“When fear wakes up inside, and there is no place to run away or hide from it, consider it a gift. In all the glory of that discomfort, know there is refuge in surrender.” ~Erin Lanahan
When I was a freshman in college, I had a wise English teacher. Through everything he taught, he would always circle back to the theme that “life is a constant cycle of tension and release.”
I heard him say these words over and over, but I didn’t really listen. I wasn’t ready to yet. Still, this simple message always stuck in my memory.
I used to suffer from anxiety, and trying to predict and control my environment seemed like a viable way to eliminate most, if not all, of what made me anxious.
I used to experience a great deal of anxiety about being accepted by others. For as long as I can remember, I’ve harbored this painful idea that I am distinctly different from everyone else; and I felt like my differences would hold me back from truly connecting with others and gaining their acceptance.
Though my anxiety stemmed from the fear of not being accepted, I didn’t realize this consciously. When I was in a bout of anxiety, I felt fearful about everything.
Since I didn’t feel safe in the world, I tried to manipulate my environment in an attempt to reduce my pain, but the world wasn’t the problem. I wish I had known then that there was nothing I could alter outside of myself that would heal something inside, but I naively tried to do just that.
In order to keep my anxiety at bay, I would make sure I always had some form of an escape route so I could temporarily slip away from the pain of being myself. I used distraction in the form of television, surfing the Internet, or reading to distance myself from my anxious thoughts.
I would even get neurotic about things like the amount of light in the room I was in, or needing to be in open spaces. I thought the conditions of my environment dictated my safety.
Because of this, I would avoid situations where I could not take the steps I wanted to control my environment. Because I developed such strict standards for deeming my environment “safe,” I missed out on a lot.
I use to avoid social situations. Being around others made the critical voices in my head much louder. I would interpret other people’s silence as disapproval, and I hated having nothing to distract me from this pain. The more I avoided social situations, the harder it became to cope with being around others. Even just going to class could trigger a panic attack.
Attempting to control my life and to eliminate all painful situations did not cure my anxiety. If anything, it made it worse. So often the dread of doing things I didn’t want to do was ten times more painful than the actual task itself, but I was too caught up in my suffering to realize this.
The more I tried to push out the bad things in my life, the more I reinforced that they were intolerable, and the worse things began to seem. Slowly, this avoidance trap made my life smaller and smaller. Things became more and more painful, until I felt uncomfortable even at home.
When my anxiety was at its worst, I began seeing a therapist. She asked me to try to lean toward the things I was afraid of instead of away from them. She told me to accept my pain.
She helped me understand that the feeling of fear is much worse than the things we fear themselves. She asked me to study the painful thoughts and feelings that I would always try to push away. She told me to accept and just ride the wave of rising and diminishing discomfort.
This realization made me wonder how much I was unnecessarily suffering.
How many things in life was I making worse than they had to be? If life really was a constant cycle of tension and release, was I intensifying my hard times by psychologically resisting them instead of just surrendering to them?
I thought on this and realized that there are some negative things in my life I have control over. For example, if I feel like someone in my life is treating me unfairly, I can choose to speak up and voice this feeling.
In situations like these, I can take action and make my situation better, but this won’t always be the case. Some situations will be beyond my realm of control. I will never be able to control being stuck in traffic, when I’ll come down with a cold, or whether or not my car will break down. I knew I had to change my relationship with these types of situations.
I learned that one of my biggest points of suffering came from resisting unexpected things that used up time I’d intended to use in other ways.
I used to get myself so worked up on nights when I would unexpectedly have to work late and miss out on what I had planned for that evening. Then, not only would I have to deal with tackling the unwanted task(s), but also my self-inflicted pain from thinking how terrible my situation was.
I really couldn’t control the situation, but I could control my thoughts.
It wasn’t fun having to change my plans, but it wasn’t worth the stress headache and dismal mood.
I decided I would start practicing acceptance when life gave me lemons, just accepting where I was on life’s cycle of tension and release. In doing so, I knew one of my biggest challenges was going to be staying aware, so I decided to look for patterns that would help me do this.
Below are four things signs that I am resisting my life, causing myself to suffer unnecessarily. If you’ve done any of these, as well, recognizing these patterns can help you suffer a lot less going forward.
When things don’t go your way, do you feel bad for yourself and dwell on how unfair things are? This is a surefire way to get stuck in a negative feeling. I know; I’ve done this quite a bit.
When I get dealt something I really don’t want to deal with, I often default to self-victimization. I start thinking, “Why me?” Or, “This always happens to me.”
I notice myself feeling like negative things happen more to me than to other people. Logically, I know this isn’t the case, but this is a seductive escape that allows me to wallow in self-pity instead of tackling the challenge of acceptance.
When something comes up that you don’t want to deal with, do you find yourself blaming others? Do you become less compassionate for the people around you and amplify their faults?
When life hands me lemons, I start blaming everyone around me who I think contributed to the problem. I think of what else others could have done that would have prevented me from being in the unsavory situation.
It’s self-centered of me, and in doing so I overlook everyone else’s suffering but my own. I blame others instead of accepting that sometimes things just don’t play out the way I wanted them to. Blame also keeps me stuck in negativity instead of challenging myself to just surrender to what is.
When I find myself rushing, there’s a good chance I’m resisting my reality. Sometimes when I rush it’s because I’m short on time, but more often, I rush when I find a task particularly unpleasant and I’m trying to get it over with as quickly as possible.
Sometimes I rush because I am trying to make sure I have enough time to relax. I often fear if I don’t get enough time I won’t be able to recharge and handle the stress of the next day. I’ve found that sometimes I don’t get enough time, but I always seem to make it through regardless.
When I rush, I deny my task the proper amount of time it requires to be done well, and my quality of work is quite poor. Rushing also puts me in a bad frame of mind and stresses me out unnecessarily.
Try to notice the next time you’re rushing. What are the circumstances? Do you need to be rushing because you are actually short on time? Or are you just trying to spend less time in an undesirable circumstance?
4. Holding my breath
Think about the last time you were doing something you really didn’t want to be doing. How were you breathing? Were you breathing freely and deeply? Or shallowly and strained?
Checking in with my breath has proven to be a great way of keeping myself aware. Nine out of ten times, when I am resisting what is, I start to hold my breath (literally), or at least I don’t breathe as slowly and deeply as I would if I were relaxed.
Taking deep breaths is great, because it tricks my body into thinking I’m in a relaxed situation, and over time I start to feel like I am in one. This makes settling into acceptance a little easier.
When discomfort arises in our lives it is counterintuitive to do nothing, but not all struggle is a question to be answered. If we view life as a cycle of tension and release, being in a period of tension isn’t that bad because it’s promised to be followed by a period of release.
Like a Chinese finger trap, the harder we try to get away from the bad things in our lives, the tighter their hold on us becomes. When we surrender to reality instead of wrestling with it, it frees up our energy to be used in better ways.
When our minds aren’t tied up complaining about how bad our circumstances are, we can shift our awareness to the good in the situation. We can focus on being in a comfortable environment, we can be grateful for the opportunity to practice acceptance, and we can think about what good things await us after the tense period comes to a close.
Giving up the urge to try and control my life has really been a wonderful experience. I’ve given up my rigidness in trying to force the bad out of my life. In doing so, I’ve invited the unpredictable bad in, but this has also enabled me to invite in the unpredictable good.
I’ve come to accept that my life will never be predictable, the good or the bad, but really, I wouldn’t want it any other way.