Updated: May 7, 2020
It's curious to write about an intense experience that almost everyone in the world can relate to at the same time. During a walk in the woods recently, I was feeling intense things. Yet despite this intensity, I felt oddly connected to you all. I felt connected because there is no person whose life is left undisturbed by this pandemic. We are all in a state of uproot. Being uprooted can mean feeling pulled away from safety, structure, and normalcy. It's exhausting.
During my short Spring walk, I noticed an aching tenderness and a futile agitation, imagining all the pain this pandemic is causing and feeling a sense of futility at my inability to change reality. The inability to change reality, and all the things that come along with it, is what I'd like to write about today.
This blog post is focused on how we can get our tender roots back into a nurturing place, so that we can conserve our energy for the task of growth ahead for us all. This big disruptive thing happened, is happening, but it does not need to define and limit us.
When I speak to my friends and family, I hear disbelief, confusion, weariness, and fear in their voices. I also hear anger, grief, and anxiety. These are the energy-hungry emotions of hyper-vigilance. And they have the capacity to serve us in moments of acute crisis, but also drain us long-term of our energy and joy.
As we all dial up our skills around not spreading the virus, procuring food, and educating our children, we need to also actively dial down our hyper-vigilance. The hyper-vigilant mind and heart are not rational or creative, and right now what we need are rational and creative thinkers for tricky times ahead.
No matter which way you slice it, a really big thing has happened to all of us. And in the wake of that big thing, we are raw and reeling. Some people entered the pandemic vulnerable, and their mental health is truly suffering. If you are one of those people, please reach out for help via CrisisTextLine or Open Path Psychotherapy Collective.
Many of us are waking up and grasping at a "normal" day, coming up empty-handed. It is this grasping that is becoming a waste of our precious energy. Instead, what if we begin to accept, radically, what our lives are like now and shift from hyper-reactive thinking to proactive thinking? Would you like to join me on this journey?
Shifting from hyper-reactive to proactive
We are entering the middle stage of the pandemic. The initial shock of impact has quieted. Now several paths branch out before us: how will this unfold, what part can I control, how much do I trust my political leaders, how do I safeguard my family, my heart, my financial security? So many questions.
One thing I know for sure, the only thing I know for sure, is that we are headed into a time of uncertainty. We will witness healing and recovery, but we will also witness devastation and fragility.
On the one hand, I cannot choose what happens next. And on the other hand, I can begin to choose how I deal with and react to what happens. At this time, I am checking in daily with myself on my level of chronic stress. You can do the same if you like, starting with the Chronic Stress Self-Check document I posted on my blog a few weeks ago. This self-check is meant to cultivate mindfulness.
Cultivating mindfulness leads to self-compassion. And self-compassion is the first step towards dialing down our reactive nervous system and cueing our proactive nervous system.
Cultivating Self-Compassion Makes Us Better Humans
According to Kristin Neff, compassion researcher,
"Compassion is, by definition, relational. Compassion literally means 'to suffer with,' which implies a basic mutuality in the experience of suffering. The emotion of compassion springs from the recognition that the human experience is imperfect.”
Neff's website has a great resources page with recommended readings and other websites where you can access meditations and educational resources. I love that her research shows how self-compassion is not a selfish act, but a practice that connects us more authentically to one another.
In order to continue our journey from hyper-vigilant to proactive thinking, we can begin with self-awareness about how we are doing and, if it feels right for you, begin to cultivate self-compassion in order to release pent-up negative emotions and access a more grounded emotional state. By doing this, we may be able to gain some perspective, step out of the grasping desire for normal, and envision more creative and proactive ways we can move forward.
My favorite meditation app these days is Insight Timer and I love the meditation teacher Sarah Blondin, who you can find on that app. Her 13-minute guided meditation, Loving and Listening to Yourself is one place to start.
On Radical Acceptance
In cultivating a strong base of self-compassion, I feel awakened to my minds natural desire to feel balanced and open. I want more of that feeling, please. So I continue to practice every day... But I also feel stuck. I feel connected to myself and my fellow human, but the big thing that has happened to us all is still looming, still disrupting our lives.
I can either spend my energy lamenting and denying that this big thing happened in the first place or I can practice radical acceptance and begin to move forward. But how on Earth do I do that?
The concept of radical acceptance comes from the world of dialectical behavioral therapy. Marsha Linehan, mental health leader and the founder of Dialectical Behavior Therapy, writes that,
"Radical acceptance rests on letting go of the illusion of control and a willingness to notice and accept things as they are right now, without judging."
When a traumatic event happens to someone, and it is so personally shattering, it can stay with that individual for months and years, holding them hostage, lingering in their nervous system, emotional hard-wiring, and relationships. Just like every system in our body, the nervous system takes in information, processes and metabolizes it, reacts, and then returns to baseline. Except when a significant trauma occurs and it's simply too vast or foreign for the system to break down and process. So it lingers, it looms, and it sucks valuable energy away from the individual. And the individual doesn't get to return to baseline, they cannot rest.
If the idea of radical acceptance intrigues you, I suggest you watch this 4-minute talk with Dr. Linehan to learn exactly what it is, linked below.
Some people get confused about radical acceptance. They think radical acceptance means approval or means doing nothing or denies the enormity of the event causing the pain. That is not accurate but is a common misunderstanding. Radical acceptance is an active state of being, much like practicing self-compassion, of accepting in your mind, heart, and body that you are going to stop fighting reality and accept if face-on, come what may.
Linehan says, "...suppressing what you want is not the way to go. You have to radically accept you don't have what you want, and that it's not a catastrophe".
If you are interested in practicing radical acceptance and want to know how to do it, I recommend you check out the following resources (and do some more of your own research online - there are tons of great resources out there):
Overwhelmed by Negative Emotions? Try Radical Acceptance by Susan Biali Haas, MD
Three Blocks to Radical Acceptance by Karyn Hall, PhD
Can a Coach Help?
If one of your goals is to cultivate self-compassion or learn to practice radical acceptance, and you want the positive support and accountability a coach can provide, do not hesitate to contact me. I am happy to work with clients on any goals that serve their health and wellbeing.
As a coach, I can help you get grounded in your reality, create a vision for your future, and devise sustainable action steps to help you move forward. And if you become stuck, we can compassionately explore why and dig until we figure out what anchors you. We are all on this journey together, but you are the expert of your own heart and mind. Maybe radical acceptance is a tool that will work for you, or maybe we will discover something else that works better. The support I offer clients is individualized. It would be my privilege to walk with you for a short while.