Do you remember a time when you did not prepare adequately for something that resulted in a negative experience and then you spiraled into a pool of shame? I do! I’m an Adjunct Professor for Dr. John Townsend’s Masters in Counseling graduate school at Concordia University in Irvine CA. Recently, I was teaching a live class and couldn’t get a video I wanted to show to work. I did not prepare, I just assumed I would have no problem.
After class I started beating myself up for not having taken the time to prepare the video for class. I went into an accurate yet harsh spiral that moved into an inaccurate and harsh spiral. I could feel all of this icky energy in my stomach and hearing the message, “You should not be a professor! You are not good enough for this task!” I felt the all too familiar pull toward a shame spiral over it.
Eventually I also employed skills to battle the spiral. I reminded myself that I was using a harsh voice. The truth is I wasn’t prepared and it took away from valuable class time. The harshness came from a meanness toward myself which then shifted to inaccurate shaming statements that I shouldn’t be teaching and that I’m not good enough. I made a mistake, yes, but that is not a definition of who I am.
I didn’t magically feel better after battling the shameful harsh judge inside of me, but I did stop the powerful avalanche of all the ways I fail from dislodging and suffocating me. The next day, I shared this experience with my husband and later a trusted group of women (we had scheduled this gathering weeks before-I’m so grateful for God’s perfect timing!). It felt good to speak it aloud and also hear their encouragement. We all need it!
This reminds me of the power of Dr. Townsend’s book, People Fuel. We need others to hear our hurts and help us activate our healthy coping skills. Our healing journey is just that, an ongoing journey. For me to ignore or dismiss the disappointment I felt would only set me up for further damage and deny my actual experience. That denial would lead to stuffing my authentic experience and pretending I was fine. This pretending leads to disconnection with others because I then project the “I’m perfect” facade and no one can relate to that. The disconnection with others leads to unhealthy behaviors like quitting things I love after making a mistake (I have a history of doing this!). Instead, I embrace my reality because it gives me an opportunity to choose community over isolation, healthy over unhealthy, and growth over stagnation. This embracing also reminds me that perfection is unachievable and never what God intended. 🙂
I was pondering the struggle of a butterfly as it makes its way out of a chrysalis. I was thinking about the word for that and catharsis came into mind. That isn’t exactly the right fit but I was considering how important it is not to stop a person from releasing deep emotion; just like the butterfly who struggles to get out of the chrysalis. If we snip the chrysalis and free the butterfly it will drop to the ground, its wings useless. The struggle is what strengthens its wings and enables it to fly, a critical component to a butterfly’s life. If we do the same to a person, pluck them out of their internal struggle, they may not strengthen necessary parts within.
Catharsis involves a process to free oneself of profound emotion. If I say, “Oh you’re fine, just move on” or “Look at the bright side of life”, the person is being encouraged to ignore or push down his real emotional experience. There is power and freedom in allowing our emotions to rise to the surface and spill or even gush out of us. If we can do that with others who are willing to hold that emotion with us, the healing is exponential. The job of the holder is to be there, which communicates, “Yes, I see your pain. I will not ignore it. I will not tell you to ignore it. I’ll sit with you as you feel it. I’m here. You are seen and not alone.”
Sometimes people need words, some need silence. Some people need physical comfort, some don’t. As one who sits alongside another in her pain, ask how you can best support her in her pain. She will likely tell you. “Just be here with me.” “I need a hug.” “Tell me it’s ok to be so sad.”
Stay away from moving her to fix or solve her problem. She will either get there on her own as she allows her pain to be felt or she will ask for your help in what to do about the situation. If she doesn’t, at some point, after lots of tears, you may ask, “Would you like help figuring out what to do about this?” If the answer is no, accept the no and don’t press the issue. You can say, “If you ever want to talk about the pain or solutions, I’m here. Just ask.” If the answer is yes, search together for solutions. Avoid having all the answers. Let her explore, too. Even the searching for the next step is part of strengthening her wings.
For some, simply the experience of purging the emotion and being literally or figuratively held in that space is all he needs for healing. Some pain doesn’t need a solution or a next step, some simply needs to be felt and released. And sometimes that same pain comes back again, and needs to be released, again. It’s all a part of the healing process.
Sitting with someone in their pain is not easy. That’s why many of us avoid it or try to smooth it over so the person doesn’t make us uncomfortable. Press into that. What’s that about you that you avoid emotional pain? Maybe you have your own catharsis to experience!
Sometimes the best self care is being heard by someone who cares. I was recently feeling a bit down. I spent time with God, reading His words (the Bible), sat in my favorite chair with my dog, did yoga, and went on a walk. These are all self care activities I need on a regular basis to fill myself up but on this day, nothing seemed to help. By the end of the day, I finally called my husband and told him I was down. I told him why and he just listened. He was compassionate with me and gently said things like, “That’s hard,” and “I hear how sad you are right now.” He didn’t tell me what to do to feel better or how I should just snap out of it. I didn’t need any fixes, I just needed to be heard.
As I talked with him I also explored some of the factors contributing to my sadness. It felt good to connect the dots. He didn’t connect them for me but instead just listened with compassionate responses so I knew he was listening to me. Toward the end of our conversation I started to feel the darkness lift. Just speaking my experience was helpful. That was what I needed to move through my sadness and out onto the other side.
I know that in all circumstances there is no one size fits all. There are times when I want help figuring something out and will ask for ideas. It’s important for me to keep up my self care as well. That said, there’s something super powerful and healing about being heard, being seen, and validated in our experience.
We have choices every day of how we will respond to each thought that soars through our mind. Those thoughts of ‘not enough’ or ‘too much’ are going to show up. It’s simply a reality for most of us. So what do you do about those pesky thoughts when they show up? Fight them! Send them away! If you give those thoughts very much air time in your head, you are setting yourself up for a dangerous ride that is very hard to get off once you get started. The key is, don’t get on the ride! Seriously. We think we can’t stop those thoughts, but we can. We have the power to say, “No!”
After saying no, stay away from the pendulum swing of telling yourself you are the best because that isn’t exactly true. You don’t want to combat the false negative with a false positive, over-inflating your ego. Be realistic. Here’s what it might sound like: “Uh oh! Here comes the thought that I’m not enough. I am enough. I may not be perfect, but honestly, no one is. People might seem perfect sometimes, but truth is, nobody is. My job is to focus on myself and be the best me I can be. So, what am I going to do now to shift away from this lie? I’m going for a five minute walk around the block to clear these thoughts. While I’m walking I’m going to remind myself that I do not need to be perfect and I am enough.”
Choose to be kind to yourself instead of making yourself get on that scary, beat-yourself-up ride!
I just returned from two weeks in Uganda. I was there with Azmera, an organization that puts on retreats for women who serve overseas. One theme that kept rising again and again was the belief that negative thoughts of oneself needed to be removed by God. If the negative patterns/thoughts remained even after fervent prayer, God was choosing not to heal.
Our negative thoughts/beliefs/patterns are usually the result of neural pathways we have developed over the course of our lives. The antidote is not miraculous healing, although that is totally possible, I have yet to see it happen. It would be like getting a diagnosis of obesity due to unhealthy habits and praying to God to remove the extra weight. Each day the weight remains seems to be the message you are not going to be “healed” of your obesity. It is wise to seek God’s help but you must also do some of the heavy lifting, in this case perhaps literally through increased exercise, also by changing your eating habits to meet the nutritional needs of your body but not indulging in all the wants (unhealthy food, too much food, the wrong kind of food for your body…).
I am an advocate of taking control of our thoughts through awareness and intentionally changing the way we think. I know this approach works because I have changed my own neural pathways. I’m not perfect at it and at times slip back into old patterns. I have also experienced the freedom when I make wiser choices around my thoughts. I sometimes feel less-than or inferior to others. If I let those thoughts take hold and go unchecked I can spiral into depression and believing I am useless compared to others. This is not true! It’s a lie! I have value and worth on this planet. I’m not the expert in all things and there are many who are more effective in the very same work I do but that’s ok. There’s plenty of room for all of us. The way I communicate, the understandings I have connect with some people and that’s good enough. I don’t need to be the end all. If one person is affected positively by my blog posts, books, sessions, etc., I am content. Anything beyond that is just icing on the cake.
I want to encourage you to remember, we don’t change by praying or even just imaging ourselves as more healthy. We change because we do the hard work of living intentionally, understanding why we do what we do, sharing our story with others who compassionately love us where we are at, and taking the conscious steps necessary to create new and healthy neural pathways. God wants us to invite Him into the process, but I believe He wants us to do our part.
What to do about those unwanted thoughts or emotions? It’s crucial that you first understand what you are feeling or thinking. After naming it, find connections to help you understand why you are thinking or feeling what you are. Here’s an example: if you are feeling fear, what is the fear reacting to? Perhaps you just heard about impending layoffs at work and you’re not sure if you’re going to lose your job? It makes sense to feel fear when you don’t know what’s going to happen.
Now that you know what it is and why it’s there, you can work to change it. How will you benefit by continuing to feel the fear? Perhaps it will help you do your job well. Maybe it will help you update or start your resume, to begin thinking about the possibility of a job change for yourself. Think of channeling that fear energy into doing the things you can to prepare yourself, just in case.
Next, focus on the thoughts that led to fear. It’s likely something along the lines of, “and I’m going to lose my job.” What do you know is true and real beyond a shadow of doubt? Perhaps you received a memo from HR that announced upcoming layoffs. All you know is you received that memo. That’s it. You know nothing more so don’t add to the story: “Oh my gosh! I’m going to be laid off, I’m not going to be able to find another job and I’ll be living under a bridge.” You don’t know that won’t ever happen, but you also don’t know it will. You don’t have any data to support this. Have people lost jobs and ended up homeless? Yes. Do you know beyond a shadow of a doubt it will happen to you? No.
When you put your thoughts through this test, it helps to minimize the emotion that is connected to the thought. Now you can free up some mental and physical space to work on your resume, just in case. It’s ok to prepare for the worst while acknowledging you don’t really know what will happen.
You will likely need to go through the process again and again of asking what is true and real about your thoughts on this very same issue. I like to say, “rinse and repeat” because our thoughts have a way of going back to square one. Just recognize what you are thinking and feeling, and repeat the process.