by Michael Raitt -
SGN Contributing Writer
None of us will ever be immune to the myriad of painful events that are part of life. We will all experience sadness related to death, fear during illness, uncertainty, the heartache of ended relationships or rejection, violence, or changes in job status. We will all lose someone or something very valuable to us. Sometimes these events come and hit us out of the blue while other times we have put things into motion earlier on and we are now experiencing the consequences. Regardless, life events create fear, sadness, anger, and depression, and all of these impact the other arenas of our lives. These reactions are very normal.
Late last fall and into early winter, I found myself in this very situation. A very dear long-time friend died after a brief cancer diagnosis and then, just weeks later, someone else I knew well died suddenly and unexpectedly. In addition, I had just lost another dear friend a year before. I found myself trying to cope and, in hindsight, I did it well sometimes and very poorly at other times. There were days over the holiday season when I could barely get out of bed. I was sad and withdrawn, and I could only get the basics done. It was during this time that I began to think about life, events, and how we cope.
By nature, we are pain-aversive. We don't like physical pain and we strenuously avoid psychological or emotional pain. There are many ways in which we dodge emotional suffering - substance use or abuse, denial, withdrawing from responsibilities, sleeping too much, or staying too busy. We get angry with people around us and sometimes fight more, or we become complacent and unusually passive. For many of us, our outlook can become dark with feelings of hopelessness and, sometimes, misguided guilt. We wonder how we will get through.
NO EASY ANSWERS
What are healthy ways of coping? The first thing to remember is that there is no perfect way of dealing with life's hardships. We'll all do it a bit differently and there will be times when we don't engage in the healthiest strategies. Generally, however, we know we are coping well if we can tell at some point that we are feeling better - that our level of functioning is improving and we are not engaging in behaviors that further complicate our lives.
In order to manage life's events and our emotions, there are a couple of skills we have to utilize. The first skill is that of insight. We must be able to pause and look at ourselves and make an assessment of what is going on for us. We have to be able to evaluate whether the way in which we are reacting is helping us or hurting us. If we can't get insight, we have to ask people who are close to us and, as hard as it may be, accept their feedback. It is only with insight that we will be able to get to a place where we feel better.
Second, in painful situations, we need to willingly exercise patience. For example, in the case of a dear family member's serious illness or death, there are times when there is simply nothing we can do, and we have to sit in our emotions. This isn't the same as denial. Denial means we are minimizing or not acknowledging what is going on. Patience means we realize we are at a stage in the process where there is really nothing to be done, and we ready ourselves to do something when it becomes time to take action.
DON'T BEAT YOURSELF UP
How we define ourselves during these life events is important as well. Too many people not only dislike what is happening, they also begin to dislike themselves. For example, some people are affected by significant illness. Their treatment impacts their ability to work. Some people lose their jobs and then begin to feel badly about themselves by identifying themselves as 'losers' or some such adjective. They have passed from being unhappy with their situation to being unhappy with themselves. This is a core piece of depression. We can be sad or angry, scared or frustrated, about our circumstances. We have to avoid labeling ourselves negatively because of what is happening to us. Bad things do happen to good people!
Finally, we have to reconcile. Reconciliation is a way of finding peace. This is an individual process but generally we know we have reconciled when we can look at what has happened and know that the reactions we are having no longer negatively impact our lives. Please note the hair I'm splitting here - I didn't say we no longer have feelings! I stated that our reactions no longer negatively impact our lives. For example, with the death of my friend, my sadness lead to me functioning at a very low level - just going to work, then going home. I was barely socializing and I was letting many of the things I enjoy slip away. Am I still sad today? Yes! However, I am doing more and feeling better. I miss my dear friend and think of him every day, but I have accepted that he is gone. I don't deny my sadness and I am getting back to living my life the way I want to live it.
Make no mistake that at any age and at any time, whether we are rich or poor, regardless of any status we identify ourselves with, life will happen and at times it will challenge us greatly! It's unavoidable. Ultimately, how you get through it will be up to you.
Michael Raitt, M.A., L.M.H.C., is a therapist whose column appears bimonthly in SGN. If you would like to comment on this column, ask a question you'd like him to write about, or suggest another topic of interest, please contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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