Once again I find myself sitting before the blank page trying to find something helpful to say on a day when everything seems hard. I don’t know about you, but for me personally, it’s been a rough January.
I started off the year full of ideas and enthusiasm (as one does), and rapidly succumbed to a cold that I’m still fighting off traces of. But it hasn’t just been my health I’ve struggled with. It’s been hard to read the news, and last week it was hard to watch the Trump inauguration.
All of which combines to mean that I spent the first part of January mired in a haze of illness, exhaustion, and anxiety.
But I can’t help but suspect that maybe it’s been a hard month for you, too — if not for all the same reasons.
And if that’s true then I want you to know that you’re not alone, that it’s been hard for me too — and I want you to know that it gets easier.
Because this haze of exhausted anxiety is a feeling I’m familiar with; I’ve been here before.
So if this month has been hard for you and in the wake of the inauguration you’re feeling understandably anxious and fearful, here is the process I’ve been using to navigate difficult times.
Step One: Offer yourself compassionate witness
The first step in navigating any hard time is always to notice you’re having a hard time (I know this sounds silly, but bear with me). This can be as simple as offering yourself a thought like “Wow, I’m feeling really anxious right now”.
The point is to take a step outside of the direct experience of the feeling (“I am anxious”) to create space between you and the feeling (“I am experiencing anxiety”). In the first instance, anxious is what you are and in the second anxious is only a feeling that is happening to you.
This creates space which allows you to work with the emotion instead of being overrun by it.
So if you haven’t already, or if you’re presently feeling overwhelmed, take a moment to step back and notice exactly what it is that you’re feeling — and then notice that that feeling is simply a sensation that is happening to you right now.
And as you do that, offer whatever it is you may be feeling compassion. Don’t try to make it go away; don’t tell yourself that the feeling shouldn’t be there.
Just step outside of the feeling a little bit and notice its presence. That’s all you need to do right now.
Sometimes I like think of my feelings as unruly children who are seeking my attention, care, and affection. But feel free to choose any metaphor that works for you.
Step Two: Slow everything down
When I’m struggling I never have the same capacity to accomplish things as I usually do (be they grand visions or small mundane things like folding the laundry).
It’s important to understand and expect this because it allows you to give yourself permission to slow down.
When I forget to do this I invariably get lost in a shame-spiral that starts with letting things I’d meant to do slip, at which point I judge myself a “bad person” for not doing things I meant to do, and get mired in guilt and shame, which exacerbates my anxiety, which leaves me with even less energy, and causes things to slip even farther.
If you have this tendency too, then I invite you to skip the spiral. Start with permission to accomplish only as much as you have already accomplished (and, hey, some days that might be literally nothing if you’re really struggling).
I invite you to let being where you are be exactly enough.
I promise all those things that you’d planned to do will still be waiting for you when you’re feeling well enough to tackle them again — and, maybe more importantly, the world probably won’t have ended between now and then just because you didn’t get around to folding the laundry.
And anyway, I’ve found that somehow the truly critical stuff always manages to get done.
Step Three: Create a sense of safety
When you’re mired in a hard place, the journey to the other side begins with safety. It begins with creating a place where you can face into the storm while remaining anchored in an internal felt-sense of safety.
How exactly this sense of safety is created will depend on you and the storm you are facing.
Meditation and mindfulness practices are my favorite approach — I can face into mental or emotional turbulence while remaining anchored in the safety of the breath. But the effectiveness of this approach depends a lot on how well I am able to separate my sense of self from the immediate experience of whatever I am feeling — and how able I am to offer myself kindness and compassion instead of judgement.
If you feel like exploring this kind of approach, I particularly like the practice of RAIN which meditation teacher Tara Brach describes here.
Beyond meditation, other ways that you may be able to face into the reality of your experience from within a safe container include confiding in a journal, expressing yourself in any sort of creative activity, going for a walk, taking a bath, or rolling yourself up in a blanket. Sometimes working with a guided meditation can also help you create a safe space for yourself.
Feel free to experiment and get creative here and, if you feel like you’re not getting anywhere, there’s no shame in asking for help.
A really important note: if you are really struggling or dealing with any sort of unresolved trauma you may be so caught in your experience you are unable to separate from the emotional experience without the presence of another person to hold safe space for you.
If this is true for you, then please don’t pressure yourself to keep trying — if you can’t confront your feelings while staying rooted in a sense of safety then it is kinder to seek the help of someone who can hold a safe space for you while you navigate the issue. Depending on your situation, this person might be a trusted friend, a therapist, or a coach. If you feel like this might be true for you I’m always happy to talk with you and help you find the help you need, you can contact me here.
Step Four: Have patience with the process
This process isn’t a miracle cure (I wish it was, but it’s not). There’s no straight line from suffering to peace… it’s never going to be once-and-done.
You’re going to continue to struggle. You’re going to have good days and bad. You’re going to have days where it feels like you’re right smack back where you started.
You’re going to need to have patience and trust the process.
You’re going to need to trust that by offering yourself compassionate witness in the murkiest depths of your struggle and by calmly, gently, kindly turning inward to face the storm, that strength and courage will ultimately prevail.
This process isn’t magic. It’s hard and gritty and it usually takes longer than you’d like.
And when you’re in the middle it can be deeply, profoundly uncomfortable because the ego likes guarantees and it wants a promise that things are going to get better. But in the middle of a profound transformation everything feels uncertain and nothing feels like a guarantee.
But the truth is that this is okay, too. You don’t need to be comfortable if you just keep gently nudging yourself toward facing into the truth.
Just take it one day, one hour, one breath at a time.