“Sometimes you eat the bear, and sometimes, well, he eats you.” —The Stranger in The Big Lebowski
“Mama said there’d be days like this.” —The Shirelles
“Life is like an onion: You peel it off one layer at a time, and sometimes you weep.” —Carl Sandburg
“Life is simple, it’s just not easy.” —Unknown
The prevalence of such expressions in pop culture reflects a widely accepted fact—life is difficult and sometimes deeply painful. Yet, while most people would readily agree that life is tough, we tend to panic when the tough times arise. Whether by reaching for a drink, going for a run, heading out for a shopping spree, or turning on the television, we tend to proactively avoid uncomfortable emotions when they arise. Why do we do this when we have supposedly made peace with the fact life can be challenging at times? More importantly, what are we missing out on by running away from our feelings?
Some of the most positive and important changes we make in our lives are in response to painful life events. Imagine someone who has just reached the end of a long-term, intimate relationship. He may find it hard to envision a life without his partner. If this man manages his anguish through alcohol and immediately seeks to replace his old partner with a new one, he is likely to find himself in a similar situation at some point in the near future. However, if he sits with his pain, reflects on it, and maybe even partners with a therapist to more thoroughly explore his past relationships, he is likely to learn something valuable about himself. He might learn that low self-esteem led him into relationships with women who were abusive and controlling, and that as his relationships progressed, he felt increasingly bad about himself and dependent upon his partners. While it might be deeply painful to sort through all of this, if this man did so and learned to love himself and view himself as worthy, his next relationship might be infinitely more satisfying and meaningful.
Imagine the sense of mastery this man might develop as he realizes that he successfully sifted through some very painful feelings and sat with them long enough to make sense of them and improve his life. When he is hit with life’s next curveball, he will feel much more equipped to handle it. On the other hand, if he had used alcohol or a dysfunctional rebound relationship to manage his pain, these insights would have eluded him. Let’s say he loses his job. Like most people, he might panic and wonder how long he’ll be able to pay his bills. But he knows he can handle discomfort. He knows it won’t kill him. He knows his pain can teach him something, and that from the lessons he learns, he can create positive change. Perhaps in this process, he will come to the realization that his work is no longer fulfilling. Maybe he’ll make a career change and enjoy his work again for the first time in years. In contrast, someone unable to sit with discomfort likely would find himself or herself right back in the same kind of unfulfilling job.
Finally, mastering the art of sitting with discomfort makes it possible to be present in even the most painful situations. There are, for example, few things more painful than watching a loved one pass away, and many people avoid it entirely. The man described in this article likely would not. Lessons learned from his past experiences would give him the ability to be present, even in the most difficult situations, and allow him to create some meaningful memories in a loved one’s final days. He could also go on with his life knowing that he provided comfort and companionship when others were unable to do so.
The next time painful feelings emerge in your life, consider allowing them to surface. Sit with them. Explore them. Allow them to teach you. Who knows what positive changes you will create with the lessons you learn?
© Copyright 2013 by Sarah Noel, MS, LMHC, therapist in Brooklyn, New York.
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