For those of you who may not have noticed…I’ve been MIA from this blog for a while. For those of you who noticed, this post is both my way of an explanation and my attempt to offer you something out of my time spent away.
You know that phrase, “I’ll get to it when I come up for air”? I’ve used it a million times without really thinking about its meaning. Recently, the metaphor has meant more to me than usual. Have you ever been out in the ocean with tired limbs when the waves mysteriously picked up and you couldn’t get your footing…and then for just a moment or two you were pushed under by the sheer force of the water’s power and had to struggle to break through to the surface and catch your breath? This is how I’ve felt for the past two months.
To say that I’ve been overwhelmed doesn’t quite capture the feeling. I feel like I have been swimming against the power of something bigger, stronger, fiercer than me…something naturally compelled to move without any regard for its effect on me or on the people I love. Both literally and figuratively, my family and I have had some excruciating and disempowering battles with nature lately. I apologize for being so vague, but I won’t get into specifics here in order to protect our collective privacy. I’ll just say that some cliches are cliches for a reason, and “When it rains, it pours” is one of them.
I also don’t think that you need to know the details of my personal situation to understand the sentiment or take something from this post. I think that most people would agree that there are certain experiences that are a common part of the human condition. There are those periods in one’s life–despite every or any attempt to plan ahead and control how events unfold–that come stocked with a level of misfortune that feels impossible to surmount. It’s the kind of misfortune and subsequent emotion that isn’t specific to urban, suburban, or rural life. Most people (including me) like to think that through our actions we might be able to avoid times like these. But, we do not live our lives in independent bubbles, nor are we the sole masters of our environments or, at times, even ourselves.
To get to the point (“Finally!” you’re probably saying), I have been thinking a lot lately about what helps people (and specifically me) survive times like the one that I’m referencing above. I’ve been asking myself: When it seems impossible to go on, what do I do to cope? What should I do to cope? What helps me? What makes things more difficult? How do I deal with my own grief/stress/pain and yet remain strong enough to support the people I love?
Below are my thoughts in response to these questions. My hope is that by offering them, anyone out there going though something similarly difficult or disempowering is able to extract something from them that alleviates their pain even just a little and allows them to come up for the air we all need to survive. These thoughts may not be novel, but I think it’s difficult for many of us to remember their importance when overwhelmed by negative circumstances. So, it’s also a reminder for me as well as I deal with life’s difficulties.
1. Recognize that no one–including you– is superhuman. Be kind to yourself, and don’t set up unreasonable expectations for how you should behave or feel or what you think you should be able to accomplish while battling something painful. Same goes for anyone who might be going through something with you. Be aware that you may be more sensitive than usual when emotionally struggling and may not be seeing the world clearly at all times. Exercise compassion for you and the people around you. No one is (or should be expected to be) perfect. When someone injures their knee, the worst thing they might try to do is to try to run a marathon on it. While you’re contending with something, allow yourself to set aside less important or pressing priorities and to focus on what’s essential. Let the small stuff be small stuff.
2. Talk–openly, honestly, fearlessly–to someone you trust. Journaling and self-reflection are definitely worthwhile pursuits but should not replace dialogue. Talking to another person about what you’re going through is essential because it is easy to lose perspective when the only viewpoint you have is your own. When things are bad, negative thoughts can easily snowball, and it is easier to become irrational. Whether you’re talking with a loved one or a therapist, it can be extremely useful to hear another side of what you’re seeing. None of us have all the answers, and it can be extremely isolating to try to bear an enormous burden alone. Talking is an emotional release. When we voice our worst fears, it sometimes allows us to deconstruct them and make them less frightening while allowing others to give us alternate viewpoints that may change our perceptions. Doing so can strip them of some of their power.
3. Don’t be hesitant to lean on people / seek help. This one is directly related to both #1 and #2, and depending on your personality, can be easier said than done. It’s important to ask for support when you need it. If you work in an office, it can help to tell a colleague or two that you are going through something (even if you explain it in vague terms), which may evoke more empathetic, supportive, and compassionate behavior. It can be particularly hard to balance your work life with your personal life when something difficult arises.
On the flip side, it’s equally important to give those you love the full picture of your stressors and the difficulties you’re experiencing. If work is an additional stressor, it’s important to communicate that this is the case to anyone living with you or close to you. Difficult times can have an impact on your demeanor and attitude. In short, you may not be behaving like yourself. In order to prevent what you’re going through from affecting your personal relationships, take the time to tell people you interact with regularly that you are going through something and need them to do “X” to help you get through it. In general, giving people the context that you’re going through something helps them be gentler with you and to respond more appropriately to your needs…BUT…be specific about how they can help you. Don’t expect people to magically read your mind and understand your needs–and don’t try to read theirs or make assumptions about how they should be behaving. (Remember, you often have no idea what is happening in other people’s lives and how it may be affecting their actions.) And if you need professional help of any kind to deal with something, get it. There is no shame in asking for or accepting help, so don’t be stubborn about it. It’s less admirable to take on more than you (or probably anyone) can handle.
