The only way out is through
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(Read the companion post on my personal blog: "Feelings-Real: Processing Loss")
Over the last week, Iain, our 7 year old son, mourning the absence of his father who is away was sitting vigil at his father’s bedside has, at various times come to me to say:
“I feel like my windpipe’s being crushed.”
“On a 1 to 10 scale, it’s a 10. I feel awful.”
“My head feels all hazy and fuzzy.”
“I feel like I have daggers in my head.”
“Why is it so painful?”
“My whole body hurts.”
And, “Is this all just feelings?”
To which I replied “Yes, and what you’re feeling is still real. Not medicine-needing real, but feelings-real.”
He had asked for a Tylenol or an Ibuprofen. And only as I write this now do I realize: this is where it starts. Popping a pill will not make you feel better. Because this is not illness-real, it’s feelings-real. And the only way to change feelings-real, is to change the feelings behind them. And the only way to do that is to accept that we DO control our feelings - by what we think, what stories we tell ourselves. No pill or bottle or drug can solve that.
It starts here. Resilience. Emotional fluency. Listening to our bodies. Honoring our bodies. And not looking for quick fixes. Feel the pain, the hurt, the despair, the loneliness, the heartache. Feel all of of it. Let it wash over you. Let it cleanse you. So that you can also feel joy, hope, clarity, serenity, purpose, love, openness, gratitude. “Numb the dark and you numb the light” says Brene Brown. Wade into the dark water, the mire and the muck. It’s the only way to cross to the other side, to the light. Otherwise you stay where you are. On this bank. Looking across to the other, wishing you could be there, but not knowing how to.
The only way out is through.
Towards a trauma-informed coaching model
The first time I heard the American phrase “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade” I registered it's meaning, but didn’t connect with it much. I heard it a few times over the years, and each time I became a little more skeptical of it. But I wasn’t quite sure why.
It was after the birth of our son, when I had had an emergency C-section and a man remarked “Well, healthy baby, that’s the important thing,” that I started to have a glimpse into what bothered me about this phrase. Yes, the C-section was necessary. Yes, it meant we had a healthy baby. But no, that didn’t mean I still didn’t have some pretty strong emotions about having had a C-section. Well intentioned through the man’s comments were, implicit in them was that my experience, my suffering, my feelings didn’t really matter. I had now become a mother - and therefore secondary. It was the baby that counted. “But what about me?” my insides screamed as I smiled kindly at the man.
After everything fell apart at work in 2017, and I collapsed entirely from the re-triggering of my PTSD, I tried out a few coaches. One of them asked me to make a list of reasons why what was happening could be a good thing. Now, one of the axioms in coaching is that "in life there are no challenges or problems, there are only opportunities". Intellectually I can get that. But emotionally - and especially when dealing with trauma and traumatic events - that philosophy can be not only decidedly unhelpful, it can be downright dangerous.
What I have learned from my own healing, research, and practice is that it is imperative that a person’s pain and suffering is acknowledge and validated FIRST. Yes, eventually - it may take hours, days, weeks or months, depending on the degree of pain, suffering or trauma - they will be at a place to start asking the question “how could I turn this awful experience into an opportunity”. But to ask that question of them too soon is to essentially dismiss their emotions and in so doing add to their suffering.
And that is why you will never hear me use the phrase “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade”. Or similar. A trauma-informed approach to coaching is based on recognizing that overwhelming psychological experiences rob us of our ability to access our rational brains. We HAVE to feel emotionally safe first before we can begin to do any of the other processing and healing. Emotional safety is the exact thing that traumatic experiences steal from us.
When, during coach training, I pushed back against the concept that “in life there are no problems, or challenges, there are only opportunities”, explaining my reasoning, the trainer thought for a while then posed “a lemon is a lemon, it’s nature is to be sour, it’s not the lemon’s fault, right?”.
Sorta. But not quite.
This gets closer towards acknowledging and validating that the pain just is - it’s the inherent consequence of experiencing traumatic events. But it’s still not quite validating that one of the worst aspects of trauma is that the victim so often feels that they were in someway responsible for it. “If only they had…," they can't stop themselves from wondering.
