If it feels hard, it’s usually because it is hard
Think about the people you care about in your life - perhaps a partner, children, parents, close friends, even work colleagues. How do you normally respond to them when they’re struggling with one of life’s curve balls? Do you ignore them? Tell them to just get on with it? Heap more pressure on them? Tell them they’re not worthy of a hug? Call them lazy if they try to rest and reboot?
Chances are you don’t. Chances are you are kind, loving and supportive. Chances are you acknowledge they are going through a rough time, and offer them some comfort.
So why the hell are you so bad at doing that for yourself?!!
Well, I actually know the answer, because I was the same. Offering nurture was my nature. I just forgot to put myself on the list and I learned the hard way how risky that approach is. Never again do I want to feel like Elizabeth Wurtzel (author of Prozac Nation) who wrote in one of her last essays before she died in January at the tender age of 52: “I am the thing I forgot to do. I am hanging on by a strand of dry-shampooed hair.”
But, like everyone, I can still forget.
During the shit show that has been 2020, like everyone else around me, I had to suddenly take on an enormous extra emotional and practical burden: work AND homeschool, deal with a tsunami of new information, develop and build new skills around technology, figure out how to factor in the now massively time consuming element of food shopping for 4 people at home 24/7 now that online deliveries wasn’t an option, carry the emotional weight of worrying about my now isolating dad, my now isolated kids, alongside all of the normal day to day responsibilities. There was no time to think about, let along deal with, my own worries, fears, disappointments and isolation now that all the usual external energy boosters such as holidays, nights out with friends, dating etc delivered for me as a single parent. Everything just became so intense, and I was the only one at the helm of my particular ship as I navigated deep, unchartered waters.
This is what I do, I told myself: show up regardless of how I’m feeing, and support those I care about. In all the new intensity and overwhelm, I forgot my own cardinal rule that I had learned and earned through tough times: that this is, in fact, no longer what I do.
What I now do is show up for myself first, support myself, so that I can manage all my responsibilities from a place of energy, not drain.
Except I forgot. And naturally those feelings I kept at bay - the ones were I was also scared, overwhelmed, uncertain - didn’t go away. You know yourself.... they never do.
We can repress feelings until the cows come home. But - to mix my farmyard metaphors, the chickens always come home to roost. Just like that game Whac-a-Mole where you smack persistent moles as they pop up, only to pop up somewhere else on the board, you might smack back the feeling but it WILL come up somewhere else.
For me it was when I went on holiday (doesn’t that always happen? The minute you try to relax, all those emotions pour out of your suitcase now that the structures of routine that kept them at bay are gone?) My body started doing strange things, because if you don’t let your mind explore the feelings, your body will. I was tight chested, couldn’t get a deep breath. I couldn’t sleep. I could feel tears in the back of my throat.
And then I remembered my rule:
when it feels hard, it’s usually because it really is hard.
And when it’s hard, you need to recognise the impact, and give yourself some care. Often, just the acknowledgement part clears the feelings. Like a teary child, they just want to be seen and heard. “I’m feeling overwhelmed. I’m feeling uncertain. I’m feeling sad all my plans have gone array and astray”. Just acknowledging them is often enough to start softening them.
What you resist, persists and grows stronger. If you stay present enough to feel the feelings, recognise when it feels hard, and give yourself the same love and support you would a friend, the feeling looses its power.
It won’t make the situation change, but it will allow you to manage it far better.
As writer Maria Edgeworth wrote two centuries ago: “If we take care of the moments, the years will take care of themselves.” Give each moment it’s due. Face its feelings and you’ll carry less into the next moment.
One thing this year has taught me, is that it’s not just ok to slow down and pace ourselves, it’s imperative.
Taking a breather, especially in times of uncertainty, and investing in building your own strength and resilience up, is important so that you don’t barrel down a road, head down in survival mode, forgetting that we can also thrive if we take the time to work out how. How do we thrive? We take charge of our feelings rather than be held hostage by them.
Often when things are stressful or I’m worried about something that might happen, I ground myself in the moment and say to myself. “Right now, in this actual moment, I am ok. I’m going through a tough time, but in this actual moment, I am ok.’ And I give myself a mental (or physical!) hug.
Remember when it feels hard, it’s because it IS hard, and be a great friend to yourself.