There is an old joke that goes, "How do you eat an elephant?"
"I don't know, how do you?"
"One bite at a time."
The not-so-hidden truth in here can be applied to so many things—projects, goals, ginormous meals. But today, I'm going to talk about how I have found this to be true when tackling emotional hardship.*
Three Steps to Healing
I'm not a psychologist, nor a doctor, just an avid student of the human experience. And, being human, I've had some of those. Some of them were harder than what others might experience, but my hardest experience would be considered a cake walk by many thousands of people in the world today.
I have found that, regardless of the degree of hardship, there are certain things that seem to true for many people who become resilient as a result of their experiences instead of brittle and hard or weak and prone to breakage.
Or at least, it was true for me. You could try it. (What have you got to lose? :-D)
1. Accept that where you are is temporary.
Since I'm all about cliches today, "the only thing certain in life is death and taxes." That means everything else is subject to change.
When I'm in a good place, I have often feared that impending change, because I thought it could only get worse from there (and my expectations have sometimes produced those results).
But when I'm in a bad place, such as the depths of grief and loss, that promise of change has been a lifeline I've held on to. Even in my hardest moments, knowing that it wasn't something that would last forever gave me a bit of hope, and a reason to look for the "light at the end of the tunnel." (Cliches. Told you. Also, see "addicted to silver linings" in my home page profile blurb.)
2. Expect that the healing will come.
This is an extension of number one, but much more intentional.
I believe that we can "create our own reality," in a sense, by what we believe to be true. (Think that's ridiculous? Wait, have you never heard of the placebo effect?)
While it's true that every circumstance on earth is temporary, to one degree or another, we can create a general atmosphere that pervades our life by what we expect to happen. (The opposite is also true, so beware!)
Despite my penchant for cliches today, this is not a recommendation that you walk around like Bill Murray in the 1991 comedy What About Bob? saying, "I feel good, I feel great, I feel wonderful" when you don't, at all. In fact, I would posit that denying the feelings you currently have is rather unhealthy.
Maybe it's just that I have a deep discomfort with lying, even to myself. I don't trust people who tell you that your subconscious can't tell the difference between truth and a lie. If I tell my subconscious I feel great when I feel like I just got driven over by a truck, it will either smack me upside the head (e.g. get angry), or sulk and ignore me (e.g. feed the depression and negative thought patterns I am experiencing). Either way, it will stop trusting anything I say.
I'm a writer. I heavily rely on my subconscious to do my job—which, one could argue, is "coming up with interesting lies." But the thing is, those are the ones my subconscious gets to collaborate on. It thinks those are a wonderful idea, plus super-fun and the both of us can hardly believe we get to do this and get paid. But I never try to tell it, or anyone else, that my fiction is actually fact, and my subconscious is down with that.
There are people I have lost that I will grieve for all time. We are coming up on the three-year anniversary of my son Levi's death. While the sunshine has returned for me most days (I believe, in large part, because of the active role I took in my own healing), there are still times I get PTSD flashbacks, and there are days when I can feel the sadness piling up and I know that I need to let it out. But I make the conscious decision to embrace that sadness instead of deny it, and I expect that, after a good night's rest or doing some soul-feeding activity, like spending time with friends or being creative, that the heaviness will pass. And I'm usually right.
3. Positive actions, not positive affirmations.
When Bob Wiley, the neurotic protagonist of What About Bob?, goes to see a therapist about overcoming his issues, he had already taken several positive actions toward doing so. He knew that there was a problem (or a dozen of them!) and he knew he couldn't handle it/them on his own.
So when Dr. Marvin recommends a book about taking baby steps to tackle his life, he is ready to give it a try.
Now, in the movie, he doesn't necessarily handle it well at first, and frankly, neither does his therapist. (Thus, the reason for the dark comedy hi-jinks that ensue.) But there is something to be said for focusing on small things, especially when we feel overwhelmed by a big problem—like life plans, crushing debt, losing weight, or overcoming depression, trauma, and grief.
When I was grieving hardest, I did small things that I knew would help me process my grief.
- I read books that dealt with the deep, troubling questions that I was wrestling with. Also, I prayed. A lot. Even though I felt farther from God than ever before, I trusted that he was with me and that it was just my own emotional numbness that kept me from feeling him.
- I spent time with others when I felt able, and felt okay with protecting myself and retreating when necessary. (If you need help setting boundaries like this, check out this post.)
- I did things for other people as much as I felt able, including organizing a fund raiser and, eventually, returning to my volunteer positions at church—not to mention continuing to care for my family.
- I set myself a photo challenge for a year which required me to look for positive, beautiful things in the world, find quotes that fit them, and write about them. (See my Photo Friday series.)
- I allowed myself days where breathing was my biggest achievement, and that was okay.
In other words, I made healing a habit by taking small steps each day that gave myself space to do that.
No matter what situation you find yourself in, or what emotional garbage you have to deal with, start now with one small change that will eventually lead you to a different place. It might be as simple as practicing gratefulness. In fact, take a moment right now and think about something you can be grateful for. If you can't think of anything, focus on the fact that you are still breathing, which means you still have a chance to make your life better.
"Where there's life, there's hope."
Baby Steps, Single Bites, and You
"The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single baby step"—or something like that. :-)
Ha! I got one more cliche in.** But there's a reason these things are cliche—it's because they're true.
We are creatures of habit, and habits are formed with small steps, choices, or actions. Our brains are very plastic, which means we can choose to change habits and make new ones—more positive ones—that will change our life. And it starts with small, actionable changes, which you engage in over the long term to turn into habits.
Don't let the big picture overwhelm you. Start small.
- This is temporary.
- Expect that you will get better. Wherever you are at right now is just a stage in that process.
- Take one small step right now that will change things for you, even if it's just practicing gratefulness for the blessings you currently enjoy.
These three steps aren't going to solve all your problems. But over time, they can help you cultivate a different state of mind. It will not be instantaneous—but it will work.
Because "slow and steady wins the race."***
* Let's let all the elephant-eating be metaphorical, okay? They're endangered.
** No cliches were harmed in the making of this blog post. And "no stones were left unturned" while digging them up.
*** Boo-yah! Cliches forever!
P.S. If you are dealing with some serious, big stuff, and you need a much more in-depth, hands-on road map for digging deep into healing, I highly recommend my friend Melissa Keaster's handbook Ten Tools For Inner Healing, which you can get for free by signing up for her newsletter. (And of course, you can unsubscribe any time.) It's a quick read, but full of powerful truths and practical things to help you work toward healing and freedom. You can sign up to get the Tools on her website, www.melissakeaster.com.