How To Thrive During Life's Hard Seasons
Simple Practices to Feel Better & Live More
This is a hard season. I think we can all agree this year has been rough. Right now, most of us are anxious. And when we're anxious, it's harder for us to regulate and recover. We end up doing things we don’t understand, behaving in ways that aren’t like us, feeling behind the eight ball and like we can’t catch up. Then, when we get surprises and stack a hard season upon a hard season, we lose it.
The CDC reported that in late June, nearly 1 in 2 adults reported struggling with mental health or substance abuse (source). I have to believe that number hasn't decreased since then.
Being an entrepreneur in the early years of launching a speaking and thought leadership business with all the creative and financial stress on top of being a single mom with my young kids being home for school every day - it's been hard. I’m sure most everyone can relate.
The added stress has been that since late last year, my daughter Vivian has been experiencing leg pain. For most kids, this is simple growing pains - no big deal. We tried to write it off as that for awhile. But for Vivian, it could be a sign the (noncancerous) tumor on her spinal cord, which she was born with and which was operated on when she was an infant, has reattached to her vertebrae.
In January, we learned that's exactly what happened. The conversation no mother wants to have with her daughter’s neurosurgeon is: “we need to wait until the symptoms get worse but not *too much* worse before we do surgery. You need to monitor her closely so we catch the inflection point.” Since January, I've been watching Vivian, waiting for her to tell me her pain hurts more, looking for other symptoms, trying like hell to balance vigilance so I don't miss something with hyper-vigilance so I don’t become a hypochondriac helicopter mom who controls her every move. The dance has been challenging but we’ve been managing.
Over the last month, right in the middle of virtual school starting and everyone trying to settle into the impossible task of schooling and working from home, symptoms have worsened. It's been a whirlwind of hospital visits and studies and calls with nurses and doctors.
She needs surgery. Soon. But - and here's the real kicker - her neurosurgeon, the one we chose when Vivian was 2 months old because he's one of the best in the business, is on medical leave until December. This spins me out. Can she wait? Will he be back? Will we even want a doctor who’s freshly returned from medical leave to operate? Can we trust another doctor?
There are so many logistical and emotional moving parts to consider. It feels like an impossible position.
I don't write often about my children, my ex or my family because theirs are not my stories to tell. I can only talk about my experience.
And right now, I'm scared. I'm sad. I'm anxious. I'm heartbroken. I feel so bad for Vivian. She, in her attempt to understand and fit herself into the workings of the world, regularly tries to calibrate her "problem" (which is what she calls it) with other kids. Why did she get this? Is it worse than X friend's problem? How come other kids don't have problems?
I try to hold space for her to process and encourage her to feel whatever she's feeling, but not ever let this "problem" define her or become part of her identity. This isn't part of who she is, just something she has. Don't we all know people who, likely completely unconsciously, have internalized some experience or problem they have, and morphed it to become part of their identity? They see themselves as victims or heroes. This problem makes their lives worse, or makes them worthy of attention, or anything in between. I want Vivian growing up knowing she's worthy simply because she IS. Not because of what she has, what she does, or what labels she calls herself.
I'm also trying to hold space for myself. I am a deep feeler, which is honestly only something I've fully realized in the last maybe 2 years. It's impossible to say if I experience emotions more deeply than other people and, importantly, pain is not a competition. But since I tend to be on the intense side of most things, emotion is certainly no exception.
When I was young, I didn't know what to do with all these intense emotions because they could be incredibly uncomfortable, so I did my best to not feel them at all. By the time I was 12, I began starving myself. When I was 14, I was binging and purging. Over the course of my life, I've thrown myself into food (and lack of), exercise, alcohol, love, and work to keep myself out of feeling my emotions. I can say that it successfully dulls the pain, but does nothing to diminish it. If anything, it paints it like a gray cloud across the entire experience of my life, causing a dull achy anxiety that I can’t pinpoint and which requires more and more numbing to alleviate.
My spiritual journey has been more about letting go of the need to protect myself from my feelings than it has about anything else.
If we can’t feel, we cannot live - at least not fully. Living in full range does not mean living in joy each and every day, it means allowing ourselves to feel everything so that we can be bask in the experience of being alive.
Full range means higher highs and lower lows. If we numb ourselves to diminish the experience of fear and pain, we also sacrifice our ability to feel joy and happiness. The door into joy is often through fear and pain.
This, for me, is one of the scariest, most uncertain times I can remember. We often think that when things get hard, we don’t have time to prioritize growth.
