How I Became an Accidental Mentor (and Improved My Own Life While Helping Others)

For some people, making new friends is easy and something they can do naturally and frequently.  At times, I envied people who had large circles of friends and endless opportunities to be social.  For me, friends have always been few, but close.  I was raised to always take time to be alone so I could learn to be content without the need to always be around other people.  This proved extremely helpful during the years I lived alone and I continue to seek solace in quiet times, uninterrupted by others.

Making friends was never a strong suit for me.  I’m great at making acquaintances, possibly because growing up, I switched schools fairly often and while I’ve mostly grown out of it, I was quite shy as a child and fearful of being teased so I tried to blend in and just keep a few friends.  Even as an adult, I moved around often, including across the state.  It was difficult to keep in touch with people, especially with the internet and cell phones still being new and nowhere near as mainstream as they are currently, so I got used to having temporary friends, and was okay with it.

Currently, I’ve lived in the same neighborhood for about six years and have developed some strong friendships.  But one of my more recent friendships evolved into a type of relationship I’ve never had with anyone—a mentorship.  I’ve given advice as long as I can remember, hopefully good advice, but this turned into much more than that.  I became part counselor, part life coach and close friend.

This friend is dealing with a lot of difficulties right now and her world has pretty much turned upside down over the last year.  Chaos runs rampant from all directions and her need to please people is exhausting her.  While it’s been overwhelming at times, I feel so fortunate to have been put in a place where she and I could meet and develop this friendship.  While I give her motivation and advice regularly, she is teaching me a lot about myself as well, like how I can calm people down and take wisdom I’ve learned and apply it to life.

It’s not always easy, but being an accidental mentor has improved my life greatly and I’ve never been happier.

Here are some of the best things I’ve learned and practice that have made me happy:

Be positive.  Life is rarely all kittens and butterflies, but that doesn’t mean we should live in a constant state of misery.  When you are negative, you will be more vigilant of negativity in your life and it can snowball until you have a meltdown.  Instead, channel your positivity and you will notice more and more positive things happen in your life.

For example, if you look at what your Facebook friends are posting, you may notice some always have something to complain about and nothing seems to go right for them.  Maybe they slept in, got stuck in traffic, had a bad day at work and are “just so done with today…ugh.  #annoyed”  Just writing that caused me to feel a touch of negativity.  Because they tend to focus on what’s going wrong in life, they’re missing out on all the good in life.  Maybe they needed the extra sleep they got when they overslept.  Maybe they would have gotten in an accident if they hadn’t been stuck in traffic.  Or maybe the reason their day went so bad was because a coworker was dealing with the loss of a loved one and treating everyone poorly as a reaction.

If you seek out negativity, you will certainly find it.  However, if you make an effort to find something positive in every experience, you will notice that good things just keep happening in your life.  You will grow to appreciate the bad times because they teach you lessons on how to succeed and truly value the great times in life.

Look for the good.  Something that helps support a positive attitude is to look for the good in every situation.  Two years ago, my husband was in a bad accident and totaled my vehicle.  It was extremely upsetting and threw our lives for a loop.  But we maintained a positive attitude and tried to always find the good.

  • My vehicle was pretty old and would probably have needed replacement or heavy repair in the near future
  • The insurance company gave me at least double what I could have gotten had I sold my vehicle myself
  • It was good he was in my vehicle because mine had the safety features that helped him survive the accident, where his vehicle was much older and lacked these safety features
  • In replacing my vehicle, I was introduced  to a company that I ended up applying to work for and have been happily employed at for over a year
  • We learned all about medical billing and insurance to give us better knowledge of both in the future (whoopee, right?  But seriously, this is good stuff to know.)

If you’re having trouble finding good things each day, get a notebook and every evening, write down 5 good things that happened that day.  They can be as simple as having a good hair day or receiving a compliment on your outfit to more major things, like getting a raise or promotion.  This will help you get in the habit of appreciating all the good things that happen on a regular basis.

Turn anxiety into excitement. Anxiety and stress are natural feelings we all experience.  When we panic, we’re told to stay calm.  However, that is an unnatural reaction to a natural feeling.  Instead of fighting the feeling, find a way to turn it into excitement and you will feel a wave of energy and motivation that will help you move on.