In my case, a very large part of my workplace trauma was I was being directly told, in the most cold-hearted way imaginable, that I was solely and directly responsible for EVERYTHING. If the team was having challenges, it was me. If there was negative reaction, it was me. If people were feeling overwhelmed, it was me. If people disagreed on the best strategy, it was me. Rationally, of course it couldn't possible be all me. But in trauma there was no way I could access that thought. I was a failure, I was cursed, I could not do anything right.
This is what I call the secondary trauma. And in some cases it is worse than the primary trauma. If I had been emotionally resilient going in, that feedback would still have been intensely painful and quite possibly devastating. But precisely because what we were working on was a big innovative project that was pushing everyone’s comfort levels and the stress was building, my emotional resilience was way down. So I fully bought in - for a while - that it was all me. That I was the problem. That I had to “fix me”. And that compounded the traumatic nature of the experience.
“I had brought this on myself”, was the story I was telling myself.
Yes, no and maybe.
Certainly I had some degree of responsibility. Was it 100%? No, no and no. But it took me weeks and some very intensive therapy to get that point emotionally. And I emphasize the emotional part because it is the emotional part of the brain that drives trauma. Our rational brain is literally “off-line” during traumatic experiences. Our older, reptilian brain takes over during times of threat and danger - it has too, it is what it is designed to do - to keep us safe. And while my life was not in physical danger, the brain doesn’t actually distinguish between threats to one’s physical self and threats to one’s sense of self. To the brain they are one and the same thing. And so until I could start to feel emotionally safe again, with people who truly cared for me, and who were trained in trauma and were gentle and compassionate and moving very very slowly and gently with me, there was simply no way I could start to do any of the work of parsing out what I was responsible for and what I was not responsible for.
Once I got there, it was crystal clear that in no way was I 100% responsible. Indeed, the overwhelming majority of people I worked with had nothing BUT positive things to say about me! So then I was left with the incredibly hard, devastating and painful fact that for reasons I couldn’t fully understand, I was being deliberately targeted because somewhere, somehow, a few people didn’t feel safe with me. Was that solely my fault? Or did they have a role to play too? Of course they did! But what I’ve learned since then is that people will do just about anything to discharge their emotional pain onto others, to blame or shame others as a way to deal with their own issues, rather than accept responsibility for their own feelings.
And so that is why that request from a potential coach to “Imagine there's a panel of angels (or whatevers) who custom-made the perfect spiritual challenge for you to support you in developing whatever muscles most need it. How is this situation perfect?” came at the wrong time.
Yes, a year and a half later, now I can see this whole experience as a gift. It was most definitely a gift I didn’t want, or ask for. It was a very very painful, devastating and hurtful gift at the time. But by doing the work with an amazing, supportive team who really understood trauma, I do now see it as a gift - the full measure of which I am continuing to discover every day.
And so that is why I will never say to someone “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade”. I will never ask you to just to accept that it is the nature of a lemon to be sour and bitter. And I will never ask you to question if it is indeed, a lemon at all. Because when you get to the point - with me, or with someone else - of feeling emotionally safe because your pain and hurt is totally acknowledged and validated - then and only then will you be ready to ask the question yourself. I won’t need to. YOU will be the one to ask it.
And then slowly, safely, and in a very gentle and compassionate way, I can support you on the journey of writing your own story about how you are going to define for yourself the meaning of what has happened. Meaning that empowers you. Meaning that gives you great confidence and a deep, sure sense of your value and self-worth.
“Sadly, it's not illegal to be an asshole,” my lawyer said.
And there it was. I had been through hell, but you can’t sue a bully - unless you can prove discrimination or something else illegal. And they had covered their bases well. Which left me - and indeed anyone looking to move on from these experiences - where?
Resilience. Rising strong. Not letting it get to me. Much easier said than done. So how, exactly, does one do that?
As I am a resilience coach this is a important topic for me. I see lots of posts in the future on this topic. As a beginning what exactly is resilience? And why does it matter?
