Turning Toward the Difficult
Ignoring or avoiding difficulties doesn’t make them go away. Through mindfulness, we learn to process difficult feelings in order to release them instead of accumulating them and continuing to suffer.
My work involves a fair amount of faith. I may work with someone or a group one time or repeatedly for years and may never know what impact it had. That’s because I’m usually working with people who are having some kind of challenge that brings up difficult emotions and once the work is over, they’re anxious to move on. It is sometimes years later that I run into someone and they tell me how their life completely changed for the better. So I have to have faith that for every one of those chance encounters, there are many more similar outcomes that I never hear about.
I don’t mean to imply that clients don’t thank me, but they don’t typically describe the impact of the work they’ve completed. That’s because we don’t like to look at difficult situations or feelings, so as soon as people feel better or feel like they can take over on their own, they’re quick to turn toward happier or better futures.
I suspect a lot of difficult emotions cropped up over the past week with the anniversary of 9/11 here in the states and the passing of Queen Elizabeth II across the pond. In the US, 9/11 changed much of how we live and reminds us of what we lost. The queen’s death prompts many questions and probably a lot of uncertainty about what the future holds for those who lived under her rule for so many decades. Many people are facing difficult situations and feelings around the world in adjusting to post-pandemic life, financial strains and even severe weather. Difficulties are a part of life, but it feels like we’ve had more than our fair share over the past couple of years. Mindfulness can help us work through these challenges, but the practice encourages us to turn toward the difficulty, not away from it.
Studies show that it’s quite common for us to avoid looking at anything difficult. Failure is definitely one of those events that although providing us with an opportunity to learn, we prefer to avoid looking at altogether. Failure bruises our ego which in turn sends out the alarm that we’re in danger, triggering our fight or flight response. In the case of failure, our flight response might involve dismissing the value of whatever the task was we failed at, or blaming others for the failure, or justifying the failure by claiming the task was unfair or impossible to begin with.
The problem with that approach is that the difficult emotions don’t go away. They just get tamped down and can make us more sensitive or reactive to future difficulties. In the case of a failure, research shows that placing some distance between us and our failures can help. Try thinking about the experience as a neutral observer. You can swap yourself in your mind with someone you know which gives you a completely and usually more self-compassionate perspective. Sometimes writing about your experience in the 3rd person can help you look at the situation and learn more about it and yourself. Meditation strengthens our ability to put space between us and our thoughts and can allow us to explore events from a non-judgmental point of view.
Many people have suffered losses over the past two years, big and small. Loss is harder to ignore because it elicits powerful emotions that send a message to the ego that we are not safe and the fight or flight response is again activated. Just because we can’t ignore these difficult feelings doesn’t mean we don’t try to turn away from them, however, sometimes in very unhealthy ways. Numbing through drugs or alcohol, distracting through shopping or risky behaviors or completely shutting down, which puts us at risk for depression. The answer is to allow the grieving process to unfold and work through all of the difficult emotions. This can be very challenging to do because the feelings may be intense, so taking care of yourself is vital. Remaining self-aware as to how you’re feeling, reaching out to loved ones, talking to a professional or joining a group, and remembering that you are not alone and this discomfort will eventually pass, are all important to consider.
Betrayal, like loss, creates fear that life is not safe. These feelings can lead to uncertainty about ourselves and the world. If a friend or loved one betrays you, how can you ever trust them again? Can you trust yourself since you were the one who trusted them to begin with? Can you really trust anyone? A serious betrayal can lead to pulling back and keeping everyone at a distance to keep ourselves safe in the future. That of course prevents us from truly connecting with others and enjoying the very relationships we need to be happy and well. Processing betrayal is made more difficult by the fact that to truly heal, we’ll need to forgive. As a reminder, forgiving is not about the other person so much as it is about us releasing anger and resentment, but our egos don’t like that one bit.
To process a betrayal, we can start by acknowledging the betrayal and naming our emotions. Deep breathing or a mindfulness meditation can help us get centered and calm as we turn toward these difficult emotions. Try not to blame yourself but instead work toward non-judgment in general. Chances are, the person who betrayed you didn’t set out to cause harm, but had his or her own difficulties they may not have processed in the most helpful way. Betrayal may have been the end result of a misunderstanding. Blaming ourselves or the other person only keeps us in those difficult emotions longer or can even lead us to a desire to retaliate, which only makes the situation worse. It’s much healthier to work through the emotions, which may include grieving the loss of trust, through self-reflection, meditation, forgiveness and self-compassion. The loving kindness meditation is a beautiful tool that can be helpful in processing betrayal and forgiveness.
If we consider that there are really only two emotions, love and fear, it is clear that our reaction to difficulties falls under fear. The subset of emotions under fear that typically take over are anger or sadness. When anger surfaces, keep in mind that it hurts you worse than the other person, with many physiological responses that harm your health. When angry, try lowering the temperature through deep breathing. Breathing in calm and breathing out anger. Repeatedly sharing how angry you are actually increases the brain’s chemical reaction to anger, prompting additional releases of cortisol and adrenaline. So if you’re really angry, share it with a trusted person to get it out, but then turn to mindfulness practices that will calm you down. While anger is a difficult emotion to be sure, we have a choice as to whether or not to hang on to it. Anger’s purpose is to prompt us to act, so take action that serves your well-being.
Research suggests that sadness evolved as a response to failure and loss. Since sadness is a difficult emotion, we of course try to avoid it, but again, it doesn’t go away on its own. It sits inside, waiting for the opportunity to express itself and usually not in the most productive way when ignored too long. Sadness actually improves memory, which in turn can help us to succeed in the future, and regret sharpens motivation.
So perhaps instead of ignoring sadness, consider gently allowing sad feelings to surface as you think about your situation or event. Ask yourself what you need in this moment. Be as compassionate with yourself as you would if you were supporting a friend who felt sad.
Unlike anger, talking repeatedly about sadness can be healing, so share your feelings with someone you trust. Sadness may take a long time to process and unlike most difficulties, distracting yourself to gain relief can be effective. Just choose non-harmful distractions, like a funny movie, a good book, a concert or sporting event, spending time with children or animals. These distractions can cheer you up and help prevent you from sliding into depression as you work your way through releasing the sadness.
I hate crying because my eye area is so sensitive, one little cry causes my eyes to puff up into giant red blobs that take about a day to recede. But emotional tears, one of the three types of tears we experience, contain more stress hormones and natural painkillers than the other two types and can serve a therapeutic role in processing sadness. When I’ve got sadness to process, I hold it in until I can spend a day alone and then just allow myself to cry it out. Sometimes I have to watch something sad on TV or read a sad story to overcome my own resistance to the process, but after a good cry, I always feel better.
If you find sadness overwhelming, reach out for support. Sometimes we are dealing with issues that are simply too much for us to handle on our own, so whether a trusted friend or a professional therapist, you don’t have to suffer alone.
The world seems to be going through a rather tough period and as we each individually experience difficult situations and feelings, it’s helpful to accept that this is a normal human response to challenges. A key component of mindfulness is acceptance. That is not to say that we want the difficulty or that we agree with the situation, but only that we accept that it is occurring. Once it has occurred, we can choose how to respond to it. The most effective response is to turn toward the difficulty, not only to overcome it, but to gain the resilience, knowledge and insights the difficulty offers.
Martin Luther King said, “we must accept finite disappointment, but we must never lose infinite hope.” Hope may be the most important factor in difficult situations. As long as we have hope, we can try again.
Frequently, life’s greatest difficulties lead to life’s greatest joys and successes. Are you ready to turn toward your difficulties and explore new opportunities? I am, and I hope you are, too.