For example, if you are anxious about giving a presentation at a meeting, instead think about how exciting it is and use that excitement to grow your confidence and think about how happy you will be when you’ve succeeded.  Or maybe you’re nervous about an upcoming trip to a place you’ve never been.  Think instead of how exciting it is that you get to go, all the fun things you’ll get to do and how lucky you are to be going on the trip.  This will quickly change the negativity surrounding the anxiety with positive excitement.

Tackle things – including time – in small pieces.  Most people have heard the saying used in Alcoholics Anonymous meetings of “one day at a time.”  If you really stop to think about what that means you will see how applicable it is to everything in life, not just dealing with drinking.  It’s the idea to not get overwhelmed by the big picture, because let’s face it, the big picture of life is extremely overwhelming.  Even a week can be overwhelming.  When you feel like there’s too much to handle, stop right there, and tackle a small portion at a time.

When you’re overwhelmed by a massive task, it makes it that much harder to even get started.  However, if you focus just on completing just the first step, you will find yourself moving right along completing the project.  For example, if you know you have a really busy day ahead of you, with lots of meetings, deadlines and expectations from others, it can be very difficult to imagine how you will get anything done.  But if you compartmentalize your day into little chunks (i.e. “what can I accomplish in the next 30 minutes?”) the challenge will be much less overwhelming, you’ll be able to focus more efficiently, and tackle each task with a clear mind.  At the end of the day, you will then get to delight in the feeling of accomplishment you have from getting so much done.

Be honest.  I was raised, as many were, under the saying “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”  My mother taught me how to be polite, cordial and appear genuinely thankful when receiving gifts that were truly horrendous.  It was important to make sure others feel good and to always try to avoid saying anything that would upset others.

This is wonderful in theory, but not very realistic.  And as I stuck to always trying to say the right thing and be polite, I noticed that I was suppressing my true, honest, real feelings and it didn’t feel so good.  It would get to the point where I would just bottle everything up and explode when I hit my boiling point.  It actually ended up causing me health problems, having to be treated for ulcers when I was just 23 years old.

One of the most amazing things this friend—my mentee—has enabled me to do is to be absolutely honest.  It’s unfortunate how much work it has taken to get to this point, and I still struggle, but it feels so amazing to be able to tell her exactly what I’m thinking and what I suggest.  When she has contacted me crying, devastated and feeling hopeless, I can calm her down and tell her to stop panicking, try to find the positive and that she has no choice but to keep moving on and get over this rough patch rather than just sympathize with her and exacerbate her despair.

At first I felt awful not being more sympathetic, but I realized what she needed was strength, motivation and hope that she would soon feel better.  By being honest, i not only make her feel better, but I feel better myself because I’m able to say what I really feel.

Now understand there’s tactful ways and rude ways to be honest.  The goal isn’t to tell everyone exactly what you think of them, it’s to vocalize words that will be helpful and appreciated.  Find a way to speak the truth in the same manner you would appreciate receiving it.  Don’t hold in your feelings when things are unjust, but be aware of how you are reacting.  It may feel strange at first, but even try telling the truth to the mirror in a way you’d like to be told.

Be a good example.  It may sound a little narcissistic, but try to live every day as if people are watching you.  Because they are.  It is your employer’s job to make sure you are acting in a way that best represents their company and that you are performing at an acceptable level.  But many other people watch you—children, customers, family and friends.  Understand that your actions, beliefs and moods affect everyone around you.  You are a pretty powerful person with influence on those you encounter each day.

Just think, if you go to your favorite coffee shop and the barista seems to snub you a little and you react to her.  Who knows why she acted that way—maybe she just got bad news, maybe she has a headache or is extremely busy and overwhelmed.  Try not to take it personally because chances are her behavior has nothing to do with you.

  • Here’s two scenarios:
    • When she snubs you, you think “well what’s up with her attitude?” and give her a dirty look.  Maybe she takes a little longer than usual because maybe they’re out of soy milk and she has to go to the back room to get more and it was recently mopped back there so she has to be really careful to not slip.  And maybe they just ran out of your favorite muffin so you have to settle for a bagel.  After a slightly longer than normal wait and not getting what you want, you’re frustrated so you don’t bother tipping at all.  She’s frustrated and you’re frustrated and you both pass that attitude along to the people you encounter who then pass it along as well.  Negativity snowballs and spreads.
    • When she snubs you, you smile at her and mention that it looks like the shop is really busy today.  Maybe she reacts kindly or maybe she has attitude.  Either way, you maintain a positive attitude and have happy thoughts toward her.  You give her a slightly larger tip than usual or slip her a gift card and wish her a great day.  The next time you go in, she’s friendly and upgrades your drink from a tall to a grande at no charge.  You’re surprised by her generosity, so you decide to surprise something with your generosity by paying for their drink.  And you continue to have a positive relationship with the barista and you both spread kindness to all you encounter the rest of the day.

