October 30, 2016
Woooheee, was this week wonky or what? The tone of my sessions this week felt heavy and turbulent, like walking through mud. Many people were facing less-than-optimal situations in their lives, and felt downright frustrated and annoyed at the continual issues that barely budged despite their best efforts to move their stories forward.
In these times of strife, struggle, and less-than-optimal circumstances, I find people dismiss their experience and do what they think they should do which is to turn their less-than-optimal feelings into a “bright side” moment.
I have heard it time and time again: A client will come in, share their story, outline the reasons they are coming to therapy, and then, just as the words leave their mouths, they immediately follow up with, “But I know it could be worse, so why am I complaining about this? So many people have it so much worst then me, I know that this is not that bad.”
Well, first, let’s start here: you have a right to feel whatever you are feeling. Your feelings are valid because you have them. Your feelings are valid about your life, because that is your experience. Yes, you can have your feelings and feel them too!
Having feelings and feeling feelings are not the reasons people come to therapy. Having feelings and feeling stuck in a feeling, is. Having a feeling and judging the feeling they are having, is. Having a feeling and telling themselves not to feel the feeling, is. Having a feeling and then trying to force themselves to have the opposite feeling, is.
I get where all of these issues come from.
When people face less-than-optimal situations in their lives, their loved ones often try to help by telling them to see the bright side. Only problem is, this doesn’t really work. Offering the idea that they “should” have the complete opposite reaction to the experience that they are “actually” having, runs the risk of invalidating the person’s feelings. It can send a message that the person’s feelings are wrong and should not be experienced. It can convey that an error has occurred in the person’s natural and innate responses to their own experiences. These messages, especially received repeatedly over time, can create issues that lead to coming to therapy.
I know that, in general, the helper’s intentions are good. Sometimes the helper does not know what to say to make it better, and so, resorts to the same tactics that others have tried on them! Sometimes helpers feel uncomfortable with sitting with someone who is in a less-than-optimal situation (maybe because they don’t want to be reminded of their own less-than-optimal situations) and therefore, try to move on to a rosier colored situation. What I do know is, that sometimes offering a bright side moment can be down-right annoying to hear for the person in a less-than-optimal situation. It’s kind of like telling someone who is depressed to just be happy. That’s just annoying to hear …and it doesn’t help. So, in response to my client’s less-than-optimal situations, my response was not to try to get them to look at the bright side…
Oh, by the way, do you like my language of “less-than-optimal” to describe these situations? I use that language to reflect my belief that most things are neither all good, nor all bad. I rarely see situations in extremes, and as I continue to explore the human experience, I see most that experiences fall within the many variations of color between black and white.
Alright then, so if I don’t tell my clients to think of happy things in response to their less-than-optimal situations, what do I do?
I ask them to sit with the question: “What am I to learn from this?”
You see, when we find meaning in our hardships, it is much easier for us to move forward, to accept them as part of our journey, and to be able to move on with wisdom and a deeper understanding of ourselves.
I bet you want an example, don’t you? Well, I have one ripped from the pages of my own personal story this week.
As many of you already know, I am a runner. I have been running for about 7 years now, and just like any therapist I suppose, I have gained a lot of insight about myself by what happens during my runs. (Sounds like a future blog post there!)
Well, this past Sunday, I was scheduled for my 7th half marathon along with my husband, Dave. Just to give a brief overview for those who aren’t runners, half marathon training takes somewhere around 12 weeks to build up the skills to be able to endure the 13.1 miles on race day. So, for at least three months of my life, I was invested in thinking, training, and preparing for race day.
Two weeks out from my race, I did went for a short run. I was feeling strong and confident, enjoying the autumn weather and the strength I felt climbing the hills along my path. Just as I was striding proudly towards my house, I felt a twinge in my right calf, and then a muscle cramp. Oh, ok. That’s new. Haven’t felt that before. Not being super concerned about it, I rested for the rest of the day. The discomfort resolved almost immediately and I chalked the experience up to needing a better stretch and more hydration.
Things seemed fine over the next week an a half. I did a light jog down the street with my dog a few days before race day, and the sensation came in my calf almost immediately. Uh oh. Feeling worried, I went into full-on self-care mode. Baths, essential oils, muscle rubs, acupuncture, rest, hydration, and of course, thinking positively – if nothing else, I can will my leg to be fine! I was hell-bent on having the big finale to all my summer training. There is no way I won’t be able to run, that’s just not possible.
Race day arrives, I woke up at 5:30am. I stood outside in the cold for 2 hours. I had my usual race day breakfast huddled next to a building trying to shelter myself from the cold wind. I said a prayer to get me through the race. I geared my thoughts towards seeing the challenge as fun and enjoyable.
I started the race feeling good in my body…. until … mile .5. That’s POINT five. A half of a mile in. The calf. The twinge, then the nugget of pressure, then the shooting pain, and then cramping across my calf. Mile marker 1. One mile in and I was out. I could barely walk the muscle was so tight and painful.
