Is everything really going to be okay?
When people tell you that everything is going to be okay, sometimes it is helpful to hear. Sometimes it is soothing, and can give you a sense of hopefulness and shared understanding. There are many ways in which other people try to soothe us, and which we find help and assurance in cases of extreme distress.
However, people sometimes use this statement in a way that is unhelpful. For instance, the statement that everything is going to be okay may be an attempt to avoid the subject, offer a platitude, or inhibit communication of distress. Sometimes it is more helpful to obtain some acknowledgment or understanding of how you really feel. Sometimes worries, fears, or concerns about the future just need to be openly expressed. In addition, it is hard to know that things are going to be okay when you don’t have a way to solve the current problem.
The statement that everything is going to be okay is a statement of expressed hope. It can be offered to the person who is going through the most severe of all crises, and even though there may be some irony to it, there is some truth to it as well. Sometimes when we feel very hopeless it is hard for us to hear the usefulness of this statement. Sometimes in the worst of moments we can find and create experiences of hope and joy- despite significant loss. Being able to find and participate in these moments help people survive.
Thinking about the ways in which this statement is both helpful and not helpful at the same time can help us to create space for different perspectives. When we can see things from different angles, we have more flexibility in addressing situations, responding to our environment, and finding help that may actually be helpful. There is always some element of truth to things turning out okay, but there are also moments when hopelessness prevails. Sometimes it is nice to consider the kindness of another person’s intentions, even if their attempts to be helpful aren’t always exactly what we need to hear in our moment of our pain.
10 things you can do to survive painful life situations
1) Remember what matters. Consider the connections you have and what your current relationships mean to you. Do something today to honor those relationships, even it if is just expressing appreciation or liking.
2) Look for meaning in the current situation; including spirituality, faith, understanding, vulnerability, and connection. Sometimes our own painful situations get us to take our guard down, soften our stance, and risk letting others in.
3) Keep in mind the “bigger picture.” How do you think you will be looking at this situation in ten years? Sometimes focusing on our current pain prevents us from seeing reality in perspective.
4) Sometimes, when we are in pain, we look around us and see how other people don’t have to go what we go through. Instead, consider what you have right now that someone else would want (A job, an able body, health, a place to live, a relationship, a child, a parent, someone to love you, a garden outside your window).
5) Consider rehearsing, imagining, or writing out a scenario in which you cope adaptively. The key is that you don’t avoid reality and that you respond in such a way that you maintain your self-respect.
6) If you can’t solve a big problem right now, solve smaller problems. Sometimes taking care of smaller problems gives us a sense that we are doing something as opposed to being passive or helpless.
7) Give your mind a “break” by planning adaptive distractions that have nothing to do with your current life stressors. Sometimes perseverating on a painful situation makes us think that we are actually doing something to solve it.
8) Take care of your health. Remember that physical activity can help you “shift gears” by releasing endorphins and changing your physiological arousal. Don’t forget to eat. When you eat, pause and actually taste the food.
9) The only way to get through a situation is to survive the moment. Instead of denying, avoiding, or escaping the moment, breathe into it. This moment too shall pass.
10) Consider how you typically respond to a crisis. Do you do anything to make it worse, such as complete avoidance, threats, or escalations? Take the first step towards doing what works. Be effective and do what is needed, even it if is hard.
Loneliness and the New Year
Loneliness may have to do with a feeling as if something is missing. A loss of connection, a loss of relationship, a loss of well-being, or a loss of what could or should have been.
New Years Eve may bring up a loneliness for several people, and may be related to anxiety or discouragement regarding:
- Personal failures or setbacks over the course of the year
- Uncertainty about how to be around the people currently in your life
- The relationships you think you should have but don’t
- Comparisons to others who may be having “more fun” or “a better time” than you
- Not being invited or included in the way that you think you should be
- Not feeling a sense of connection to anyone
- Anxiety about what it means for you (on this particular day of the year) to not be in the place you want in your life right now
Loneliness can happen to people who are surrounded by family during the holidays, to married couples, to engaged couples, to divorced people, to single people, to people who are with the people they want to be with, and to people who have a wide range of established connections and meaningful relationships.
Just like pain, loneliness doesn’t discriminate across ethnicity, class, gender, age, or social economic status.
There is always someone who is lonely!
- If anxious indecision is part of your pain, accept whatever it is you have chosen to do (who you are with and how you will spend your time) to bring in the New Year
- Find a way to acknowledge loneliness, even if the only thing you are doing is reading this blog post
- Bear in mind that loneliness is not a reflection of personal failure on your behalf
- Spend the holiday in such a way that is the most meaningful to you despite your loneliness
- If there is someone you could reach out to or make a connection with- consider doing it
- Remember that this too, shall pass
When trauma forces us to look at what matters: Newtown, CT, and surviving emotional pain
Traumatic experiences have a tendency to shake us to the very core, calling into question our beliefs about humanity, safety, influence, power, control, and faith. When traumatic things happen, our vulnerabilities are exposed. We may feel raw, defenseless, or powerless.
