Life is Pain–Reboot

This post was originally published in August 2011.  It’s one that I still find myself revisiting with clients, so I brought it back to the surface for you. It was originally inspired by the response to the Joplin tornado and I was reminded of it again as I have been listening to the accounts of the Mother Emmanuel Congregation and other members of black churches in the U.S.

“Life is pain. Anyone who says differently is selling something.”–William Goldman

As a child, I was captivated by the rapid word-play, stunning sword fights, and memorable characters in the movie adaptation of William Goldman’s novel “The Princess Bride.” As an adult, I read the novel, and I was struck by how much Goldman focuses on the existence of pain, and the inherent unfairness present in life. The seed of this post has been floating around in my head for a long time, but it crystallized with aid from this post from Jonathan Fields.

And for those of us with any functioning empathy, the recent episodes of ongoing violence have been filled with heartbreak by proxy–reminders of how vulnerable we all are to pain and loss.

Whenever we face an intensely painful situation–whether it’s a natural disaster or a broken relationship–we have a tendency to try to avoid the pain. This can be especially true when we face new possibilities or new situations. It is not unusual for me to sit with folks who have accepted many restrictions on their lives in an effort to avoid pain. I think all of us have been in this position. We stay in relationships that aren’t life-giving because we fear the pain of freeing ourselves for better things. We avoid getting into relationships because we fear the pain of relationships failing. We dodge the dentist because we might experience pain while in the office. Whether it’s physical pain or emotional pain, we convince ourselves that if we follow the rules (whatever those rules may be) well enough, we might just be able to avoid the pain.

Here’s the problem. When we allow ourselves to get tied up into rigid rules an roles in our attempts to avoid pain, we fall into a trap. There are two levels to this trap.

On the first level, there is often a fair amount of pain involved in our pain-avoidance strategies. If we are avoiding relationships to avoid the pain of hurt or betrayal, we are coping with the pain of loneliness. If we stay in an unhealthy relationship to avoid the pain of a break-up, we are coping with the pain of feeling unheard or not loved enough.

On the second level, (which grows from the first level), we are ignoring the reality that pain is inevitable. Whether we are dealing with the small pains of miscommunication in an important relationship, or the devastating pain of a loved one’s death, pain is a part of our experience of life. Our attempts to protect ourselves from pain generally lead to isolation. Attempts to avoid pain can also deprive us of the very experiences that make life worth living: connection, friendship, & love.

So, when I think about William Goldman’s quote, I realize that there are some deeper meanings here. When we allow ourselves to accept the fact that pain is a part of life, we can stop tying ourselves into knots to try to avoid the pain. We can use our energy for more productive activities. When we allow ourselves to accept the fact that pain is a part of life, we can more fully embrace those good and life-giving experiences that counterbalance the ain. We can truly show up in our relationships, instead of holding part of ourselves in reserve. When we allow ourselves to accept the fact that pain is a part of life, we become more resistant & more resilient. We are not willing to blindly follow anyone who promises to protect us from pain. When we allow ourselves to accept the fact that pain is a part of life, we can exercise our compassion to support others through their own moments of pain. The counterbalance to the horror of the Joplin tornado is the incredible outpouring of support and caring that is continuing right this moment.

So how about you? Was there a moment that you realized you were trying to avoid the pain–but losing a lot of the good stuff in the process?

No Time Limit on Feelings

It’s not unusual for me to sit with a client, especially a new client, who has been told some variety of this message, “All right now. Your loss/challenge/tragedy happened at least two weeks (months, years, etc.) ago. It’s time to dust yourself off and get back to life.” Basically, the message is that your feelings have a time limit. Oh, and that time limit is determined by someone who isn’t living in your head or your heart.

I call BS on that message. I think it’s a load of horse hockey.

Our feelings, particularly the tough ones, play out in their own time. There’s no way to fast forward them. And pretending that we should just be able to “move on” is not particularly helpful. When the people around us share that message, we begin to feel shame and confusion in addition to our grief and loss.

This topic came up strongly for me earlier this year. The first part of May is a tough stretch for me. I usually have at least one day or so that I can tell my emotions are pretty fragile. And I’m not dealing with new grief. Mine is eleven years old–plenty long enough for me to have “gotten over it,” at least according to our cultural messages. And, while I am no longer in that grief space where you feel paralyzed by the strength and weight of your loss, I am also not “over it.” I probably never will be fully “over it.” And I am fine with that truth. I believe that there are some losses that touch us so deeply that we are permanently changed by them

That doesn’t mean I can’t function. It doesn’t mean that I’m broken. It means that I was broken once, and that the experience was an essential part of who I am today. And sometimes, that emotional scar tissue is tender. Fortunately, my training and the supportive relationships in my life (including therapy when I’ve needed it) have made it possible for me to have those “tender scar tissue” days without feeling as though that means I’m doing something wrong.