Now which scenario sounds better?  Spreading negativity to all you meet or brightening the day of everyone you encounter?  It may feel like strength and power to carry a grudge and be angry, but it’s a weakness that turns you into a bitter, unhappy person, and it can even lead to health problems caused by raised blood pressure from the anger adrenaline and tension.

By making an effort to always be a good example to all those around you, you will find it easier to remain positive and surprised by the opportunities that come your way because of your good attitude!

Don’t take things so personally.  It’s easy to think the way a person treats you is directly caused by their feelings toward you.  The truth is, when someone’s having a bad day or are upset, their mind focuses on the issue at hand and they are often not even aware of how they appear to or treat others.  It’s actually pretty self-centered to think you hold that much power in another person’s life that they would change all of their behavior just because of you.  I realize this seems to contradict my previous point about mistreating the barista, but even in that situation, it’s temporary—the barista is not actually angry with you, she’s upset about something unrelated.  your mistreatment (or kindness) is temporary until you leave, but chances are, unless you are truly horrible to someone, you’re not going to be the reason their day is ruined.

The key to remember is if someone mistreats you, it’s very likely unrelated to you and the best thing you can do is be that spot of sunshine in their day, even if they decide not to enjoy it.  Let them be miserable and certainly don’t let it ruin your day.

Think kindly of others. We all have to deal with people we don’t particularly like from time to time or even on a regular basis.  But fostering negative thoughts toward others poisons our mind and starts to make us bitter and negative.  While some people are just genuinely awful, it’s important to examine why we don’t like someone and determine whether it’s valid.

Now even if it is a valid reason, holding ill feelings toward others is counterproductive to happiness.  Since it can be difficult to change others (and maddening!) make an effort to change your own mindset.  It’s easy to focus on their faults, but that leads to continually looking for their faults and continually finding more and more to irritate yourself with.

Instead, change your mindset by focusing on positive things about people, especially people you aren’t fond of.  Maybe they look nice today or they did something generous or they’re really good at something.  Start focusing on those characteristics instead of their flaws and you will notice how they become easier to be around and how many more positive things you start noticing in them.

To take it a step further, start complimenting them on these positive things.  Obviously we can’t read each others’ minds, but we can sense when others don’t like us.  So when you think bad things about someone, they generally can feel your negativity.  So as you start to become more positive and start projecting that on to them, they will often return the positivity.  And if they don’t, then just keep your positive thoughts to yourself, let them do as they please and continue to be positive.

Start every day with something motivating or positive.  The best way to keep a positive mindset is to start first thing every morning.  Nearly every morning, I play some kind of motivational YouTube video to listen to while I get ready.  I listen to TedTalks or just search for “motivational success” and see what comes up.  If the video seems relevant to a friend, I’ll send a link along so they can be motivated as well.  This has been one of the most influential things I have done this year to really get me off to a positive start each day.

I also started waking up an hour earlier.  This way, I have plenty of time to get things done in the morning and don’t feel rushed or stressed if I encounter heavy traffic on my way to work.  I get to work a bit early so I have time to get settled in before having to start my day.

Changing what I listen to on the way to work has made a difference as well.  I had gotten into the habit of listening to local radio stations with morning shows that didn’t have the greatest quality and actually, quite a bit of drama.  I realized these were causing me a bit of stress, which sounds silly, but it was unnecessary drama and not a peaceful way to start my day.  Ideally, I shouldn’t have any noise when I’m driving so I can take the time to reflect on my day and just listen to my thoughts.  So instead, I started listening to an instrumental CD of peaceful, beautiful music.  It puts a sense of calm on me so I arrive at my destination relaxed and positive, not stressed out.

Reflection

These are just some of the behaviors I’ve been practicing that I have found to really improve my life and have really helped my friend get through many tough times as well.  And I find that the more I practice these behaviors, the more positive and happy I feel as well.  I always look for the positive things each day and try to get excited about what the future holds.

Perhaps some day I will become a true mentor to someone, but for the time being, I’ve learned that it’s something I’m capable of and it can truly improve my life!

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