I immediately went into “bright sides” because I didn’t want to feel the dark sides.
Well, bright side…all those nice runners that checked on me once they saw me hobbling… the kind folks who offered me Advil, offered to walk with me, offered me cheers and support and said they would finish the race in honor of me. They were so nice, so that’s a bright side…
Despite those positives, I felt heart-break and tears trying to creep in…. so I doubled down on the bright sides. (Because if it doesn’t work at first, try harder, right??) Ok…At least there is a cop at mile one. At least the “wag” bus (the bus that picks up the runners up that can’t make it to the finish) is coming. At least once I was on the “wag” bus and was told “it’s gonna be a loooonnnng and boring ride to the finish line,” I finagled my way off the bus and into a kind stranger’s car who agreed to bring me to the finish line. At least I could see Dave finish. At least Dave will have someone to greet him at the finish line when he is always there to greet me. At least it’s not worse. Etc. etc. I did a ton of the bright sides, but still, it just plain sucked and I couldn’t shake my grief. And so it was time to just feel it.
After releasing my feelings of sadness, disappointment, heartbreak, I was still left with a bum leg, a constant reminder that something had, in fact, happened.
So, I ask myself: What am I to learn from this?
This question alone starts to shape my experience of this injury into a much deeper learning for myself. The bright sides are nice, and they allowed me to feel gratitude in the middle of a day that I was otherwise completely heart-broken about. The bright sides helped me in the moment, helped me get to the finish line (not in the way I had hoped to, but still…). The bright sides were a temporary fix and now it is time to go deeper.
What am I to learn from this? Why is this injury showing up for me? How is this experience teaching me? These questions call for a deeper meaning behind what I could just chalk up to a disappointing day. The deeper meaning allows for me to see this sucky day as something more purposeful and meaningful and will allow me to move on from it with a clearer view, a wiser mind, and fuller experience of life.
I don’t have all the answers yet… and I know that because the injury hasn’t full healed. That’s how I know there is more to learn from this. As the saying goes “the universe continues to present you with the same lessons until you learn them!” Dang you, Universe and your infinite wisdom! (I do, on occasion, curse the Universe, but it truly does know that I honor and respect its wisdom!)
So far, the injury is teaching me to allow others to take care of me. As a strong, capable and independent person, my go-to is not to ask for help. Classic profile of a helper, eh?! This is not a new lesson to me. The universe knows I can be stubborn and will continue to provide me opportunities to learn this, no doubt!
My first glimpse of my leg-injury-lesson occurred to me Monday night, just one day after race day. I sat with my leg up while my husband cooked and plated dinner. I was just sitting there doing nothing, while he was doing all of the work. I felt like an entitled queen waiting for her servants to bring her meal. I sat with this feeling, completely uncomfortable with it. Ugh. Yuck. This is everything I don’t want to be.
I said it out loud to Dave. “Um. It feels kind of weird to just be waiting here for you to bring me my meal.” To which he smiled and said “Let meeee take care of you.” His response brought a memory flashback from early in our relationship when we decided to take a swing dancing class together. (Ps. If you ever want to understand you and/or your relationship better- a couples dance class can surely reflect things back to you!). I remembered our swing teacher coming over to me (probably on more then one occasion) to remind me to let Dave lead me.
Lead me? That struck me as something strange. Hmmm… “let someone else lead me”…I rolled the concept over in my mind … hmm …Yeah, I don’t get it. Does not compute. I had not let anyone else lead before. I had prided myself in my own independence and leadership, and now this swing dance teacher is telling me to concede my lead! Of course, Dave got a great kick out of this, and smirked after I seemingly got scolded by the teacher, and teased “Let meeee lead.”
Ok, leg. I get it. My legs were showing me this lesson back there in swing class, when I wanted to make the first step, rather then to let Dave take it. My legs are showing me this lesson again. Maybe because I didn’t get it the first time with the gentle guidance of the dance teacher, the universe said, “Ok, we got a stubborn one here, let’s really make sure she really pays attention to this!”
Yep. I am paying attention. I am working on the balance of being a strong, capable leader and also being open to receiving, to being led, to being cared for. (Ooo! More blogs about this one for sure!)
I am open to see how this injury continues to led me in my learning. I am continuously open to being held and supported by the bigger lessons here, as well as, to the people in my life who want to care for me.
So, I am working on healing my leg with care and gentle kindness. I am working on my current life lesson of allowing those in my life to offer me care and gentle kindness.
I am letting my leg lead me in its own healing process. I am allowing the universe to lead me in my lessons.
Ok, fine…….I am also working on occasionally letting others led me… from time to time… in certain situations… just when it’s called for…. 😉
(I did mention I was stubborn, right??)
How are your less-than-optimal situations teaching you? I invite you to be courageous in sharing! Inspire others by letting us know how your less-than-optimal situations have been a wealth of learning!