"We can do hard things."
I first heard this sentiment while I was reading a blog post by Glennon Doyle.
Something rebellious in me gets ruffled when it comes to people and books that Oprah endorses. Maybe it's the latent hipster in me that says, "It's too main-stream, man."
However, Glennon (and Brene Brown) are two authors endorsed by Oprah who I really appreciate.
I won't go into the details of Glennon's story, but it involves a solid upbringing, years of struggling with addiction and an eating disorder, finding God, blogging for years (and gaining thousands of followers) as a "Christian mommy blogger", splitting with her husband after realizing his infidelity, falling in love with Abby Wombach (USA pro soccer player), getting married, and raising a beautiful blended family while co-parenting (and remaining friends) with her ex-husband. Hers is a pretty incredible story of choosing love and self-acceptance time and time again.
What's most incredible though, is Glennon's commitment to diving head first into the hard things of life.
This commitment to doing the hard stuff is what characterizes true strength and recovery. I think that when you spend years numbing and that numbing takes you to the end of your rope, you realize that the pain you are avoiding is more manageable than the pain you are creating through that numbing.
I’m a firm believer in feeling your feelings. ALL of the feelings.
I wasn’t always this way, and I am still not always successful at it.
For many years I would go to great lengths to bury or run from my emotions. I was terrified that I would be swallowed up by them, swallowed up by darkness and depression.
For several days in a row, my husband and I held the hand of his grandmother as she slipped away. Each day (after saying goodbye the day before) felt harder than the next. Watching someone slip away is not easy stuff. Walking into that situation, especially after a draining day of work, created a gut reaction of dread. I got curious about the dread, and why I didn't want to go. I didn't want to go because it was hard, emotionally, and I'm someone who prides myself on "doing the hard shit" when it comes to emotions.
I steered my car in the direction of Hospice and kept repeating, "I can do hard things."
It was true.
Doing emotionally difficult things is like building a muscle.
Five years ago when my own grandmother was beginning to show signs of dementia, I didn't have this muscle. I felt like losing her was too hard, it was too painful, and so I avoided feeling it in my own, unhealthy, way.
We all have our default ways of coping and many of us probably have our default ways of escaping. Maybe it's food, alcohol, binge-watching TV, getting lost in social media, sex, etc.
We do things that make us feel better and distract us from the emotional crap that we are mucking around in. This is the human way, and we have whole industries that are built around our escapism.
Think about the entertainment industry. Movies wouldn’t exist if we didn’t want to escape our daily lives, at least for two hours.
So, is escapism ever okay?
The answer to this, as in most things in life: it depends.
When we got the phone call that grandma had died, I sat and embraced my husband while we both cried. Within 5 minutes, I noticed an urge to go to the freezer and get out the pint of ice cream that I've been digging into with more gusto than usual this past week.
The urge to numb and comfort was almost instantaneous.
I had to get curious about why. Was it the pain of loss? Was it emotional exhaustion from two weeks of saying goodbye? Was it discomfort at my husband's vulnerability? I had to get curious, because my default mode was firing and something in me wanted to get out of there. Something in me wanted to get lost in a pint of ice cream, and to distract in a silly movie.
It's totally normal to want to feel good. It's also normal to want comfort. However, not all of us are wired the same. Drinking a few beers or tucking into a pint of ice cream when things get hard may be okay for some, but is it for you?
Only you know yourself well enough to know when you are numbing, and if that numbing is okay and temporary, or if that numbing is going to lead you down a rabbit hole.
If it means the rabbit hole for you, and you are trying really hard to stay present and feel all the feelings, give yourself credit in knowing that this is hard work. This work takes practice and time. Like building stamina and muscle, this work takes patience and rest. Give yourself breaks and know that it's okay to utilize healthy escapes like movies, games, social media if it feels manageable to you. I'm a firm believe in harm reduction. While it may be amazing if we could all be like the Buddha, sitting with and embracing suffering, it is simply not realistic.
If you are someone who turns to food for emotional comfort, know that it's okay. Building up your endurance for handling tough emotions (including boredom and anxiety) takes time. The practice isn't perfect, and it doesn't have to be.
So what did I do after a week of 'doing the hard stuff'? I didn't sit like Buddha.
I tucked into that pint of ice cream, enjoyed a few bites and then put it down, knowing all the while what I was doing and why I was doing it. I had a moment where I paused and thought, "Okay, why do I want this right now, what am I uncomfortable with? Can I have this and be okay with it? Will I eat the whole pint?"
The answer to those questions were:
I'm doing it because I'm emotionally exhausted and I want comfort.
I am confident that I can moderate this and won't eat the whole thing.
I'm not going to feel guilty when I'm done.
It's okay to be human and allow yourself comfort, you're not perfect and you don't have to be emotionally perfect either.
So, here are my tips for building our emotional muscle for "doing the hard things":
The moment you find yourself reacting (craving the beer, or the pint of ice cream, or your blood is boiling and you want to yell back, etc.): pause.
Take an inventory: what's triggering you, what set you off? "I know I feel emotionally exhausted and I'm looking for comfort in this thing."
Delay: Delay your action by 2-5 minutes (how long a craving typically lasts)
Re-evaluate: If you still want that thing after 2-5 minutes, practice mindfulness while you're using it. If you delayed that cigarette but still want it- notice every thing about the experience. How does the smoke feel in your body, how does your mouth feel? Is it as satisfying as you thought it would be?