Our lives are our classrooms and our playgrounds where we can learn to live in new and fuller ways, if we are willing to look at our experiences as students of the universe.
I’m using this time to watch my reactions and keep learning from them so I can choose with intention and live more fully.
Don't numb the feelings
Right now, it seems that with each day, or certainly each week, comes a new blow to whatever sense of stability I might have conjured up since the last one. And each time, as soon as it comes, I feel the ache simmering inside, quickly heating itself up to a boil that threatens to bubble over. My automatic reaction is to stop the ache any way I know how. And that’s when my cravings start. I want to eat all the chocolate. I want to drink all the wine. I want to call an old flame. Something, anything, to give me a quick hit of instant gratification to make me feel better by not feeling as much.
I stopped drinking a year and a half ago because it became too easy a device for distraction and I didn’t like where it was taking me. I stopped allowing myself to fall for emotional breadcrumbs because that, too, was a slippery slope for me. And, while I do still sometimes eat too much chocolate, I try to be as mindful as I can.
Practice Self Awareness
Instead, I’m trying to practice slowing down and breathing. Allowing myself to feel whatever comes up. The mantra I repeat, which calls on my courage and faith, is that the only way past is through. These may be dark days but the sun will shine again, often brighter and warmer than before. For every valley there is a peak. That gives me strength and keeps me going.
Practice Self Care
I’m also practicing lots and lots of self-care. When we’re not taking care of ourselves physically and emotionally, it’s incredibly hard to regulate and manage our emotions. The irony is that we numb ourselves to feel less, through binging alcohol, food, drugs, sex and Netflix, but those exact things then prevent us from practicing self care which would actually make us feel better. It becomes a perpetual cycle that’s hard to break (believe me, I know) but the more we prioritize sleeping, eating a healthy diet, drinking water and exercising regularly, the more quickly we can move from merely surviving to actually thriving.
Self-care for me also includes getting up early to sit outside with coffee and my journal because creating white space in our days and lives is incredibly important for awareness and growth. This is definitely my favorite part of each day and the peaceful feeling I get from that time makes it easy to get out of bed early.
Lean into your people
Finally, I’m leaning on my support system. I struggle asking for help. One of my defaults, especially when I’m stressed, is to hide in my cave and try to do everything alone. It leads me to feel bitter and sorry for myself (why must I do everything by myself?), to get more stressed (trying to do too much) and to feel lonely (because...I’m alone).
When that achy feeling comes up or I don’t want to cry alone - or I’m needing to cry but I can’t find the tears - I call in my people. We all need our people. The ones who hold us wherever and whoever we are and don’t try to rush us through the feeling, the moment or the lesson. The ones who provide a soft shoulder, an open heart and a cleared calendar, if needed. This is a sacred role and one not to be taken lightly, either when you are in need or when you’re called in to support. It requires vulnerability, empathy, trust and listening, not judgement, criticism, pity or solutions.
Do I nail it perfectly every time? Definitely not. Do I even remember to do these every time? No, that's why they're a practice. But when I do, they certainly help me feel authentically better and feel more than I would if I just numbed.
And for all those times, the most important thing I’m doing is practicing self-compassion. I’m holding myself in kindness and grace rather than beating myself up. I used to talk to myself in a way I wouldn’t ever dare talking to my worst enemy and it left me feeling constantly battered and bruised. Now I talk to myself as I would my best friend. Because, we are our first and best friends - we are the only ones with us our entire lives. The greatest gift I’ve given myself over the past few years is discovering unconditional love for myself. If we can’t love ourselves, how can we expect anyone else to?
The more we practice these acts of self-compassion, self-care and self-awareness, the more we gain self-love. The more we love ourselves, the more love we have to share. We cannot give to others what we cannot give to ourselves. I do these things so I am a fuller version of myself, and have more to give to Vivian, Evelyn, and anyone else who needs my support. Creating a better world really does start with us.
Whether you’re just in a hard season, or a hard season on top of a hard season, I hope these one or all of these practices, which help me live more fully each moment and each day, can support you in living into more of your full range.
We do not experience our lives in grand sweeping times, we live moment by moment. And the more open you are to feeling and being present to those moments - the highs and the lows - the more fully alive you will be.
Now it's your turn. Which practice most resonated with you and how will you add it to your daily life? Most importantly: What works best for you to recover quickly? Leave a comment below! You never know when the suggestion you make may be just the inspiration someone else needed to change their life.
All my best,