I struggle to climb the stairs up to the main deck as our small boat rocks and rolls over 12 ft waves. My knuckles are clenched and white; my teeth chattering. I grip the rail and pull myself up. Icy cold rain pelts my face and my hair whips violently around. I spot my husband Jeff at the helm and yell out to him. “Help, Jeff! Water is starting to pour into the cabin-- this isn't good. I don’t want to be here!” I scream across the crashing waves and roaring wind. I can hardly make out his figure but he looks calm and composed despite the dark angry clouds swirling around him. I look out into the ocean and can only see massive waves ready to swallow us whole. I look back to Jeff and can just make out his big white smile juxtaposed against the black, angry sky, which sends a shiver up my spine.
“It’s ok.” “Everything’s going to be fine,” says Jeff.
"I’m not so sure," I say. I begin to cry feeling trapped and helpless at the ocean's unforgiving mercy.
Suddenly I’m startled awake. My heart is pounding. I roll over and look at the clock: 2:00 AM. It’s going to be a long night.
During the end of a very toilsome year for the business, our marriage, and myself personally, I started to have this recurring dream. The scenarios were slightly different but the predicament was always the same. We were on a small boat and there were huge waves threatening to swallow the boat whole. We were rocking back and forth and I was holding on for dear life. Eventually, water would begin to rush into the boat and fear pierced my body. I knew we were doomed. The dream would always end abruptly with me waking up in a cold sweat and a pit in my stomach. I would often have trouble falling back asleep after the dream because of the adrenaline pulsing through my veins. Since I always woke up in the middle of the storm, I never figured out if we ended up succumbing to the storm or if we somehow were able to ride it out and survive. However, in my mind, each time I knew we didn’t make it out.
Jeff is an experienced sailor and thrill seeker. He loves the rush of precarious sailing situations and therefore he always appeared calm in the dreams regardless of how desperate the situation seemed. I, on the other hand, do not like sailing and I didn’t even want to be on the boat in the first place. In the dreams, I was always freaking out (which seemed rightfully so, when you’re in the middle of the ocean on a small boat that’s being overtaken by a storm) and I couldn’t understand why Jeff wasn’t worried.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but I think the recurring dream I was having was a perfect metaphor for what it is like to be a spouse of an entrepreneur. It was my brain’s way of making sense of what was happening in real life. We are on this wild ride and at the time we were going through some choppy waters and pretty tough times. Even in the midst of a storm, Jeff knows that he is still in control and if he can just stay the course and ride it out, everything will be fine. Plus, he enjoys the thrill of it all! I, on the other hand, am trying to figure out how I got on this boat in the first place and tend to be holding on for dear life, less optimistic there will be sunny skies waiting for us on the other side. But for better or for worse I am here. I will rise and fall with the business. I can jump ship and drift away or I can grab the helm and help steer us in the right direction. I can choose to succumb to the storm or I can adjust my sails.
“She stood in the storm and when it did not blow her away, she adjusted her sails.” --Elizabeth Edwards
See the thing is, I always woke up from the dream in a nervous sweat assuming the worst--that the boat sank and we succumbed to our fate...but why? I never actually saw the ending. Sailboats are built to ride out storms. They can take on a good amount of water and recover. So why did my brain automatically go to the negative end-result? What if I had the option to rewrite the narrative? What if I told myself that it was a scary situation, but we made it through to calm waters and to a beautiful tropical island where we’re sitting in the white sand toasting our victory with a tropical drink? On top of that wouldn’t we be more resilient, experienced sailors for going through what we did? Wouldn’t we also be closer as a couple for going through the troubled waters and make it through together? I have the ability to do that--at least in my own mind.
“A smooth sea never made a skilled sailor” --Franklin D Roosevelt
I’m sharing this now because I know many entrepreneurs and their families are in the midst of a storm right now with the health and economic crisis we are facing with the COVID19 pandemic. No matter how much a business planned or strategized for dealing with future seniors, no one could have predicted or planned for the current situation. There are so many things outside of our control and for most the future is unknown, which can be a very scary place to be. However, regardless of what is going on in our lives, the one thing that we always have control over is our mindset or how we choose to think about the situation. When things are really hard, that might not feel like much, but in reality, our mindset is extremely powerful and drives everything we do. It determines how we feel, how we behave, and how we show up in the world. It is amazing the impact that our mindset can have.
Think of your mindset like the tiller of a ship that is always either steering you toward where you want to go in life or steering you back into the storm. With your hand on the tiller, you are in control of the ship and as experienced sailors know, if you take your hand off the tiller, the boat will naturally turn upwind and back into the storm. Just like the helmsman, if you want to take control of your direction, you need to be intentional about pointing where you want to go, or else you risk heading in the default direction of negativity. In fact, modern psychology tells us that if we are not actively steering our thoughts in a positive direction that we seek, our minds naturally drift towards the negative. Our brains are hardwired to spend more time focusing on, thinking about, and remembering negative things, so it can be easy to get stuck in a downward spiral of thinking, which only makes it harder on ourselves.
This isn’t to say “just think positively and everything will work out,” but it is a reminder that even when things feel hopeless or like there is nothing within our control, grabbing hold of our thoughts and choosing to focus on the positive or small actionable steps we can take can be comforting and can help us change course. At the very least, getting rid of our fear and worry and negative thinking will save an immense amount of energy. As I am sure you know, energy is a finite resource and we need to hold onto all of the energy we can get! Wasting our time and energy ruminating about the things we can’t control is futile and leaves little left in the tank to use for the important things. I know because I have wasted plenty of time and energy worrying about things outside of my control!
“ The way I see it, love is a steadfast boat that allows you to make safe yet exciting passages across wild seas.” --Richard Branson
Since our minds naturally drift toward the negative, choosing to focus on the positive and things within our control is easier said than done and it takes practice. Simply starting with noticing your thoughts and how they might be steering you off course or making it harder for you is the first step. We can then begin to take control by analyzing our thoughts to see if they are true and helpful. Is the ship really sinking or are we just taking on a little water? Will this storm last forever or could there be blue skies on the horizon? Is there really nothing I can do to help this situation or could I grab the tiller and help steer us in the right direction? What options or opportunities do I have right now? If you feel like you are stuck on a sinking ship or there is nothing in your control, try grabbing a hold of your mindset and rewriting the narrative. I guarantee it will have a positive impact!
As always, thanks for reading and I would love to hear your ideas for keeping a positive mindset during difficult times in the comments below.