For me, I’d chide myself to ‘Get over it,’ expecting my emotions to follow, then get annoyed that I still felt the same feeling, thinking ‘Geeze, shouldn’t I be over this by now?’ I failed to see that “I need to get over it” in most cases really meant not dealing with a breakup, issues at work or with family and friends.
My expectation that I should be able to move on quickly from difficult situations made me resist what was actually happening. And that lack of acceptance made it impossible to work through the reality of things. “When we resist change and loss, we bring more pain onto ourselves. We become hardened, angry, resentful,”says Elizabeth Lesser, co-founder of Omega Institute, a non-profit that focuses on human well-being and development, and the author of Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow.
So what’s the alternative then? How do we learn to live with frustrating and painful situations?
“It’s only by facing things directly that we can learn from them and make plans about how to proceed,” says author and positive psychology expert Caroline Adams Miller. “When we ignore situations instead of facing them head-on, we rob ourselves of the opportunity to grow from it, and potentially keep it alive by failing to come to a mental conclusion about its significance.”
Facing a situation takes time, it means training our attention gently on whatever it is that’s happening. And instead of trying to “get over it,” which is a form of resistance, we want to observe the difficulty directly, acknowledge it and the emotions we feel, and from there work to incorporate the reality in a way that spurs personal growth. We want to lean into the situation to see what it can teach us, instead of pointlessly obsessing or attempting to skip past it.
When upset about a situation, I used to obsess about it. I’d replay it in my mind and share it with others. I’d ruminate, wondering about the other person’s motivations, the significance of what happened, and what I’d done to deserve such a bad thing. “Rumination, dwelling in a circular, passive way, can be very compelling,” says Sonja Lyubomirsky professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside and the author of The How of Happiness. “When you’re in its tangle, it pulls and pushes you. You feel that you absolutely need to continue, that you need to figure things out. But as we have learned, when a person is distraught or stressed or nervous or insecure, no insight is gained from overthinking. To the contrary, rumination makes things only worse.”
If we obsess about a situation, we’re likely to despair that there’s no way out. “When we rehash the stories of our loss or how we were wronged over and over, we’re choosing victimhood over growth and liberation,” says Lesser. So to really move on we need to focus on and acknowledge the circumstances for what they are, and then make a conscious decision not to ruminate. The situation happened, we can’t make it un-happen by obsessing and resisting.
For a long time I disliked feeling sad or upset so much that I’d pretend I wasn’t. A boyfriend cheated on me, I was fine; a friend forgot my birthday, not a problem. While I tried to convince myself I was past certain situations it was clear by my passive aggressive tone and the constant overthinking that I wasn’t. I was pushing away so much hurt and sadness that all that would come out was anger.
I had to learn to allow my feelings to be there, to be open to whatever was coming up for me. When I let myself experience all of my emotions, the overwhelm dissipated. Suddenly, what before seemed impossible to overcome seemed easier to work through. “In many traditions,” Miller says, “giving something a name is how we neutralize its power over us because it’s no longer a vague, undefined emotion, for example – it’s ‘loneliness’ or ‘envy.’ Once we identify what we are dealing with, we are then free to come up with ways to handle it.” As you acknowledge your feelings, be careful not to drift into unconscious rumination. The key is to be attentive to yourself.
By letting our feelings be as they are, we give to ourselves an opportunity to work through what pains us instead of denying it as a part of us.
When my best friend passed away unexpectedly, I went through all of what I’ve been talking about here. I obsessed over how and why it happened, thinking if only this or that had been different. I asked questions that didn’t have answers and I got stuck in the story. Unable to handle what I didn’t know, I broke down. I let the emotion out and found it soothed me, but then I reached a moment where I knew I would have to choose a path. Either I died along with him or I lived again. By letting our feelings in we learn from them what we need to feel better. “There have been times in my own life” says Lesser, “when a loss or a change overwhelmed me and I wanted to run from my feelings, my behaviors, my sense of shame or blame, but instead I turned to them and asked what they had come to teach me. And in that turning, the difficulties helped me reevaluate who I was, what I wanted, where I was going on my life journey.”
If I were to have resisted what was happening I would have stayed in the story that life was unfair, that there wasn’t any point to it and ended up bitter and cynical. But by asking what I can learn, I found I could survive it. The worst possible thing happened and I was okay. “Enormous personal power is unleashed when we relax into life just as it is,” says Lesser. “And by personal power, I don’t mean power over other people—I mean being your most authentic self, which is where the best kind of power comes from: the power to live a happy, contributive, purposeful life.”
Allowing things to be as they are, meaning we move in the direction that things are already moving, helps us work through events in a way that heals. “When we go in the direction that the river is flowing,” Lesser says, “we deliver new joy and wisdom into our life every day.”
We either “move with life, or swim against it,” she says. “Neither is easy, but only one way leads to freedom.”
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