Life is hard.
We want joy and happiness but we also have to cope with setbacks, rejection and pain.
The problem is that we divide our feelings into two categories: positive and negative. We want the positive ones to hang around (like joy and pleasure) and get rid of the negative (in other words painful ones like anxiety or anger) as quickly as possible.
Unfortunately, the three most common strategies for avoiding pain only work in the short term and often make matters worse.
- We try and cover up the nasty feelings or distract ourselves with something that makes us feel better. I call this self-medicating and we do it with sugary or fatty foods, alcohol or flirting with someone inappropriate—which can easily turn from a stick to help us cope into a stick to beat us (and into affairs and compulsive or addictive behaviours).
- We minimise or rationalise our painful feelings – ‘its not that bad’ or ‘I shouldn’t feel this way because…’ However, this strategy pushes emotions underground and they seep out as general grumpiness or depression or explode when we lose our temper and let rip.
- We run away (and completely avoid the feelings) or shut down and curl into a ball to protect ourselves. But nothing changes and the original problem remains and will cause us pain again.
However, I have a revolutionary idea—try facing your feelings head on
I know this sounds difficult but I will break it down into easy steps…
When you are hurting, you can be so keen to stop the pain that you don’t even recognise what it really is.
I’d like you to identify the feeling and say it yourself or if you’re alone out loud: ‘I am feeling…’ It could be anger or fear but it could just as easily be sadness.
As you can see these are all very different feelings and each might need a different response.
When you are angry or frightened or whatever, please accept the feeling. It is OK to feel this way and there will probably be a good reason why.
Unfortunately, rather than accepting the feeling, lots of people beat themselves up for having the feeling in the first place.
Take a deep breath. Be aware of the air going in through your nostrils and your rib cage expanding and then letting the breath out through your nostrils.
If at any stage during these steps the pain gets too much, return to this safe place and count your breaths.
There are two ways of grounding yourself. The first is to locate where you are and what you’re doing. For example: ‘I am lying in my bed’ or ‘I am walking down the street’.
The second way of grounding yourself is locating where the pain is in your body. For example, ‘I have a tightness across my chest’ or ‘I have a sick feeling in my stomach’.
In the same way a mother holds both a gurgling and a crying baby, I would like you to embrace your feeling.
You might even try rocking yourself from side to side (or just shifting your weight) as this is very calming and will help you to be ready for the last two stages.
6. Look deeply
Now you’re ready to look at what caused your distress.
- What is this pain about?
- How much of it is about what has just happened?
- How much is it part of a chain of events that might go all the way back to my childhood?
- How much is about the future and my anxiety about what MIGHT happen?
7. Take the insight
When you have a deep insight into the problem, you can begin to think about proper solutions—rather than a quick fix. What would you like to talk to your partner about? What do you need to do differently?
If you need some inspiration for what to change—rather than just doing the same old failed strategy bigger and louder—have a look at my new book Can We Start Again Please? Twenty Questions to Fall Back in Love
I have taken everything that I’ve learnt over thirty years as a marital therapist and stripped ii back to:
- Seven powerful interventions
- Three questionnaires to help you take stock of your problems
- Twenty questions that will allow you to look at your partner through fresh eyes
Lost and found says
I’ve been looking at my family dynamics of codependency and boundary crossing a little more closely over the years, especially in the last year where me and my wife moved back home to be closer to family. I just had a rough experience with my family and I am feeling a bit raw and helpless so wanted to reach out.
Some history first. I grew up in a generally loving household (mom, dad, and younger brother) and I certainly love my family today. I went through a few painful experiences over the years (change of school/career path, separation from my wife that ultimately led to reconciliation) where I decided to take a look at my life, who I am, what I value, and learn to take care of myself better.
