I’m coming out of the dark today. Sitting on the beach, typing to you, dear readers, with the waves crashing before me and the sun on my face, salt in my hair. I’m thinking about what it takes to rise as I try to do rise AGAIN. The last two days have been dark. I spend a lot of energy working to show up the way I want to in the world. Sometimes that is an enormous task. Recently I read Brené Brown’s Rising Strong. She talks about this very thing, being face down in the dirt in the arena. And if you’ve heard anything from Brené, you’ve probably heard the Theodore Roosevelt quote:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.” Theodore Roosevelt
So let’s suffice it to say I have been face down in the arena. I want to describe the first steps of picking my face up out of the mud.
Step 1: Life sucks. Everything is terrible. No amount of optimism, exercise, service, work, sleep, food, not eating, etc. can pull me out of it. Everything hurts. Sound familiar? This is when I roll my eyes at my sister for suggesting I punch a pillow. This is also when I call her at 10:30 at night and sob for an hour about how an email made me question if I have any control over my life. This may not sound like a step toward anywhere you want to go, but I’m listing it because it is ABSOLUTELY necessary you let yourself take this step. If you skip it, you’ll find yourself with a face full of dirt over the same crap sooner rather than later. So step one is to feel it, let it out, confront it. The pain is real, so if you numb it out or push it down, it won’t go away, it will rot inside you. For me, it’s always more comfortable to do this alone. I don’t like ugly crying in front of anyone and I am not good at angry (see Honest Rage for reference). But some emotions are better experienced with someone. Maybe this is why so many of us go to therapy. Bottom line is, you may be more successful at getting it out if you do it with a trusted friend. And every time I do this I picture the Grinch in the Jim Carrey version where his heart is growing and he cries out with pain, “I’m feeling!!!”, as he writhes on the ground. It’s not pretty.
Step 2: Find the next right thing. When pain has camped out in your living room and seems to want to stay a while, my best suggestion is to take your focus on the process of evicting pain and just think about the next right thing. Pain is never forced out. It leaves when it’s ready. Or, if you try to kick it out, then it will lurk in your closet or basement, breathing its icy breath on you anytime you slow down enough to notice. So throwing out pain is a useless endeavor. My only job is to determine the next right thing. Usually, that’s to get out of bed and make breakfast for my son, go to work, come home, make dinner, wash dishes, put him to bed, go to bed. Sometimes it’s calling in sick to work and nurturing myself. Sometimes it’s yoga or going for a run. Sometimes it’s surfing. Sometimes it’s acupuncture and a massage. Sometimes it’s visiting one of my lovely widow friends. Sometimes it’s taking dinner to a friend, even though I feel I have nothing to give but money for pizza. The magic is that if I just focus on *the next right thing* it’s usually not that hard to figure out. And it might feel uncomfortable but DO IT ANYWAY.
Step 3: Identify your SFD. Brené got this term from someone else but I’m not going to look it up—read the book if you want to know. SFD stands for shitty first draft. This is the first explanation we come up with for why we are facedown in the mud. And it’s usually pretty shitty. For me this week, it was a story about how I have no control over my life and how I never get what I want because the universe hates me. This is all still fresh enough that it still rings true to me so please note ***work in progress***. A lot of us never get past our SFD. We walk through life singing our SFD song. This is the reason so many times we get stuck creating the same result in life and wondering why we can’t get out of the rut. The rut is being stuck in the SFD. Please note that it takes time to really believe the SFD isn’t true. Don’t rush this step. Consciousness is not built in a day. Just notice it when you can— “How interesting! There’s my SFD again!”
Step 4: Once you have identified your SFD and you really believe that that’s all it is, then you have summoned the super power of being able to change it. That super power is finding a new narrative to explain why you are facedown in the dirt. Therapy can help expedite this and some SFDs that are years in the making will take years to unmake. That’s my situation. It’s not a quick fix and I’m still formulating my new narrative. So I have to practice patience and compassion with myself as I work through this. The idea here is to find a narrative (or way of thinking about/explaining the circumstance) that serves you. Sometimes this is easy.
For example, if someone cuts me off in traffic, my SFD is, “They’re a jackass.” Sometimes those words come out of my mouth. But usually immediately after they do I remember that’s my SFD! Sometimes I make stupid mistakes while driving—and my new narrative is that we’re all just doing our best at driving. The SFD makes me feel angry. The second narrative lets me feel compassion for myself and the other driver. See how that works?
So what about a bigger SFD? Something that is harder to switch. Here’s an example: I used to believe that an important person in my life was actively working to make my life harder. His actions felt punitive and I had A LOT of evidence to support this conclusion. What’s more, when I talked to my friends and family about his actions, they all agreed with me, which made it feel even more like a fact. This SFD (let’s be specific—that he was an asshole and trying to bring about my suffering) felt very justified to me. It felt true. But it also caused me to feel a lot of anger, sadness and powerlessness. Eventually, I got tired of feeling that way. It sucked and I hated that I was giving him that power. So I decided to throw out my SFD. I had to come up with something that was believable. Blunt optimism has never worked very well for me. So I decided that this would be my new narrative: He is doing his best and sometimes that’s pretty terrible, but it’s his best. It was a powerful shift for for me because I get to feel compassion in the place of all those negative emotions. I don’t know that it has changed his experience at all but I’m not responsible for that. The only power I have is over what I think and feel, and compassion feels so much better than anger/sadness/powerlessness.
Where are you today in these steps? Find some stillness and notice the strength inside of you.
Namaste. I am fear and love too.
“The opposite of recognizing that we’re feeling something is denying our emotions. The opposite of being curious is disengaging. When we deny our stories and disengage from tough emotions, they don’t go away; instead, they own us, they define us. Our job is not to deny the story, but to defy the ending—to rise strong, recognize our story, and rumble with the truth until we get to a place where we think, Yes. This is what happened. This is my truth. And I will choose how this story ends.” Brené Brown, Rising Strong
This post stimulated a lot of self reflection and a little discomfort, Michelle. My work on steps 1, 3 & 4 is almost always done alone in the shop or on the mountain. Insightful! Keep writing!
Your comment made me smile! Maybe that’s why you’ve spent so much time in the shop and on the bike over the years. Those kinds of repetitive activities (washing the dishes, hiking, etc) have always been therapeutic to me because they give me a space to sort through the thoughts and feelings. I think those activities go under step 2. They are often the next right thing. I’ve observed in myself and my patients that when people get into trouble is when they stop asking themselves, “What’s the next right thing?” And doing it. Sometimes the next right thing is to lay in bed and rest but usually it is keep moving even if it feels useless. The motion is therapeutic.