I had reached that point.
You know - that point where you realize that you don’t think you can take it anymore.
I felt overwhelmed, frustrated, beaten down by life, and worse – ungrateful.
That’s when I know I’ve hit bottom. When I can’t even find my gratitude.
It’s happened to me quite a few times since I’ve moved to Sao Paulo, and even more frequently since my hip injury (which is actually calcified gluteal tendonopathy).
The good news is THAT’S when REAL change can happen. This is the magic in your suffering.
Most of the time we just want to avoid or get rid of our suffering as soon as possible (of COURSE WE DO!). We generally go into autopilot or avoidance mode to deal with difficult emotions like fear, doubt, anger, frustration, guilt, or sadness.
In autopilot, we are at the mercy of our emotions and we react without thinking. Have you ever been horrified by the words leaving your mouth as you say them? THAT’S autopilot mode. Have you ever felt fear and then ran or hid from a challenge? Yep – that would be autopilot mode. That’s where your emotions are running the show and you are not mindful of where you are and what you are doing.
In avoidance mode, we distract ourselves to avoid dealing with uncomfortable emotions. We try to get rid of discomfort any way we can – by distracting ourselves, opting out of participating at all, trying to think our way out of it, or by using substances like drugs, alcohol, or food.
Have you ever shopped online after a big disappointment? Ever plotted your revenge or blamed someone else for your misfortune or mistake? Or tried to convince yourself that “everything is fine”? Yeah, me too. That’s avoidance mode.
So what’s wrong with these strategies?
Well, we all distract ourselves, or soothe ourselves with food, or avoid difficult situations, or over-think sometimes. But when it becomes a habit or our primary coping strategy, we end up creating more problems for ourselves.
For example, in my struggle with chronic pain, I have caught myself several times eating or drinking to comfort myself. This causes me to gain weight, which in turn exacerbates the very problem I am trying to solve! I’ve also realized at times that I am over-focusing on others’ issues so I don’t have to deal with my own. This causes relationship stress, which also impacts chronic pain.
In general, all of these strategies lead us to engage in our lives less, and they increase our fear over time. Our lives then become smaller as we have more and more things we need to avoid or distract ourselves from.
So then, what’s the alternative?
The alternative is to MAKE USE OF YOUR SUFFERING. Make it magic.
For yourself. For others.
It’s a Buddhist approach to pain that says when you are in hell, it helps you endure it if you believe that your suffering has a divine purpose. Maybe one that you don’t yet understand. But a purpose nonetheless.
Something I did that continues to be very helpful to me in giving my suffering meaning was to consult my Native American animal medicine cards. I asked the universe for guidance in the meaning of why this was happening to me and what I needed to learn. I then chose one card – bat – and read the wisdom of bat medicine. It spoke SO deeply to me and resonated SO strongly for me, that six months later I still use it to remind myself of the meaning of this time in my life.
There are several ways you can make use of your suffering. Here are a couple:
- Connect to your values. Who do you want to be in the face of this struggle? For me, the values of patience and persistence have served me well in never giving up while finding a cure for my pain. When you are suffering, remind yourself of your values and then ask, “What is one tiny step I can take in the next 24 hours that will help me live by these values?”
- Channel your fear. In the book “The Big Leap,” Gay Hendricks says that "fear is just excitement without breath.” Fear is a very powerful energy that you can use to your advantage (just ask any elite athlete or professional speaker). It sharpens your reflexes, and heightens awareness. First you need to notice it when it rises within you – where you sense it in your body. Instead of resisting it, befriend it. Realize that fear is simply your brain alerting you to a challenge. Then, ask yourself, “how can I use all this energy constructively?"
So, take a moment and ask yourself where you are suffering right now in your life. How are you avoiding it via autopilot and avoidance mode? How can you give it some purpose or meaning?