Over the years, as I got to know myself more, I realized I was sort of “playing a role” in life, projecting an image of having it all figured out and staying on a certain path of “success”. Inside, I felt a lot of turmoil and unexpressed fears and other feelings about not having things figured out. My brother is an outwardly anxious and depressive type of personality—he’s a lovely guy, but in our family, I felt he could express whatever he needed to and my parents would appease him. I didn’t feel I got the same allowance. I became a type of “balm” for my brother, being told to reassure him or avoid saying certain things to upset him. I felt a great deal of pressure, whether my parents realized it or not, and I subconsciously suppressed a lot of my own inner turmoil because I learned that it wasn’t acceptable to express. I guess it was a type of survival skill, ultimately a strategy to not rock the boat further.
Over the past few days, this type of dynamic popped up again. My brother just graduated from a particularly tough degree program (he too changed directions in his studies when earlier paths weren’t working for him). He’s now struggling to find work, plus we’re in global pandemic mode, so the anxiety is palpable. He and I had a chat over Skype last night and it was good. Perhaps as part of that balm/soothing role I learned, I wanted to let him know he could tell me anything and that I’m always there for him. I also relayed experiences about having trouble finding work after studies, Covid or not, and that it can be a struggle. He lives with my parents in an inlaw suite apartment and he said he feels like a burden to them and in general. I felt worried when I heard that, so I asked him if our mom and dad gave any indication that would suggest that. I also said I’m sure they were happy to have him there as long as he needed.
Our call ended, and later in the evening, he asked what I meant about whether mom and dad said any thing. We talked again on the phone and I explained why and that I meant no harm but I was sorry if I hurt him. Then later in the evening, my dad called me up in a huff and said that I made my brother feel like crap. I felt completely blindsided by the behaviour and angry, sad, disappointed among other things. I told my dad that the talk was between me and my brother and that we could work it out if we needed. Dad said he felt compelled to call and say something. This is how it’s been as far back as I can remember; they shelter my brother from further difficulties, and when he’s the slightest bit off or low, they jump in and try to fix things or defend him or shelter him.
I had a more cool-headed talk with my family after a good night’s sleep, but I feel rattled by the whole experience. I feel like I go back to being a scared child when these sorts of experiences happen. I am proud to say that I stood up for myself and expressed that I felt a boundary was crossed and what I’d like to be different, also that I was hurt by this behaviour. My parents’ immediate response is a lot of justifications about other things, like how other families act or just something to deflect a bit, so I don’t know if these sorts of talks ever fully sink in.
There’s more stuff warring in my head but those are the highlights. I feel like I have more in the tank and keep up my self care as best I can to prepare for these sorts of things, but I feel so triggered and helpless with my family sometimes. I love them but I’m afraid we won’t grow closer and these sorts of challenges will continue for a long time. I’m trying to keep perspective and see what happened for what it is, honour my feelings, understand that they’re coming from a place of fear and working within their limits. I have a partner who can relate to these feelings with her family and she’s been so supportive and understanding about everything I’m going through. I feel I have a support network in her and in myself. I guess I feel disappointed because I had a certain vision of my family after being away from them for so long, but now I feel caught in their web when things are fraught with tension. Writing it out to you has helped, as well, so I appreciate you taking the time to read my experiences. I’d love any feedback or any suggestions for further avenues of support that I could explore. I go to a counsellor who’s been good too but it’s limited lately. I want to be able to sustain myself (parent myself, I guess, in ways my parents weren’t able to), stay healthy with the relationship with myself, my partner, and my family.
Thank you for reading and for any advice you may have. I appreciate it. Be safe and well!
Andrew G. Marshall says
Congratulations on identifying your issues and the old coping strategies that no longer work. You’d hope that you’d get support from your family but they are still stuck in their old patterns (and unlikely to change in the short term). My advice is to be gentle with them (otherwise they will get defensive and turn on you). But that doesn’t mean, accepting the old stuff. State your opinions and needs, quietly and repeatedly. Understand better the dynamics and why they are hard to change….. look at my book ‘Wake Up and Change Your Life’ it is has ways at focusing what you can changes (yourself) and how to put up appropriate boundaries so you deal better with your father and brother.