In the past, even though I did my best to try to steer clear of anything I thought could lead to pain or discomfort, it always had a way of finding me. When I was a teenager, my parents’ divorce rocked my world. As a 19-year-old college freshman, I was raped. In my early 30s, my brother died of AIDs, and later in the decade my 18-year marriage fell apart – or exploded is more like it – in an ugly divorce that just wouldn’t end.
At 43, I decided that I’d had enough, swallowed a bunch of pills, and ended up in a coma for a week from which I woke up with a serious brain injury. Three months later, the ex-husband sued me for custody of our two sons, won, and promptly moved to another state with them. (Read the full story here.)
And I thought things were bad before?
When the kids did visit me, the court ordered that their stays had to be supervised around the clock. Although I didn’t see it this way at the time, I do agree that the restrictions were definitely in the children’s best interest immediately following the suicide attempt because they were 11 and 13 years old, and I was emotionally unstable and seriously brain injured.
However three years later when I had regained my mental and emotional stability, recovered from the brain injury considerably, and the boys were teenage young men, the restrictions were STILL in place. In fact, during the third year, the ex filed bogus charges against me claiming that I was endangering the children, and all visitation stopped completely for nine long months until the issue was heard in court. When we finally did get to court, the charges were ruled false, and full visitation was reinstated unsupervised. During that time, I saw my kids only once in nine months. (Read the full story here.)
I’ll tell you what I’ve learned from all this. (I did finally learn – the hard way – but better late than never.) You can make a bad situation worse really quickly by your reaction to it. Joyce Meyer’s quote perfectly illustrates this idea:
OK, life gave me a whole cactus garden, but I was the one who kept sitting on it. Every time I wallowed in self-pity; every time I tortured myself with painful memories; every time I knee-jerk reacted to my ex’s antics, I was taking a running jump and landing squarely on the cactus thorns. I was only hurting myself. Admittedly, life wasn’t great, but I was making an even bigger mess of it by my reactions.
Learn To Lean Into Pain
I’ve learned that my experience of anything is determined not by the actual circumstances, but by my behavior and thoughts while going through the situation. Most of the pain and anguish I feel is caused by my struggle against “what is.” Pema Chodron, an American Buddhist nun, advises us to “lean into” painful situations and see what they have to teach us. In her book The Wisdom of No Escape and the Path of Loving Kindness, she writes:
There’s a common misunderstanding among all the human beings who have ever been born on the earth that the best way to live is to try to avoid pain and just try to get comfortable. You can see this even in insects and animals and birds. All of us are the same.
A much more interesting, kind, adventurous, and joyful approach to life is to begin to develop our curiosity, not caring whether the object of our inquisitiveness is bitter or sweet. To lead a life that goes beyond pettiness and prejudice and always wanting to make sure that everything turns out on our own terms, to lead a more passionate, full, and delightful life than that, we must realize that we can endure a lot of pain and pleasure for the sake of finding out who we are and what this world is, how we tick and how our world ticks, how the whole thing just is.”
In Bad Things Do Happen To Good People, I described the wisdom of the visitation anguish:
When the charges were first filed, I was terribly pained, angry and distressed. As the ordeal progressed, however, I began to find a sense of peace and wholeness and self identity as I let the wisdom of the experience shape and teach me. I began to accept the limits of what I could reasonably effect without over reacting and jeopardizing the other priorities in my life. Instead of letting this issue consume all of my financial resources, time, and energy, I focused on my own life and goals. While making significant progress here, I let the legal events unfold, sometimes rather impatiently.”
A Four-Step Solution For Getting Through Tough Times
When faced with a difficult situation, I’ve learned to use with the following steps:
Accept What’s Before You – Stop fighting the circumstances, people, or yourself. Quit judging and “shoulding” yourself or others. It is what it is, and you feel what you feel. There’s nothing inherently good or bad or right or wrong about any of it as these qualities exist in your thoughts about what happens – not what’s actually happening. And you can drive yourself crazy shoulding all over the place.
Zoom Out – Drop the storylines and your personal emotional investment in the situation. The details, who did what, really don’t matter in the end and won’t help you get through it. They only serve to fuel your anger, hurt, and sense of injustice. Broaden your perspective, try on different points of view, and try to be objective.
Focus on Yourself – In any situation, the only thing you ever have control over is yourself. Instead of looking for external sources and pointing your finger there, turn the finger back around to you. Take an honest look at your contribution to the situation and your behavior. Ask yourself what you could do differently going forward and what are the possible lessons or good things that could come from this. To get different results, you have to do something different. Not them. You.
Decide – Consciously decide who you want to be, how you want to behave, and what’s going to be in your best interest. Hold that image in the forefront of your mind and move forward taking appropriate actions. Deciding is not a one-time thing. The priorities upon which you decide have to be considered and honored in the little choices you make every day.
I’ve had tremendous success using the above process. Now, that doesn’t mean things have gone the way I wanted them to go every time. It means that I’ve been able to remain calm, find peace, and learn while moving through the experiences. Until I accept what’s happening, I’m causing myself undue pain and using my energy to struggle against what’s before me instead of working with it for my highest good.
When I consciously direct my thoughts and behavior, the situation can then unfold on its own schedule and work itself out. All I have to do is control me and make sure that I don’t hurl myself on a cactus.