Years ago, I started on a journey to live with more connection, calmness, and presence with the people in my life. No matter how heartfelt, these intentions were easily disrupted. Seemingly trivial incidents—an argument between siblings, an unexpected workload, a disappointing rejection, or a call from the school would throw me into a state of anger and frustration, and I’d let those emotions take over.
I’ve found two short words that help me regain balance in the face of life’s twists and turns. Let me explain…
Crossing Over Emotional State Lines
When I was young, my family would take long car trips in the summertime. It was always a big deal when we’d cross state lines. Everyone in the car would look up from whatever they were doing to pass the time and celebrate our progress. Going from one territory to another was exciting, but there was nothing like crossing into my home state at the end of the trip.
Knowing I’d be sleeping in my own bed made me feel giddy with delight. When my dad pulled the car into the garage, my foul mood suddenly lifted. The familiar smell of home filled my senses and made me forget how much my sister annoyed me the previous nine hours. I’d jump out of the car, eager to move my stiff ligaments and see my beloved orange cat.
Although I seldom take long car trips now, my Hands-Free journey to live better and love more causes me to think about state lines every single day. These lines are not physical territories, but rather emotional boundary lines—and I’ve discovered they are critical for a peaceful, loving, joy-filled existence.
It’s not realistic to be calm all the time.
With adult decisions, daily responsibilities, kid mishaps, constant pressures, and blatant distractions, it’s quite easy to cross over fragile state lines:
- From a state of calm … to a state of impatience
- From a state of caring … to a state of apathy
- From a state of presence … to a state of distraction
- From a state of hope … to a state of despair
- From a state of joy … to a state of infuriation
You can have the best intentions in the world to be calm, present, and joyful and sometimes all it takes is just one incident to push you over the line. One sibling squabble … one added work assignment … one painful rejection … one burnt dinner … one dog- chewed retainer … or one call from the school and before you know it, you’ve crossed over into dangerous territory and find yourself in that place you never wanted to be (again).
I know. I remember when I was crossing over those lines far too often.
It was the indescribable look of fear on my child’s face when she spilled a bag of rice that helped me see what I could not see before. I was crossing those fragile state lines into angry, desolate, critical, and cheerless territories far too often and for reasons that were quite insignificant in the grand scheme of life.
But seeing that my child had become fearful of my reactions was a powerful motivator for change. I did not want my children to grow up with a mother who spent most of her life living on the negative side. I wanted to be remembered for my smile, not my scowl. I wanted to be a safe haven, not someone to avoid.
I wanted to be a Silver Lining Spotter and teach my children to look on the bright side too.
My vow to have a more peaceful and predictable demeanor did not mean I promised to never cross those fragile state lines. I am human after all. Even now, nearly five years into this journey, I still cross those fragile state lines. I get sad, frustrated, angry, hopeless, and insecure. Yes, I still cross those state lines, but there is a profound difference in what I do once I get there.
I do not stay.
I come back.
I come back home before I get too far down a damaging path.
It happened recently as I was pulling my car into the garage after picking up my daughter from swim team practice. It was dark outside and the rain was coming down hard. For some reason, the garage door opener was not working. I pulled the car up as close to the door as I could, but it still would not open. I ended up going through the house to lift the door. When I eventually pulled the car in, it was at a different angle than usual. I proceeded to scrape the side of the car against the brick wall.
Suddenly I felt like a young, inexperienced driver who was going to have to confess to her parents that she damaged the car. My inner perfectionist quickly sabotaged any calm, rational thoughts I’d hoped to have in that moment.
“Why did I do that? WHY????” I cried out. “I should have been more careful!” I slammed my fist against the steering wheel in frustration.
My younger daughter put her hands over her ears and my older daughter forcefully declared, “Mom! It was a mistake! It’s okay!”
And that’s when I heard the life-saving words that distinguish me from who I once was to who I am now. “Come back. Come back,” my loving internal navigation system whispered. “You don’t have to go any farther down that damaging path. Come back. Come back.”
I forced myself to look into the eyes of my children in an effort to gather some perspective and remember they are learning how to respond to life’s challenges by watching my responses. “We are all okay, aren’t we?” I said quietly, reminding myself what was really important.
There was a collective sigh from the backseat. It wasn’t too long ago that I would have had difficulty coming back. The old me would have gone on a rant, broke down and cried, or berated myself endlessly. Shortly thereafter, I’d arrive at Regret—and Regret, as you may know, offers a lot of one-way tickets. It’s one of the hardest places to ever leave.
“Maybe it’s not so bad,” I said hopefully as I got out of the car to inspect the damage. And to my surprise, the sound of the accident was much worse than it actually was.
“See, Mama? It’s okay! We’re okay!” my optimistic younger daughter said surveying the damage with a smile. And then, while standing there looking at my scraped up car, I managed to smile back at her. I was so relieved I’d chosen to come home.
I hope I can choose it again … and again … and again. And I hope the same for you.
Perhaps next time you’re faced with another ear infection, an overflowing toilet, or one of life’s disappointments or dead ends, two words will pop into your head. Perhaps one of these suggestions will return you to peaceful territory …
Forgive the one who wronged you.
Decide this isn’t over.
Decide you’ve only just begun.
Lower the bar. It’s good enough for the people who love you.
Scale back. Surrender the pressure to “do it all.”
Take ten minutes to do something you love.
Take an old hand or a young hand in yours. See loving memories and future possibilities in their palms.
Whisper: “Let it be. Let it be.”
Declare: “I cannot control, so let me release.”
Turn up a good song.
Call up a good friend.
Hug the person nearest you.
Hug the person farthest out of reach.
Put something of value in someone’s empty cup.
Walk outside and spot something beautiful.
Dig inside and find something beautiful you thought was gone.
Don’t stay in a place you cannot thrive.
Crossing those fragile state lines is part of being human. But don’t stay in a place you cannot thrive. Come back. The door might be difficult to open. And it might not be a flawless entry. But once you get back to a state of peace, it’s easier to see what’s important.
“It’s okay. We are all okay,” you or a loved one might say despite the scrapes and bruises you see. Come back. Come back. There’s no map needed. Just listen to that little voice reminding you that love can bring you home.
This essay was originally published in April 2020 to accompany the release of Rachel’s book Live Love Now: Relieve the Pressure and Find Real Connection with Our Kids. Her recent bestselling book is Soul Shift: The Weary Human’s Guide to Getting Unstuck and Reclaiming Your Path to Joy, which was published in March 2023 and is available at your favorite bookseller.