An Excerpt from Don't Sweat the Small Stuff for Teens Introduction
I loved being a teen. Then again, sometimes I hated it. I was often enthused but at times apathetic. Occasionally I had vision and a purpose, but other times I was totally confused. Sometimes I was nice, but other times I could be quite selfish, even a real jerk. The first time I fell in love was when I was a teen. That was also the first time I flunked a test. I was a talented athlete but not a great student. At times I was confident, but then again I was embarrassed a lot too. In high school I was so frightened to speak in front of groups that I fainted -- twice. I was excited about my future but also a little scared. I was probably a pretty typical teen.
Yet despite the difficulties I faced, I was always, deep down, a happy person, a natural-born "peacemaker." I cared about the feelings of others and was saddened by cruelty. I loved and appreciated my life, my family, and my friends. For the most part, I stayed out of trouble. I remember wanting to do the right thing. My guess is that a lot of this applies to you too.
Before my teen years were over, I knew I wanted to dedicate my life to the study of happiness and to help others do the same. In college, I became a "big brother" for the Big Brothers of America program, which was one of the highlights of my young life. That, along with a few other things I was involved in, taught me, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that the best and surest way to become happy and content was by being thoughtful and helpful to others.
Over time, I learned that there were a few other major components to being happy and successful. Much of it is pretty simple. It involves perspective, wisdom, and most of all, the ability to not be irritated, bothered, and annoyed by the day-to-day things that happen to all of us. In short, the key is to stop sweating the small stuff!
At some point, it became obvious to me (as I'm sure it already is for you) that certain "big stuff" is going to happen to all of us -- and that there isn't anything we can really do about it, except, perhaps, to pray for strength and to do our best. Every single one of us experiences loss, difficulties, obstacles, and tragedies. The details will differ, but we all have problems.
And that's precisely why it's so important to learn to stop sweating the small stuff. Life is hard enough when we have to deal with really significant things. But if we can't deal with even the little stuff very well, then we're in for a rocky road. In fact, if we can't learn to stop sweating the small stuff, we're pretty much guaranteed to be stressed out, frustrated, and unhappy much of the time, because either we will be dealing with something really big or we'll be stressing over something fairly small. After all, everything is either one or the other -- big or small.
Most people agree that it's pretty tough being a teen. All things considered, however, it's clear to me that it's tougher now than ever. There are the obvious things -- drugs, violence, two-income families, dangerous sexual issues, divorce, peer pressure, aggression, and the influence of technology. But there are the less obvious things too -- not feeling needed or wanted, mixed messages from parents and society, a ton of negative role models everywhere we look, incredible pressure to perform, self-worth based on accomplishments, and an insecure future, to name just a few.
While learning to stop sweating the small stuff won't make these things go away and won't solve all your problems immediately, it will make dealing with them a little easier. The reason: As you learn to be more accepting of life and as little things don't get to you as much, you will get used to handling things in healthier, easier ways, and with far less struggle. You will become happier, more content and confident, and more at peace with yourself. Consequently, over time, even the big things won't seem quite as bad or as insurmountable.
When we get bent out of shape by little things, when we are irritated at ourselves and others, our (over)reactions not only make us stressed out and miserable, but they actually get in the way of our getting what we want. We lose our bearings, cloud our vision, stumble, and get down on ourselves. We also tend to annoy others who might be in a position to help us or guide us. In short, sweating the small stuff while trying to maneuver through your teens is a huge distraction. It's a little like playing basketball on a slippery ice rink! In other words, your own frustrations and reactions will get in the way of being able to see answers and solutions.
It's understandable why most of us sweat the small stuff. To begin with, we certainly see a lot of others doing it. When we're in the car, for example, and an adult driver is cursing at traffic and clenching his fists, the subtle message is "If life isn't exactly the way you want it to be, you should become upset." We get tens of thousands of these "Go ahead and sweat the small stuff" lessons when we're kids and while we're growing up. Think back. How many times did someone in that situation say to you, "Don't worry about it. Traffic is simply a part of life. We will get to where we need to go and we'll probably be on time too"? Probably not very often!
Another example: When someone is criticized, or feels someone doesn't like him or her, the typical response is to become defensive or hurt. Again, how many times when you were growing up did you hear someone, after being criticized, respond by saying "Criticism is just a way that certain people express themselves. It says less about me than it does about that person's need to criticize me. It's okay, there's no need to take it personally"? In other words, how many people didn't sweat the criticism?
How about when something doesn't go someone's way -- she has a minor setback, a traffic ticket, a difference of opinion, or loses her keys? As you know, the typical reaction is to complain, wish that life were different, and feel bad, angry, or ripped off. Have you ever watched adults waiting in line in a grocery store or post office? If so, you'll often see loads of frustration, glaring at watches, and under-the-breath comments. Very seldom do you see people exhibiting great patience in day-to-day living.
Yet can you imagine what your life would be like if you learned to sweat the small stuff even a little less often -- if these kinds of things, and so many others, simply didn't get to you very much? Can you imagine the edge you'd enjoy in life? No, your life wouldn't be perfect. Yet it would be substantially easier and more manageable. You would get along with others even better than you already do, and your communication skills would improve. You'd feel really good about yourself most of the time, and even when you screwed up, you'd get over it more quickly. Likewise, you'd be more confident because everything wouldn't seem like such a big deal and the stakes wouldn't seem so high. You'd be easier on others too, more patient and forgiving, for example. You'd have more fun too, because your sense of humor would get better, and you'd see the funny side of things. As we learn in Zen philosophy, when you let go of things rather than struggle against them, your life will begin to flow, and when it does, you'll be on your way to a great life.
There's no question that being around someone who doesn't sweat the small stuff very often (teens or nonteens) is pretty cool and reassuring. And that person can be you. Truthfully, it's not very difficult because all it involves is a little insight, trying a few new things, and looking at stuff a little differently. In fact, it's probably going to be even easier for you than for your parents and other adults because they have far more years of bad habits to overcome. My experience in working with and talking to teens is that you guys pick up on this stuff faster than anyone.
I'm not going to try to lecture you. I don't think you need me to do that. Unlike some people, I don't think the average teen of today is "messed up" any more than the average teen was back when I was a teen.
Nor am I going to try to be one of you. I'm not. I'm thirty-nine years old and haven't been a teen for almost twenty years. In fact, my daughters will be teens before too long. I'm not going to try to impress you in any way, such as trying to speak or write any different from the way I usually do. I'm just going to be myself. I've received so much mail over the years from teens that indicate that you're plenty able to read and appreciate my material.
My goal in writing this book is simply to share with you in the same way that I've shared before. My greatest strength is to teach people to be a little happier. I believe that the same types of things that help older people to become happier apply to teens as well.
I hope you'll give these strategies a fair try. I think you're going to like them, and I believe that they can make a difference. I've been blessed with thousands of beautiful letters from teens around the world, saying how much learning to stop sweating the small stuff has helped them deal with life more effectively. I hope you will feel the same way. My guess is that as you incorporate these ideas into your life, you will sense a world of difference. Good luck and have fun!
Copyright ©2000 Richard Carlson, Ph.D.