A week ago, I received some news I wasn’t expecting. It was news that travelled down the phone quickly and sideways before burying itself into my ear – with just the same amount of comfort you’d expect a sand crab would have in your acoustic meatus. That is, negative six on the Ear Canal Comfort Scale.
Now, to be clear, no one died. My life continued spinning normally around the same axis upon which it had revolved the day before. In fact, the news itself is irrelevant to this story. What’s relevant is my reaction. I was disappointed, disheartened, and – during my let-me-throw-a-tantrum-first-before-I-deal-with-this-effectively fervour – angry that life hadn’t gone my way.
Because why can’t it always go my way? WHY?!
Moving on from questions with answers I don’t like (because I know – but continually resist – that the world doesn’t revolve around me), I was simply in pain.
When in pain, the Professional Struggler in me wishes to give in to the drive to fight with the pain: To change it, to get rid of it, to make it something other than what it is.
The thing is that I’ve had a bit of experience with pain before now and if there was career recognition for Professional Struggling, I’d be Employee of the Month many times over. I have frown lines that are not just from demonstrating empathy as I walk alongside someone else on their own healing journey. I have heart scars that are raised from picking at them for too long. I’m all too familiar with the quest to be rid of discomfort.
It’s taught me one thing for sure: Struggling feels like the right response but it produces the wrong results. You’ll get a symphony when all you were prepared for was a triangle. Or a pack of wolves when you only asked for a puppy.
It doesn’t work.
Get this: That goes for pain of all colours, not just the disappointed, frustrated, the-world-has-failed-me-purple kind. Choose to struggle when your hurt and the discomfort is bound to grow louder, bigger, and more unruly than it was when it first showed up in your Crayola colours set of feelings available for today.
This is the part where I offer you some sage advice about how to how to approach pain differently to revolutionise your experience of life when it doesn’t go your way. But the truth is that although my advice is based on hard-won personal growth and a decent number of years of clinical experience, it isn’t advice that will be easy to swallow. I’m not going to impart a life secret that you missed somewhere along the road to healthy adulthood that will keep your emotional canvass free of the less likable colours (I’m talking to you, “Flesh” and “Orange Red”). These suggestions are all “easier said than done”, and I’m convinced they require lifelong practice. And, even so, I promise they are worth it.
They are worth it because sometimes doing what’s counterintuitive is surprisingly effective. They are worth it because I’ve learned that it feels better to hold life the way I like to hold hands: Gently, with hope, and with the compassionate understanding that all skin bleeds when it’s cut.
To hold life gently, when you’d rather fight, struggle, cling, resist, or run, try this instead:
Choose acceptance over resistance.
In the realm of counterintuitive strategies for emotional pain, acceptance is top of the list for most misunderstood and most difficult to practice. Acceptance does not mean that you approve of the pain, like the pain, or want the pain. It simply means that you acknowledge pain as a normal part of our human experience and allow it to be what it is without judging it, trying to change it, or attempting to get rid of it. Acceptance is not about giving up and wallowing in pain so that you drown. It is about living through the pain while committing to doing what needs to be done to heal and move forward.
Choose to stay rather than walk out on yourself.
Whoa. Walking out on oneself is destructively addictive. It’s much easier to give up. Or choose emotional band aids that only hide the festering wound temporarily. Or feed the voices that scream abuse and criticism at you all day long. There is another option, though. You can choose to stay and be with yourself. You can choose to do what you need to heal – even when those things are harder or less palatable in the short term. To back yourself and to keep going. And you can choose in favour of your own team (that is, you and you).
Choose to expand your perspective rather than contract.
Hurting hearts are at best blinkered and at worst, blind. Tunnel vision toward the thing that caused your pain is natural, but not helpful. Choose to widen your perspective of the situation, even if that means asking someone you trust to help you see your position from as many different windows as possible. This doesn’t mean you must change your mind. It simply means that you get the opportunity to reframe your pain with a view that doesn’t leave you feeling trapped.
Choose to let go rather than clench your grip.
Struggling usually involves some form of white-knuckled grip – on control that you don’t have in times of uncertainty; on the past that refuses to change to a version you approve of; on mistakes you wish you hadn’t made; on news you wish went the way of a world determined to please you. Letting go means you acknowledge where you don’t have control. It means you move into uncertainty. It means you get brave about the flow of things, even when you don’t know how the chapter turns out (or why it’s gone this way in the first place).
Choose to listen to yourself rather than turn away.
When we are hurting, our world is one of sensory deprivation. It’s not only blind, but it’s also deaf, making it very difficult to hear anything other than negativity. But I invite you to do it differently. I invite you to listen with an ear free of sand crabs. I invite you to listen to your kind voice. The one that offers you empathy and reassurance. The one that validates the pain with self-love and intuitively guides you back to yourself through the confusion and discontent.
Choose to open up rather than close down.
The rough and raw emotions generally prefer the darkness. They encourage you to isolate, hibernate, and ruminate. All of these actions have their place in the (initial stages) of any healing process, but none of them are gentle in the long term and they keep you trapped in a cycle of withdrawal and distress.
Open up to support. Ask for help: From someone you trust, first. And then from yourself when you’re able to hold your own hand. And if there is no one close that you trust right now, go and see a professional. We care and want to help.
Choose in favour of possibility rather than give up on hope.
It might not have worked out the way you wanted it to, right now. But that doesn’t mean that every single opportunity that life has to offer you has already happened, leaving you a cardboard existence from here onwards. Grieve for what will not be and when you’re able, go gently into possibility of what might be, even if you can’t yet imagine what it may look like.
Choose permission over attack.
An armed heart is a defensive heart. That’s not a gentle way to hold pain, that’s holding pain with the expectation of further emotional violence (either from yourself or from life itself). Personally, I suggest you move into a place of permission instead. Grant yourself permission to be where you are: You’re allowed not to decide; to choose again; to ignore advice (even this advice); to stop and rest; to go in a different direction. But you’re not allowed to attack yourself for hurting in the first place.
Choose patience over haste.
Yes, I know. Time heals all wounds and better days are coming and all that (collective eye roll). Platitudes aside, some things rival the time it’s taken for Will and Grace to return in order to change, grow, heal, work out, resolve, or simply to stop being so damn painful. That doesn’t mean you’ll get over it. But having patience through the process will be a whole lot more comfortable than trying to force the unrushable.
Choose a story that encourages you, not diminishes you.
Choose to reject any story you’re running in your head that damages your spirit:
- The story of not good enough
- The story of failure
- The story of it will never work out for me
- The story of I’m unworthy
- The story of I’m unlovable
- The story of giving up is the only option
- The story of I’m defined by my past
- The story of I’m lost and will never be found
- The story of I can never love myself
Choose another story. The beauty is that you’re the author of your life and you can write it however you’d like to read it. If you’ve been hearing the above stories for awhile, perhaps it might sound foreign initially. But I beg of you: Write a story that fills your heart with fire and leaves your spirit no option but rally, rise and look forward.
Here’s to the practice of holding it all gently. I’m committing to it, even when life doesn’t go my way.