4. Amid your troubles, create small breaks and other things to look forward to/enjoy. Here is where you need to again remember to be your own friend. If what you’re experiencing is ongoing, it’s important to schedule in things that temporarily take the weight of what you’re carrying off your shoulders and remind you that life can be good. What this might mean is different for everyone. For me, it could be going swimming, reading, painting, having coffee with a friend, getting a quick massage, visiting a museum, going for a bike ride, or simply taking a walk with the hubby, a family member, or a close friend. It’s essential to my mental health. Basically, just do something healthy that you typically enjoy. When you feel down, you may not feel like doing it at first, but once you actually begin the activity, it may start to lift your mood. If you have obligations, ask someone to momentarily step in and take over while you take a break to do something good for you. (See #3.)
5. Do what you can, and don’t become consumed by what you can’t. It is productive and good for the soul to identify what you can do to improve a situation and then to put those things into motion through your actions. But, there are some things that are not within anyone’s full control. You can’t change the past, redo what’s been done, or steer forces outside of your domain, which may make you feel helpless. Don’t dwell on the forces out of your control; focus on doing what you can do. Letting go of the need to control everything can be necessary to achieving any sense of peace. The world is not always fair, and I don’t believe that all things happen for a reason that is meant to teach you something. Sometimes bad things just undeservingly happen to good people. Just know that almost everyone experiences low points and undergoes some tragedy at some point. It is part of being human, and most of the time when your neighbor is going through something painful, you’re unlikely to see it.
Earlier this year, an acquaintance told me about the horrible hardships he and his wife’s families had gone through in the prior year. “Wow,” I said. “I had no idea.” He said, “Yeah, it’s funny isn’t it. We all walk around assuming everyone else’s lives are perfect. There is so much you don’t know about people you may interact with on a daily basis.” Removing the expectation or the feeling of entitlement for everything to be good all the time can be somewhat freeing for me. It also makes me appreciate a little more when things are good.
6. Allow yourself to cry–or even scream–when you need to, but work against constant wallowing. Crying is the body’s way of physically releasing all that negative stuff building up inside you, and you should not be ashamed of it. Some people–particularly men in my experience–are afraid to cry because they are afraid that it will cause them to lose control. They are afraid it means that they are not strong. That’s all BS. Sometimes, a good cry is what you need to release the stress and anxiety building inside of you. With that said, wallowing is something completely different and can adversely affect both your physical and mental health.
When a string of negative thoughts seem to be emerging, I try to follow them with something related or unrelated that is a positive. It often helps me break the chain and reframes my thinking. Recently, a friend told me that when going through something rough, she keeps a jar containing strips of paper with positive thoughts (small and large in nature) on them. Each time she thinks of something good or reads an inspirational quote that put things in perspective she writes it down and puts it in the jar. When she is struggling to be optimistic about anything, she will go open the jar and take out a few of the positive thoughts and read them to herself.
7. Say no to the wrong things and yes to the right ones. When life seems to be beating you up, you may naturally gravitate to things that appear to be escapes but actually hurt you more than help you. No one has ever “drank their troubles away” successfully in my mind. Alcohol is a natural depressant, and while someone may think they are numbing themselves, that numbing actually mirrors what it feels like to be clinically depressed. Positive ideas for how to get through or improve your situation rarely manifest through getting drunk–and this is also true of various other types of substance abuse that may end up only adding to your troubles. I’m not a teetotaler, but I try to cut down on my intake of bad-decision juice when I’m emotionally struggling with anything. Getting drunk usually only makes me feel worse when I’m not doing well to start. When you feel like crap, you probably also don’t feel like exercising or doing many of the things that might strengthen your ability to cope with your current circumstances. But, once you force yourself to do it, the process releases endorphins that are good for you, and it releases tension that may be building in your body. In essence, what I’m saying here is to attempt to take care of yourself more than ever when things are bad.
Again, all of the above may not be rocket science, but I know that when I’m deeply mired in something emotionally painful, it is hard for me to keep these things in mind. It can be difficult to maintain perspective when your mind is contending with so much else. I plan to post these in my bedroom so that I see them when I wake up every day until the waters of my life have calmed a bit more. I hope these thoughts are of use to some of you as well and that the extra context makes them more than just annoying platitudes.