Feeling my feelings–or your feelings–is not wrong. Even if those feelings don’t quite match up with someone else’s definition of how and when you should feel.

Now, if your feelings are so big and so painful that they are interfering with your ability to participate in life, then it’s time to get some support for that. But that doesn’t mean that having your feelings is wrong. It just means that right now, they are big and painful.

It can be easy to buy into the messages that you hear about how you are supposed to do grief, or healing, or recovery from illness and loss. It can be easy to slip into that shamed space where you feel like your own coping is wrong. But I’m here to say to you: Feelings don’t have a time limit. You aren’t doing it wrong.

If you have thoughts you’d like to share, please do do in the comments. If you need some help with the big, painful feelings, that button to the right will get you directly to my schedule.

Step to the Side

So many of my clients are facing really big challenges. Physical challenges, relationship challenges, emotional challenges, challenges of anxiety and more. And it’s not unusual for me to hear them talk about about feeling overwhelmed. Trying to manage their challenges has got them worn out. They have more going on than they can juggle and they are not sure what to do next. And because their difficulties aren’t taking a break, they don’t feel as though they ever get a break. Even when there isn’t a current crisis, it feels like one is lurking just around they corner, and they feel like they need to remain constantly on guard.

Does that sound familiar?

If it does, maybe this tool will help you too.

When I am sitting with a client who is feeling completely bombarded by difficult situations, anxious thoughts, etc., I invite them to take a few moments to practice this visualization with me. So I’ll invite you to do the same thing.

Step To The Side:

First, take a few moments to sit as comfortably as you can. Try to be sure that your body is well supported by the chair or sofa you are on. Then, allow your breathing to become even and steady, bringing a consistent flow of oxygen into your body and brain.

When you are feeling comfortable and supported, when your breathing is calm and even, imagine a river. This is a pretty large river, large enough to gain some speed as it moves along. Now, imagine that, as you round a curve in the river you see a waterfall. The waterfall isn’t enormous, but it is large enough for a grown person to stand underneath it.

Now imagine that you are standing in the center of the waterfall. The full force of the river is crashing down on and around you. It is loud, and overwhelming. In fact, it feels as though it could knock you over and sweep you downstream. The middle of the waterfall represents today in your life. Staying there can be scary.

You can’t stop the river from flowing.

You can’t stop the water from crashing over the falls.

But you can step to the side of the river.

You can observe the falls without being in the center, at least right now. You can know that the difficulty you face is real, without sitting in the middle of it. You can step to the side and enjoy some room to breathe, to feel supported, to take a break.

This isn’t about denying the difficulties you face. Instead, stepping to the side allows you to gather your strength for re-entering whatever challenge your river of life brings you.

Try It On

I would guess that you, like my clients, have had moments where the realities of your life feel like that river trying to sweep you away. So, I’m inviting you to step to the side today. Have you had a moment when you were able to step to the side? Please feel free to share in the comments. Need some help getting there? Just click that button on the right hand side.

Choice

“The other side chose to turn every element, every aspect of life in Iraq into a battle and into a war zone. I chose to turn every corner of Iraq into a spot for civility, beauty and compassion.”–Karim Wasfi

If you have been reading my blog for a while, you know that I am a huge fan of public radio, partly because it connects me to stories that I might otherwise miss in my full life. I heard an NPR story last week that stopped me in my tracks. It was such a perfect illustration of the power and grace of the human spirit that I had to share it with you.

Here’s the short summary. Karim Wasfi is the conductor of the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra, and a cellist. After car bombs went off in his neighborhood, he took his cello to the bomb site and began to play. A friend video-taped his performance, and it has gone viral. In case you missed it, here’s the video:

https://www.youtube-nocookie.com/embed/3tyDtGAGoqI?rel=0

Since then, the friend who created the video has been killed in a different bombing. Mr. Wasfi faces a daily level of danger that most Americans can’t quite imagine. I think that many of us would have stopped at that point. I know that I would be struggling with fear, anger, and a sense that this level of destruction and violence is profoundly unfair. The kinds of conditions that the citizens of Iraq and other countries living through war & terrorism are enough to bring many of us to a state of paralysis. But Karim Wasfi has continued to take his cello to sites of bombings. He has continued to bring “civility, beauty, and compassion” with him at each space.

While we might not be able to imagine being under threat of car bomb or IED on a daily basis, many people can identify with the sensation of being faced by a challenge or pain that they didn’t want or choose. That pain may be a betrayal, or an illness. It may be a loss. There are so many ways that we face unfair or undeserved pain.