There are scientific, medical, psychological, environmental and many other definitions of resilience. For me, I define it as that band of tolerance in which things can happen to one - and one may find them intensely uncomfortable, painful even - but one can still stay in choice and not be triggered into overreacting, or its corollary, under-reacting (freezing, or going numb). It’s that band where we have ups and downs, good days and bad days, hurts and joys, but in which we still feel essentially ourselves. That band where we can respond rather than react or not react at all.
It’s important because the wider our band our resilience, the more easily we can recover from the hard things that life throws at us. We will still feel challenged; we will still feel hurt, pain, fear, loss, grief, anger, or whatever else a particular event may evoke in us, but we don’t stay there as long and don’t experience them quite as severely as we otherwise might.
The good news is that resilience is not some inherent character trait. You are not born with a certain amount of resilience and that’s it. Resilience can be learned. It’s like a muscle that, with regular exercise and care, can get both stronger AND more supple. Even better, unlike for those of you who hate going to the gym (that’s me), building resilience is not like slogging through an arduous work-out. Building resilience can be downright enjoyable because - hey, bonus - one part of building resilience is doing things that you actually enjoy.
Some of you already know this. You are what Brene Brown would call the “whole-hearted”. Your band of resilience is already wide enough that when you have the misfortune to encounter one of the world’s assholes, you see them for who they are. Indeed, you even have compassion for them. You know that it’s about them, not about you. But for the rest of us, we have to work a little (or a lot!) harder to get to that place. We have to learn the skill of resilience.
One assumption that I’ve had to unlearn is that resilience is has nothing to do with being tough or thick-skinned. Rather resilience is, at its core, knowing deep down inside that we are worthy. And for many reasons - how we were brought up, the culture and community in which we were raised, our school experiences etc. - some of us have a harder time believing that than others.
I know, that sounds really woo-woo and flakey. That was my response when I first started this work. And yeah, denial that I had a problem with self-worth too! But as I have been interviewing people and listening to their stories about dealing with assholes, the pattern was very clear. The only difference between those who struggled to know how to deal with bullies, and those who didn’t, was that the latter had enough confidence in themselves to set boundaries. They could say “No, that’s not acceptable.” That’s it. They still got hurt. They still doubted and questioned themselves. They still got angry. But they didn’t take on internally what someone else might have said about them or to them, and they didn't tell themselves that they were somehow responsible for the other person’s poor behavior.
I’m “sensitive”, as my mother would say, not necessarily happily. And I’ve decided that I’m OK with that. What I’m not OK with anymore is extrapolating the hurt and pain I feel when encountering insensitive, domineering, critical people to “there’s something wrong with me.” My journey towards resilience started precisely because my old response was to take it to be about me. And, well, that didn’t end well for me. Indeed, I eventually fell apart. Quite literally. But that’s another story. I still flinch, I still get riled up when people make insensitive comments. It still gets to me. But now I’ve figured out how not to take it on - how not to make it about me.
Greater resilience is also not about caring less, or armouring up so that things bounce off of us. One person I interviewed had a lovely image. “Imagine you’re being shot at with arrows. Resilience is that the arrows still hit and wound you. But now, instead of leaning in to the arrows or, worse yet, pushing them further into you, you simply take them out, drop them on the ground, walk away, and go and get bandaged up. And in so doing you heal much more quickly.”
I can’t take down all the assholes in the world. I might be mighty, but I am not, sadly, magical. But I can help people build their resilience. In future posts I’ll write more as to how. For starters here’s a link to a recent New York Times article on building resilience as an adult. Google “how to build resilience” and lots more will come up.
If resilience is something you want more of, join me. And if resilience is something you already have, share what you do to build and maintain your resilience. Either way, drop me a line. I’d love to talk with you.
Sue Mann - Coach
These are my reflections on how we rise, how we reclaim and sustain our worthiness in the face of falls and challenges. Less personal stories ( see the blog for that) and more practical tools, tips, techniques and reflections for all of us to brave the arena every day.