How do you cope in difficult moments? What happens to your primary relationship, the one you have with your Self, during the hard phases of your life? In my role as a counsellor and social worker, I have observed a common tendency of people to brace themselves physically, emotional, mentally, and energetically based on the belief that they will ‘feel it’ and ‘deal with it’ after the crisis has passed. So many people believe that they are unable to cope simultaneously with both the external crisis and the internal crisis that is their suffering.
What’s beneath this tendency to push away one’s own suffering? Sometimes people don’t trust in their ability to cope, perhaps based on previous experiences of not coping in intense situations. It’s likely that this response to suffering is not a conscious choice – there may be a sense of having no option but to react in a particular way based on past trauma patterns. Typically the unconscious survival response is a well-worn groove of fight, flight, freeze, fawn, or flop. It can express in behaviours like shutting down to others, numbing out with substances, inability to get motivated or overwork and excessive busyness. Whichever your practiced coping method, many people explain away their defenses by believing that it will be better to deal with the challenging issues and uncomfortable feelings later.
While it’s absolutely okay and very understandable to grip tightly and try to muscle through a hard time, this choice can then influence how life unfolds as, barring an acute crisis, our human suffering experiences are seldom short-lived. So while survival defenses have their place, it is neither healthy nor pleasant to stay in that mode, and there’s a risk of becoming hyper-vigilant, assessing any and all events and stimuli as a potential threat. Unfortunately our nervous systems are quick to learn patterns and continue to fire off those messages of danger and defensiveness, influencing decision-making processes by adding a fear lens through which to view life. Allowing that fear to become primary, constantly assessing the risk of reliving the suffering that they lived through in previous experiences, leads to a smaller life with less opportunities for happiness, growth and connection. It may feel like safety, but at what cost? A life becoming smaller and smaller as they become less adventurous and prioritise the certainty of a predictable life…even if it is not what we want or what makes us happy. Needing life to be a particular way so one can feel okay often results in becoming controlling of our environment which can then infringe on the choices and rights of others, negatively impacting relationships.
In counselling, when people share this type of pattern, I often enquire if they have had the same approach in the past and if so, how did it work out for them? Mostly people recognise that it is not a healthy strategy and typically, this sparks reflection that after the crisis had passed, they continued being distracted by life and didn’t take the time to process what they had gone through. Of course these are people who sought out counselling afterward a difficult period in life, many of whom come to see that it would have been beneficial to have had the inner skills and outer support as they were living through it.
The benefit of being present with your experience during a crisis is that it increases the opportunity to learn more about your strengths, patterns, fears and internal and external resources when we take the time to process whilst we are in the midst of it. It is an opportunity to address old traumas and patterns and to develop a greater understanding of our resilience and a sense of self mastery, breaking up the familiar pattern of avoidance and control.
The following are some exercises to assist with beginning to be comfortable with stepping into your internal experience by looking inwards. It is helpful to do these exercises with an attitude of curiosity, non-judgmental acceptance, and kindness towards your Self. Some of these exercises may be the opposite of how you normally help yourself feel safe, so it may trigger an uneasiness within you. It doesn’t mean it is a bad thing, just different to how you normally cope. Remember, you are always in charge of your Self and can stop anytime. It might be helpful if you have a symbol, object, natural space, trusted person or pet to turn to if you need support.
Find a place where you are able to sit comfortably and quietly, with eyes closed or looking downwards with a soft focus
One by one, acknowledge the roles you play in life (i.e. parent, partner, employee, child, friend, etc.).
As you acknowledge each role, imagine the role is a coat that you take off. Slowly stripping back to being just you in the here and now. Once you have stripped off all the roles, experience being you in the moment and see what happens next.
Three minute breathing space
1. Awareness – Step out of your automatic pilot. Notice your posture, facial expression, emotions you are experiencing in this moment and your current state of mind. Notice them in a non-judgmental way.
2. Centre – Direct your awareness to your breath without controlling it. Allow the gentle rhythm of your breath to gradually calm you. Either simply notice your entire breath or fix your attention on a sensation caused by your breath i.e. air flowing in and out of nose; rise and fall of chest; or rise and fall of belly with the breath.
3. Expanding – Expand your awareness around your breath to include your whole body, posture and facial expression. Notice how you now feel and how you now choose to respond to the situation.
For a few minutes, cease trying to avoid suffering. There is no need to identify it first or to activate your suffering. Many people create more stress and suffering in their attempts to avoid a particular type of suffering that they fear the most.
Instead, focus on not doing all the things you do to avoid it. Cease searching for peace to avoid suffering. Cease trying to create happiness to avoid suffering, Cease controlling to avoid suffering… and see what happens next.
Each of these exercises is designed to be brief, and should be practiced in a time and place that feels safe and suitable. Afterwards you may feel the urge to move, write, or express in some way.
You have so much strength and wisdom within, and I hope these words and ideas help you tap into that part of your Self, but you don’t need to do it alone. If you would like to be supported in your exploration of your inner journey, I am here for you. Feel free to reach out and make an appointment.