, ickier, I thought sharing these factors with you might be useful.  

When life gives you ick, use these strategies to navigate the experience with psychological strength, hold on to your sanity, and move through it with resilience.


I = Input Matters

What you take in has a dramatic effect on you. Consider, for a moment, food. What you eat, whether it is nutritionally dense or complete junk, affects how you feel in your body. Nutritious foods help your system run optimally - be the best you, if you will. In addition, they support your immune system, helping stave off invaders or mutations that can have ill effects on you. In contrast, consuming junk can tax your organs, zap your energy, and generally drag your system down.

Now consider what you take in mentally, by way of what you pay attention to. What information do you take in via conversations or media? What thoughts and ideas are you spending your time and energy thinking about or stewing on? These inputs are the mental equivalent of your diet, and they have a ginormous impact on the quality of your mind. 

Guarding your attention and being mindful about your inputs is important on a good day, and it becomes incredibly vital during times of stress or hardship. What you think about and what you focus on will have a drastic effect on how you feel. 

The mental equivalent of eating your leafy greens includes:

  • Limit media consumption - news, television, social media. All of it. Be incredibly mindful and extremely picky about what you take in.
  • Read news rather than watch it. It's less stimulating and, therefore, less activating to your nervous system. Think of reading the news like eating bran flakes whereas watching the news is eating those same bran flakes coated in sugar.
  • Be very savvy about separating news from noise, and do not take in the noise. Noise includes opinions, conjecture, predictions, speculations, interpretations, and excessive negativity. Sorting news from noise doesn't just apply to the media, either. It applies to conversations as well as your own internal dialogue. If it's noise, no matter the source, label it as such then do not give it any more of your attention. Mentally, throw it out.
  • Seek out and give your mental energy and attention to subjects, topics, and ideas that boost your wellbeing. Take in nutritious inputs - materials, conversations, and lines of thinking that help you be a better version of you, help you feel hopeful or optimistic, or expand your thinking. Sure, the junk inputs are appealing and easy, but you will pay the price.


C = Circle of Control

I talk about the concept of our circle of control all the time. Even if you've heard it before, stay with me. It's so fundamental to our wellbeing that it bears repeating. We all want control, and humans tend to do better when we have some control over our lives. The issue isn't control, per se. The issue is that so many of us are misguided in our efforts. We try to control things that we can't yet give up control over the things we can. This misstep tends to get amplified when we're dealing with ick. We want so badly to feel safe, secure, comfortable, and happy that our control strategies ramp up...and I guarantee they will backfire if they are misplaced.

You must get crystal clear on what you can and can not control - what is and is not inside your circle of control - and focus your efforts accordingly.

The things that are outside of your circle of control include:

  • The future
  • Other people's thoughts, feelings, and behaviors (You might be able to influence them, but you can not control them.)
  • Your own thoughts and feelings (There are ways to change your thinking habits, and doing so can change your emotional experience, but you do not have full, complete control and choice over your thoughts and feelings. If you did, no one would ever feel sad or anxious or have negative thoughts.)
  • Outcomes (Again, you might be able to influence them, but you often can not 100% dictate outcomes.)
  • Forces of nature
  • The past
  • Chance events that may affect you
  • Your genes (at least not yet)

Think about all of the ways you try to control those things. What do you do or not do to try to change those. Does it work long-term? 

It's enticing to try to control those things, but it won't work and may even create more problems for you. Instead, focus on the things that are solidly inside your circle of control:

  • Your reaction to your thoughts and feelings (This is where psych strength comes in. Being able to have difficult, unpleasant, or unwanted inside ick WITHOUT it dictating your actions is doable. You just need to build the skills to do it.)
  • Your attention (Many things will demand your attention, but you can actually choose what to pay attention to.)
  • Your attitude and mindset (Don't sit on the cactus!)
  • Your values
  • Your beliefs

When you're going through ick, what are you doing to control, change, or impact those things that are inside your circle of control? Are you actively working to control your attention (that's where mindfulness comes in)? Are you actively working to develop helpful beliefs? Are you accepting negative thoughts and feelings or pushing them away? You will get much more bang for you buck if you focus your control strategies on those things that you actually have the power to control.


K = Kindness, to Yourself and Others

When ick shows up, it often includes anger, fear, sadness, jealously, criticism, judgment, and hate. Those are all detractors from happiness and wellbeing. What's more is that when they take over and drive our reactions and actions, they tend to make things worse. Think about times when your own anger or criticism has been large and in charge. Afterwards, did you feel like a vibrant version of you? Did you feel good about the way you handled things? Or did you end up with even more inside ick? 

While I'd argue that kindness is an important part of being a good human all the time, it's even more important when the ick shows up. 

Treat yourself with kindness, both with your self-talk and with your actions. Talk to yourself in the same way you would talk to someone else you care deeply for who is having a hard time. Would you criticize them, beat them up, or otherwise pile on more ick? I hope not. So don't do it to you.

Take the time to do acts of kindness for yourself as well. Call it self-care. Call it self-compassion. Call it what it is...necessary. 

Direct that kindness outwardly as well. When you're bogged down in ick, doing acts of kindness is one thing that you can do that will reliably boost your mood and contribute to your wellbeing. An act of kindness if like taking a multivitamin. Good for you.

Kill 'em with kindness is not bad advice either. Doing something kind for someone you would rather criticize, judge, blame, retaliate against, or otherwise spew ick toward helps you move through the situation in a more resilient way. This might mean an overt, observable act of kindness, but it can also mean speaking or thinking about them with kindness. Rather than compounding ick and creating a downward spiral, you're changing the course. Besides, doing the opposite of what might come naturally will help shift your internal experiences (that's psychologist speak for make you feel less ick and feel better). Outwardly, it might also actually help make the situation better. 

There you have it. When life gives you ick, focus on your Inputs, control what you actually can, and be kind.


"Hope is important because it can make the present moment less difficult to bear. If we believe that tomorrow will be better, we can bear a hardship today."
 - Thich Nhat Hanh


Written by Dr. Ashley Smith

Peak Mind Co-founder

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