Our pets get sick and our tires go flat. We argue with spouses, kids, and co-workers. Someone talks smack about us. We’re criticized for our actions, our words, and our beliefs.
I naively thought that as I aged, these uncomfortable situations would greatly lessen or go away entirely.
How do we deal with stressful situations?
I’ll speak for myself (and perhaps you’ll recognize yourself in some of my actions): I used to scream and get mad. I’d eat, shop, and drink. Right after those initial reactions, I’d “run away” (meaning, distance myself from people to watch TV, play video games, or read). I’d do anything that kept me from feeling anger, disappointment, frustration, sadness, or confusion.
Since when are our lives so overwhelmingly awful that we can’t handle some negative emotions? What was I so afraid of that doing even one of those destructive behaviors was a better choice than feeling the feelings?
I began to make a change when I realized the discomfort of stress was a lot like the uncomfortable cravings I had when I quit smoking. But the smoking withdrawal cravings didn’t last forever, nor did the stress of bad things happening. I found I could get through the icky cravings if I leaned into them as they arose. I was able to lean in rather than white-knuckle my way through the cravings. When I felt the beginnings of the desire to smoke, I’d spread my arms and step forward to meet the craving head on. And if I could withstand the craving without giving in or substituting one bad habit for another, I should be able to better manage my actions when lousy stuff happened.
I got the perfect opportunity to test out this new way of dealing with the discomforts of life one morning when I was in my office writing, just like I am now, when my computer screen dimmed, and the lights went out. What the heck was going on?
Five electric company trucks were parked near my house, so I asked one of the workers what was happening. First, he and his entire crew ignored me. When I didn’t go away, one of them said gruffly that I should have gotten a notice of the work. Well, I hadn’t. So, I asked how long the power would be out. To make a long story short, the men were rude to me and the power was out for nine hours! I was pissed!
Because I remembered I was experimenting with leaning in to uncomfortable feelings and trying to respond differently, I caught myself before driving to Burger King or before yelling on the phone to the power company personnel. I realized none of those actions would make the power come on any sooner. I used to think that feeling pissed, stressed, or depressed meant I deserved something – either a treat (which, in fact, didn’t serve me at all!) or to lash out at someone because I was upset and it wasn’t my fault. I was really good at avoiding feelings of depression in the same way. I even wondered, Am I dragging out the anger/joy/angst/depression just so I can eat more? Or go shopping, or be mean? Yikes!
Trying something different
In all honesty, the power outage gave me that all-too-familiar feeling of “But I deserve junk food or a shopping trip or to yell at someone.” Oh, poor me. Yeah, riiiiiight!
Luckily, the self-pity was momentary. Instead, I leaned into the pain and almost immediately felt my anger dissipate, replaced with happiness at having overcome or lasted through the emotion without supplicating it. It was thrilling to not let the situation ruin my day.
Life is too short.
These days I’m more likely to identify how I’m feeling around any situation and not try to cover those feelings with non-solution actions or “running away.” My knee-jerk reaction can still be to balk or lash out, but now I have a different way of responding … all because I made it a goal to lean in.