Trauma cracks open our humanity in ways that may bring out the extremism in all of us. Some people may react to the experience of helplessness by shutting others out. This might be manifested through withdrawal, avoidance, criticism, verbal attacks, or vigilant efforts to control everything and anyone. Others might reach out, remember what really matters, or connect more deeply to those around them. Some are suddenly more conscious of what they cannot control; thus seeking to strengthen relationships, deepen their faith, or work harder to protect those they love.
Sometimes it is difficult to know how to react to others who are in pain. One way of addressing our own feelings of helplnessness in these situations is to contribute, share, mobilize efforts to help, reach out, or make ourselves available.
In light of the recent school shootings, I’ve put together some tips for how to be with people in pain. I hope that these tips go beyond today and tomorrow, and that they can be considered useful in the everyday experience that connects us not only to each other but to places like Newtown, CT.
- Make space for emotions- both your own and someone else’s
- Acknolwedge pain by allowing it to exist.
- Instead of platitudes, changes of subject, false reassurances, or noisy chatter try to tolerate discomfort and awkwardness
- Be direct and invite experiences of emotion to be talked about openly. Name the elephants in the room.
- The more comfortable you are talking direclty and openly about how you feel, the more of an invitation this will provide for others
- Be aware that others may not express emotions in the way you expect
- You don’t have to understand why exactly people behave the way they do in order to be helpful. Try focusing on the what of the feelings instead of the why.
- Be prepared for ambiguity, uncertainty, and lack of clarity. Being emotionally present is more important than analyzing details or intellectually distancing and describing behavior.
Remember that people sometimes need invitations to experience and express a wide range of intense emotion in the wake of trauma. It is a lonely experience to diminish pain or act like it doesn’t exist- when what is needed most is the experience of not having to face it alone.
How to change the behavior of someone you care about deeply
First, acknowledge what you cannot control. When others do things that are destructive, hurtful, irritating, annoying, or have painful consequences, the acknowledgement itself is simply a way in which you are looking and seeing what is actually going on. Not wanting something to be true, ignoring the fact that it is happening, attacking the person for the behavior, and making threats often reflects an inability to accept and acknowledge what is there. Often people don’t want to accept reality because it means something very painful. The acceptance of what is and the acknowledgement of what you cannot control can lessen the drama around the fight. It can also get people unstuck from repetitive impasses. However, it often means grieving what has been lost.
Next, do something for the relationship itself. Having a strong relationship will make you much more powerful and influential than having a rocky or weak relationship. One way to do this is to focus on what you appreciate, value, or like about the other person. Make it a point to express this directly. Another way to do this is to create time together in which you actively listen to what the other person has to say. Don’t interrupt or disagree- instead, just see if you can focus on understanding how they see things. Pay attention carefully to thoughts, experiences, feelings, and opinions. See if you acknowledge how they see things- even if you don’t see them that way. You may want to simply reflect and summarize what they are saying, and use statements like “If I understand you correctly…” Try to be gentle, warm, and receptive. Temporarily suspend efforts to fix or control their behavior.
Finally- if you desperately want them to stop doing something that is hurtful- focus on naturally occurring consequences of their behavior. When you try to control or change someone’s behaviors by threatening, being coercive, or being cold and withholding, it could really damage the relationship. Be direct in expressing your own feelings and reactions about their behavior- without making threats. You will be more powerful and influential when the relationship is strong, spending time with the person is a pleasant experience, and you are liked. Therefore, treat the other person as capable of choosing. Treat them as an equal. When they are fully aware of the realistic, natural, unwanted and painful consequences of their actions, their options for choosing increase. Consider your role as an ally who helps them think through their actions. There will be a big difference between (you) trying to control the outcome through threat or coercion vs. (them) having to face what they are doing and figure out what they want to do about it.
Repeat the steps. Sometimes you will be able to accept and sometimes you will not. Practice acknowledgment of what you cannot control over and over again. Build the relationship. You don’t have to ignore to deny what they are doing. You just have to have a way to address it in such a way that your voice matters, you don’t lose your own self-respect, and you don’t lose sight of what is important.
Too needy? Too dependent? Too clingy?
When we desire or want things that other people aren’t able to give us, one option is to blame ourselves for wanting or desiring it in the first place. This can be especially true for people who feel misunderstood or unacknowledged.
When we blame ourselves for wanting or needing something from someone else, we not only fail to solve any problems- but also feel worse for being in this situation in the first place. Sometimes people believe that by determining fault they’ve actually solved a problem! The field of psychotherapy confuses this issue even further by using condescending labels like narcissistic and entitled, and implies that it is simply bad to want or need things in the first place.
