“It isn’t what happens to us that causes us to suffer; it’s what we say to ourselves about what happens.” ~Pema Chodron
Have you ever had something happen in your life that completely changed everything?
Wham. Suddenly you haven’t left your bedroom in days, you can’t remember what it feels like to shower, and it’s clear the only friend you can really count on is your cat.
And whether it’s a major life-suck event or a minor one, the question is: How can I feel contented and calm when things don’t go to plan?
That is what this post is about. Because a while back I had a M. A. J. O. R. Major event. It went like this:
I’d just graduated from college. I had a Masters Degree. In science. Human nutrition science, in case you’re wondering. I was excited about life!
Sure, I had a ridiculous door-to-door research job and my roommate was annoying, but I had plans—I’ll move in with my boyfriend, get a better job, travel, start a family, hang out with all my amazing friends, and live an awesome life.
But then I got sick. The kind of sick where raising your arms above your head makes you want to take a nap. And instead of starting the amazing life I'd planned, I moved home with my parents.
It was a shock, to say the least. Before that, I was tough. I hiked. My friends liked me. I stayed up late. I wasn’t a sick person.
And while my parents are sweet and kind, living in their basement in small town New Zealand, watching daytime re-runs of Dr Quinn Medicine Woman, and hanging out with a fluffy cat called Whisky was not the plan.
It wasn’t so bad at first. But months went by, then years, and it seemed no matter what I did, I was still sick.
I thought, why did this happen to me?
I cried. A lot. For seemingly no reason. And if someone asked why I was crying, I’d say, “I’m just so tired.” I cried so much some days that I’d go home and laugh with my sister on the phone over who I’d cried in front of that day. It was comical.
That was a few years ago now. And, of course, the whole experience turned out to be a huge gift. They often are, in my experience, anyway, but that’s getting ahead of things.
Here are three insights that helped during those “you’ve got to be freaking kidding me” times:
1. There’s a healing side to pain.
When a challenging event happens—a breakup, a sickness, or having your leopard pink car seat covers stolen—the human mind, being what it is, thinks this is why you feel badly.
You hear it all the time: “Oh, you poor thing for losing your car seat covers.” Or, “She’s such a rat to do this to you.”
The truth is, it’s your perception of the situation that makes you feel bad. This means that no matter how crumpled-in and dysfunctional you feel, you’re not. It’s just your thoughts that are a bit wonky. And actually, your thoughts on this were always wonky; the situation just exposed them.
Take my situation. Everything I’d based my self-esteem on was gone: work, grades, friends, boyfriend, the ability to sit up straight for more than half an hour.
I thought I was upset because I was sick, when the truth was, my situation had triggered every negative belief I had about myself. Things like:
“I’m only lovable if people like me.” “I’m only worthwhile if I’m busy doing things.”
I so strongly identified with all the things I did that when you took them away, I felt miserable. I’d been given the opportunity to see what I really thought about myself.
Someone could have told me “you’re worthy and lovable,” and I might have intellectually known this, but I didn’t feel it.
What I began to realize was that behind the pain, over time, my faulty beliefs were shifting. My sense of self-worth was beginning to heal by itself.
The pain is the faulty belief system being ripped out by its roots. You feel like you’re losing something dear. The trick is to understand that it’s just a faulty belief going away. And beneath it lays a pocket of self-love that you haven’t previously been able to access.
As poet Kahlil Gibran says, “Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding. Even as the stone of the fruit must break, that its heart may stand in the sun, so must you know pain.”
2. Pain fades when we let go of expectations.
Most of us live in an intellectual way. We make plans for our life and then we try and follow them through. We think we know the best way for our life to proceed.
The truth is, a large part of our pain is caused by an attachment to our expectations.
For example, one of the reasons I felt so bone achingly sorry for myself was because I had a plan for how to have a good life—and it didn’t include Dr. Quinn.
I thought success came from going to college, getting a good job, and having a family. No one said anything about spending all this time in bed. But actually, it was the best thing for me.
To illustrate you how powerful your expectations are, try this exercise:
First, imagine you’re me.
Now, imagine you’d grown up thinking the best way to have an awesome life was to spend five years in bed cross-stitching cushions. That it was something everyone did.
“Oh yeah,” you’d say to your friend, “I’m just off to do my five-years-in-bed years.”
And they’d be like, “Oh cool. I hear you learn such amazing things, like how to feel self-assured, and you get clarity on your life direction, and you start to feel that inner calm we’re always reading about.”
Now think about your current situation and imagine that for your whole life, you believed that what is happening to you was going to happen. And not only that, but it’s the absolute best thing to happen.
So much of the pain we feel is because we can’t let go of how we think life should look. Your mind thinks it knows the best way for your life to work out—but simply put, it doesn’t; the plan it had was flawed in the first place.
Your mind can only see your life as it’s showing up right now. There is a bigger picture.
3. You’re doing fine.
Learning about personal awareness and healing can be such a helpful thing, but remember, there’s no right or wrong way to feel.
Feeling grateful and “being positive” and so on is perfectly fine, and sure, it can be helpful, but if you don’t feel like it all the time, don’t worry about it.
Instead of attaching a judgment to how you’re feeling or what you’re thinking, try just noticing it.
I believe the act of simply noticing and accepting how things are, right now—no matter how messy and dysfunctional they seem—is the most powerful, healing thing you can do.
Photo by Dahl-Face Photography