What Karim Wasfi demonstrates is that, while we can’t choose the challenges or pain that enter our lives, we can choose our own response. We never lose the ability to choose how we interact in the world, and what we want to project out. So, if you are in pain today, I hope that you hear the beauty of Karim Wasfi’s cello, and that you are able to find something of yourself to choose to share.

Do you have a choice you’ve already made that you want to share in the comments? If so, I’d love to hear it. If you need help finding your way to the choices that best express you, I’m just a click or phone call away.

I’ll give the last words to Karim Wasfi:

“Unlike what people think, we have a choice of fighting back. We can’t just surrender to the impending doom of uncertainty by not functioning. But I think it’s an awakening for everybody to make a choice and to choose how they want to live, not how they want to die.”–Karim Wasfi

Are You Stuck at the Tea Bag Holder?

In our office, we have a selection of tea available. And we have some tea bag holders (that are nowhere near as cute as the ones in the picture) for our clients to use so that they don’t get stuck holding wet tea bags or drinking crazy strong tea. I was at our drinks table one afternoon when another psychologist and her client were getting tea. The other psychologist offered a tea bag holder, and asked if the client cared about the color. The client responded, “Any of those are fine. Once the color would have mattered, but therapy fixed that.”

Now, I don’t know this client. And (because it’s an occupational hazard to interpret without context) I might be completely wrong about how I heard their innocent comment about tea bag holders. But here is what I heard in that statement:

Once it would have mattered to me what color tea bag holder I chose. Because I would want to choose the right one. Because I would want to choose the one that coordinated with my outfit, or looked a certain way. Because the part of me that wasn’t sure about my own wisdom needed validation for something as simple as the color of my tea bag holder. But now, after therapy, I don’t need to care about the color. I can let that go, trust my choice, and invest my time and caring into something that matters to me.

And even if she didn’t mean that, I love that vision of what therapy can do. I think that most of us have things in our life like that tea bag holder. Things that really don’t matter much at all. Things where any decision we make will probably be just fine–as long as we make a decision. Because really, the green tea bag holder works as well as the red or blue ones. And not choosing one means that we’re stuck with really strong tea or an awkward wet tea bag.

I think that we get paralyzed by these kinds of decisions for all kinds of reasons. Here are a few possible things that might let a “tea bag holder” paralyze you:

  • Worrying about what others think.
  • Trying to make the very best choice every single time.
  • Allowing others to dictate your choice.
  • Turning small choices into large issues.
  • Viewing our choices as unchangeable.

In therapy, we get the chance to explore those “tea bag holders”–to recognize when they have gotten larger or more consuming than they deserve. We get the chance to experiment with some ways to approach our “tea bag holder” choices. We can consider the possibility that, even if we pick the red holder today, we can pick the green one next time.

With some practice, we can get better and better at identifying what things in our lives are “tea bag holder” choices, and what things are choices that have real, long-lasting consequences. And if our energy isn’t taken up by the tea bag holders, we have the ability to move forward in more meaningful ways.

Have you gotten stuck at a “tea bag holder” moment in life? Care to share? There’s always room for self-compassion and stories in the comment section. And if you need help finding new ways to approach the tea bag holder moments, you know where to find me.

Goal-Fish: The Neurodivergent To-Do List

Ann Becker-Schutte, Ph.D. | Licensed Psychologist:

Can’t wait to try this creative tool that takes a fresh look at the “to-do” list.

Originally posted on Musings of an Aspie:

One of my special skills is goading people into doing things that I think are great ideas. A few of you have been on the receiving end of this.

When it comes to getting my own stuff done, though, I have a tougher time making things happen. If you have impaired executive function courtesy of autism or ADHD (or some other neurodivergence), you know the feeling. How many times a week do I think “I really should spend some time on my novel” and “I’m way behind on responding to comments” not to mention “The kitchen counters could use a good wiping down” and “When was the last time I vacuumed?”

I’m super organized when it comes to work and bill paying and anything with a deadline. But those things that I should be doing regularly–which includes everything from housework to writing and keeping my blog in order–that stuff slips away…

View original 829 more words

The Balancing Act of “Being Safe”

One of pieces of my practice mission is to create and hold safe space for my clients.

Coming to therapy is a big step. And it isn’t one that people tend to take unless they are facing some pretty significant disruption or pain. By the time someone is sitting down with me, it isn’t unusual for them to have been through a lot of difficult stuff. They have faced hurt or betrayal in their relationships, or they have endured significant loss. For some of my clients, those patterns of loss and hurt have repeated multiple times throughout their lives.

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