If you have been in the business recently of sitting around, feeling bad, and blaming yourself for desiring something from another, here are a few things to consider that might help your relationships go more smoothly:
1) Are you clear about what it is you want in the relationship that you aren’t getting? Consider the intensity behind your request and the urgency of how you come across. Is there any particular pain involved that you are trying to avoid feeling, don’t want to accept, or don’t think you will be able to tolerate if the person can’t accommodate you? Sometimes urgency and intensity is increased when we don’t want to grieve, acknowledge our own loss regarding the relationship, or move on.
2) Consider that no one relationship can placate or accommodate all demands for affection equally. Intense and intimate relationships need periodic breaks. Is there a way in which your relationships complement different areas of need for you? Is there a way in which your need for affection, acknowledgement, or understanding can happen with more than one person?
3) Consider the diversity in which people in your life express caring, show appreciation, or give their support. See if there is a way you can focus on acknowledging this, and be willing to let go of focusing on what the person isn’t giving you.
4) Bear in mind that all people need and want things from other people: The ones who don’t get called narcissistic or entitled simply have ways of getting it effectively. One way of being effective is being able to read and interpret interpersonal cues accurately. If you know when to back off- and you are good at gaging what other people can tolerate- you will be easier to get along with and better liked. Forcing a square peg through a round hole in any relationship can hurt or even destroy the relationship.
5) Not having affection, acknowledgement, validation, or understanding now doesn’t mean that you will never have it or no one will ever give it. It may mean that you have to search around for it, you need to find it in other relationships- and you may have to tolerate the emotional pain of not having it right now.
What acceptance means in the face of loss
Acceptance is considered to be a critical component to being able to cope adaptively. People who are able to accept what is (or what has already happened) are generally able to move more fluidly through life. They have less problems getting “stuck”, “hung up”, or “unable to let go”.
When I first learned about acceptance I thought it meant that I had to just deal with it. This angered me because I felt very alone. I thought it was another way in which I could not speak up or have a voice. Just dealing with it was a way in which I didn’t feel as if my pain, grief, or loss was being acknowledged. The concept of acceptance was difficult because it seemed as if the rest of the world was able to “move on”, but because I had strong feelings about it I wasn’t able to.
Accepting something is different from approving or liking something. I think this distinction is important, because some people think of acceptance as giving up, being hopeless, or becoming passive. Acceptance somehow gets translated into nothing ever changing.
However, being able to radically accept something is a way in which all of reality can be fully acknowledged. A person cannot change the past or avoid what has been lost. It is hard to live a rich, fully, and meaningful life if a person can’t see reality for what it is. In order to change reality, we have to first fully accept it. Often this means seeing all that is in front of us. Sometimes if we can see what is in front of us, we can access the resources and information we need to change it.
Often acceptance of something brings pain. The benefits of not accepting often have to do with keeping doors for sadness, loss, grief, or other kinds of emotional pain closed. Sometimes not looking at reality means not having to deal with reality. Acceptance of reality can also mean the acceptance of our own emotional responses and our own distress. While it may seem paradoxical to work on acceptance our own distress, this acceptance will help us grieve, understand ourselves, figure out what matters, and be more fluid in our ability to handle life’s losses.
I don’t think anyone could be in accepting mode all of the time. Acceptance sometimes comes in small parts, and sometimes there are some short-term benefits to non-acceptance. I don’t think anyone wants to live with loss, but sometimes the full acknowledgement of reality as it is enables us to get “unstuck.”
Are your walls keeping people in or keeping people out?
With crisis comes vulnerability. When the unexpected happens, we are often confronted with the limits of our mortality. We realize that we can be deeply affected and influenced. The walls that we build around us get shaken, questioned, or torn down.
Fear is on our horizon.
Sometimes, when we are really scared we try to build more walls. We don’t want other people to see us. We snap at people we care about and become strict with ourselves about who sees our pain. We deny our pain to others. We can’t let other people in. We make promises to ourselves that we will never be that open, intimate, or invested in a relationship again. We can’t let other people care about us, and we become calloused to influence. We aren’t able to receive compassion or see how much alike we are.
Last week I read a post about some people who were trying to make sense of 9/11. This book really touched me when I read it. Ultimately, there was a question of what walls we wanted to build. And in general how much of the world we want to let in. Surviving a crisis forces us to consider those questions.
Sometimes disappointment can be so unbearably painful that it makes sense to be a little cautious. On the other hand, allowing our fear to dominate our ability to be human, to make mistakes, to feel pain, to take risks, and to be vulnerable can prevent us from experiencing intimacy and connection.
Are the walls you build keeping you safe and protected or are they preventing you from reaching out, taking risks, and having a fulfilling and meaningful life?
Meaning making, trauma, and 9/11
Given that this is the 10 year anniversary of 9/11, I would like to share with you some excerpts from an adolescent fiction novel that takes place in the aftermath of 9/11. The characters are discussing the ways in which they are attempting to come to terms with what has happened, and offer some compelling thoughts about how they are going to get through this. The book is Love is the Higher Law by David Levithan.
Click on the link below to listen: