If you’re reading this blog, you’re probably well acquainted with the hopelessness of depression, the gripping fear of anxiety, the shame and guilt of addiction or trauma, or the heartbreaking helplessness of being witness to a loved one who is caught in one or more of these struggles. You know suffering and pain. You have direct experience with being stuck.
You’ve probably tried everything you can think of to make things better, and if you’re like most of us, you’ve even continued to try many things after they have failed over and over again. At times, in our desperation to feel better, we struggle against this suffering and pain to find that it’s so much like quicksand. The more we struggle, the deeper and faster we sink. The harder we try, the worse it gets.
We have a natural tendency to expect that the process of recovery will make us feel better.
That’s the point, right? We’re working hard in our therapy, possibly attending various support groups or meetings, endlessly talking about our problems, and to what end? How can we tell if all these efforts are working? We should be feeling better, shouldn’t we?
An alternative perspective on this is that through recovery we may be getting better at feeling, but not necessarily “feeling better.” At least not right away.
There’s a natural tendency for us to want to make a quantum leap once we become ready to make the important changes in our lives. We may have begun to resolve our ambivalence about taking action towards feeling better and it would be nice if someone would just tell us what to do. How do we get out of this quicksand?
One approach is to let go of the struggle - to slow down, take a breath, step back from our thoughts and feelings, and notice them for what they are. Not what they say they are. And, to notice what our thoughts and feelings are trying to get us to do. This is the practice of getting better at feeling.
Our minds produce thoughts and feelings that tend to be desperately focused on avoiding pain and discomfort. Just as the fear of drowning in quicksand would cause us to struggle and sink faster, our minds are working hard to find relief from our pain in a way that just tends to increase it.
What if, instead, we made some room for this discomfort? Became willing to have it. Allowed what’s already there to be there. Began to view this pain as a natural and valuable part of our human experience that is evidence or testimony to what we deeply care about. Family, feeling a sense of belonging, loving others and feeling loved, protecting people that matter to us, in our own small way making the world a better place. We can’t live a life that reflects these values without also feeling the stinging pain of loneliness, disconnection, and disappointment. To be fully alive is to feel this sort of pain, and maybe even to honor it.
When we make room for this type of pain, we can often transform it into something that signifies to us that we’re fully engaged in deliberately living a life guided by our values. Our desire to feel good can give way to a different type of positive experience which is much harder to put into words. This is an experience of being the people we want to be in the face of pain. Being people with courage who are less focused on reducing or eliminating pain, than we are focused on being who we want to be in the world and perhaps taking our pain along for the ride.
Consider the Serenity Prayer:
Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And, the wisdom to know the difference.
We may not be able to change what it is to have the thoughts and feelings that make us human, and to care so much about who and what we value, but we can ask for the serenity to accept those things.
We can also acknowledge, in a self-compassionate and non-judgmental way for the courage required to live life on life’s terms, and to take responsibility to change what is within our control -primarily ourselves.
And finally, to be a person that can on occasion be wise enough to recognize that we can’t control our thoughts and feelings, but we can control our choices and our actions in order to create the conditions for a transcendent experience that is far greater and more rewarding than the absence of pain, or merely just feeling good.
- John Armando