When Things Get Muddy
For a few months about a year ago, I was really truly happy. I felt creative, I felt happy to have finally let go of a bad relationship, I felt strong, beautiful, and full of life. Then I met someone and we started dating, and things felt juicy, exciting, and invigorating. It was like everything was coming together. Then, things between us got strange, he seemed to withdraw, and finally, we broke up. Now life is muddier, more chaotic, and more confusing. The things that made me happy are still around, but the breakup still hurts. For some reason, I’ve lost that confidence that I had a year ago; that glow that I used to carry around feels like it’s sputtering, barely lit.
When things get this way, how do we cope?
Buddhist teachers often say that this place of “I don’t know”, of feeling unmoored and without the normal ground under our feet is actually a blessed place, the place where there is room for new things to come in to our lives, for growth to happen. When everything we think is true is called into question, then we can see the truth underneath the stories we tell ourselves, the truth that change is inevitable and resisting change is at the root of suffering. Ironically, this sounds good when we’re feeling solid, but when we’re in this shaky place, it’s had to hear that the shaky place is where we’re meant to be. We want to do anything to run away from or block the pain. We watch TV, find someone else to sleep with, drink too much, turn to drugs, shop, pick fights, even meditate in order to stop feeling the sensations of not knowing where and who we are, of having our hopes and fantasies — hopes and fantasies that were never true in the first place — dashed.
My coping strategies, the ones I’ve cobbled together through the years for when times are hard, are a combination of letting myself escape, staying mindful of the pain, leaning into the pain when I can, introspection, distraction, and getting help from friends and professionals.
1) Escape: This is where I disagree with certain Buddhist teachers. Escaping is sometimes the right thing to do. If we can be with the discomfort for any amount of time, we’re doing well. So it’s natural and normal and even healthy to sometimes say “You know what, I can’t do this anymore, I have to get away from this.” So when I get in this dark place, I give myself permission to escape in as harmless as way as I can. yes, I’ll watch more TV and movies than normal, I may leave work early every once in awhile, may treat myself to a special food that makes me feel indulgent, or splurge on something I’ve had my eye on.
2) Introspection: writing in my journal, getting into nature, writing blogs, thinking about the situation, even having conversations with myself, are all ways I spend in introspection. This helps me process and also figure out what happened in a particular situation. My brain already tends to over-process and ruminate, so I have to be careful not to spend time ruminating, but to spend the time thinking about the situation, what I learned and giving myself space to feel the feelings, whether grief, anger, resentment, confusion, or despair. If I try to stop myself from feeling these things, I’ll suffer more, but if I give myself the room to feel them, they move through me, a little at a time, and, over time, the pain lessens.
3) Distraction: There are many tedious tasks in my house that I’ve done simply as a way to distract myself from pain. Painting and fix-it projects, organizing and cleaning out the medicine cabinet and linen closet, getting rid of old books, clothes, and knick-knacks that I no longer use, even buying new sheets, window hangings, and a shower curtain to replace old, worn-out ones…these are all things I’ve done in attempts to distract myself from distress. Currently I’m working on building a raised bed for a veggie patch and repotting plants as a way to channel the energy into something positive. The great thing about this type of distraction is that I’ll end up with something to show for my activity, even if I did it in the first place as a way to get away from the pain.
4) Facing the pain: Though this is usually the last thing we want to do, facing these feelings is vital to moving through them. Whenever possible, I encourage myself, gently, to sit with the feelings and to notice how they shift. Have you noticed that pain is never the same twice? Sometimes it feels like we can’t breathe. Sometimes like someone is putting a black hood over our head. Sometimes like we’re drowning. Sometimes it’s the sadness of a bereft little child. Where do you feel it in your body? What are the words that come up? Does the pain have a color? A sound? When things get really bad, I sometimes will imagine my pain as a child in distress and will hold her to me, and hug her.
5) Getting help: Many of us tend to suffer in silence. I often think I should “get over” it more quickly than I am doing. I get impatient, but also afraid of others’ judgments about my healing process. I worry that if I keep talking about it, people will think I’m weak or neurotic. But I’ve learned through the years that we get over it when we’re ready to. So in dark times, if I’m not already seeing a therapist, I’ll usually go find one or go back to someone I used to see, because it gives me a safe place to process what happened with someone who can offer some insights and who won’t judge me for continuing to need to work through the situation. Other ways I’ve sought professional help have been to find a support group, getting acupuncture and energy work, and getting massages. When we’re going through pain and grief, giving ourselves the room to heal is vital. “Treating” ourselves to professional help – even if just a massage session every few weeks – shows ourselves that we’re worth it. Of course, getting help and support from loved ones is also vital, so whenever possible I let the people close to me know how I’m feeling, even if I’m not sure I’m “supposed” to be feeling that way anymore.
What about you? How do you cope when things get muddy?
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Words of Wisdom
To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.— Ralph Waldo Emerson
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