Embracing Struggle

One of my all time favorite movies is The Princess Bride. It’s full of excellent quotes, incredible satire, and wonderful acting. In the past I’ve had a few Princess Bride quoting duels with friends that eventually dissolve into giggling to the point of tears. Recently I followed Cary Elwes (who plays Westley/Dread Pirate Roberts in the movie) on Twitter, and he has been posting some of his best lines from Princess Bride. Yesterdays was, “Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.”

After a chuckle where I remembered the scene from the movie where Westley performs this witticism, I started thinking about struggle. Often, it seems that people are living life to minimize struggle and maximize pleasure. Advertising campaigns center around presenting a problem that people might identify with, and then showing how their product can solve it. Overweight? Well, try this pill. Dirty floor? Well, try this cleaning product. Frizzy hair? Buy this hair product and your problem is solved.

When hard times hit, as they definitely have in 2020, people tend to look forward to a time when the struggle ends and life goes back to being easier. When there is illness, people look for cures. When relationships get rocky, people look for ways to smooth them out.

Clearly, avoiding struggle is part of human nature. Often, I hear parents saying that they don’t want to their children to struggle the way that they did, and then they do their utmost to make life as easy as possible for their children.

While I understand the instinct to protect, and to seek ease, I wonder about the wisdom of this philosophy. Having had my share of hard times, I can tell you that struggle has led to the most growth in my life, the most self-reflection, the most fruitful changes.

An abusive marriage and ugly divorce led to my going back to school and becoming a psychotherapist. A terrible illness led to my journey into authorship, blogging and podcasting. A painful breakup led to intense spiritual growth and a desire to invest in learning about music and another language. When the fires of struggle show up, if we can embrace them instead of fight, they can forge us from a raw metal into a weapon of great strength and beauty.

On the other hand, we’ve all encountered people who are the product of too much ease and too little struggle. We joke that they were “born with a silver spoon in their mouths.” These people tend to be arrogant in their own ignorance of what it is to do hard work–what it is to truly struggle. Often they seem to look down on people who don’t have it as easy as they do, and seem to think it’s some kind of moral failing on their part that the world is harder on them. We call these people who haven’t struggled things like “entitled,” “immature,” and “green.”

Deep down we know that people need struggle to become fully-formed human beings, but we still do our best to dodge it at every turn, and to shield our children from it. We look at celebrities and wealthy people, who we imagine live a life of ease (although this is not actually true), and we think how wonderful it would be to live those lives, leading to even more discontent with the struggles of every-day living.

I would like to advocate for a change in attitude. Instead of looking down on people who are struggling and envying those who have a vapid and overly easy existence, I suggest that we embrace struggle as the transformational process that it is. I suggest that instead of thinking, “Aww . . . poor thing. She/He is really struggling right now,” we think “Wow. That person is really in the forge of the fires of struggle. I wonder what the finished product will be.”

It’s OK to be struggling. It’s a part of life. If your kid is having a hard time with distance learning, that’s OK. Working through that struggle, helps your child to learn how to deal with adversity. Most of us are struggling in some way with the pandemic. Perhaps the struggle is isolation, or joblessness, or fear of infection. Maybe it’s all of these together. And, yes, it is hard, but instead of denying or fighting the reality of your circumstances, I suggest that you ask yourself, “What are the lessons that I could learn from this time in my life?”

Now, I’m definitely not advocating for a “Pull yourself up by the bootstraps” mentality. That’s one of my top ten most hated phrases. What are bootstraps, anyway? And how am I supposed to pull myself up with them? No. Instead, treat yourself and others with compassion. Support the people in your life as they support you in return. We need each other, and there is no shame in that.

I’m saying that struggle is not something to hide from or be ashamed of. It is not something to apologize for. Each person’s individual struggle can be like a personal hero’s journey. Every hero starts out naive and untested, and then is strengthened by adversity. Nobody is born heroic.

I think it would be appropriate to end with a quote that was brought to my attention by Brene Brown in her book Daring Greatly. I think it captures this idea of embracing the formative quality of struggle perfectly: “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat,” Theodore Roosevelt.

Redefining Power

I began writing my book, I’m Sick, Not Crazy: How I Took Control of My Health When Western Medicine Told Me it Was All In My Head, as a way to take my power back after an incredibly disempowering experience.  It seemed to me that if I could understand the story of my own debilitating physical illness, then I could reclaim the control over my body and mind that the medical system had taken from me.  Even better, I could help others to reclaim power and control over their own bodies.

When I became ill, I did what most people do.  I went to my doctor and explained my symptoms, expecting to get a diagnosis and a treatment plan.  Instead, what I received was a long series of dismissals from medical professionals.  They minimized my symptoms, insinuated that I was exaggerating, and told me that I was “probably just anxious.”  

By the end of a year and a half of severe illness, my energy to ask Western Medicine for help was utterly depleted.  I realized that I was just one small person, and that the medical system was vast and powerful, and my voice was simply too tiny to be heard.

Instead of giving up, however, I gathered my energy back to myself and began to find other ways to heal.  By taking my power back and seeking my own wellness, my own way, I saved my own life.

Unfortunately, many people going through similar situations don’t realize that they even have the option of reclaiming their own power, which is what I want to talk about today.

For centuries, power has been defined as having power over others; the might makes right philosophy.  Kingdoms were created where one person had ultimate power over others.  People with physical strength, or with superior weaponry or technology have subdued others in order to take resources from them.

Hierarchy can be found today in all areas of life.  In the corporations that we work for, where labor is underpaid in order to concentrate wealth in the hands of a few, and in governments that take from the people they govern, and give little back.  And, of course, in the medical system, which over-charges for care that is questionably helpful, and often leaves people bankrupt.

These hierarchies don’t work.  They concentrate wealth, resources, and authority in the hands of the few.  They define power as having power over others.

Yet, I believe that power is something very different.  I believe that power is found in all of the ways that people take control of themselves and their own futures.  And I believe that power is found in communities of equals who work together towards a common goal that is helpful and enriching to everyone.

When I realized that asking Western Medicine to save me wasn’t working, I had to re-evaluate.  I had to practice radical acceptance of the fact that my body was likely never going to be the same, and that mainstream sources of medical assistance weren’t going to help me.  I had to start researching other ways to get what I needed in order to get well, and I had to trust my own intuitive knowing that there are many ways to heal–not just the one that capitalism says is right.  I had to take my power back to myself and take charge of my own life and health.

There could be many ways that you are giving your power away.  You could be staying in a relationship that doesn’t serve you and will never give you the future that you want.  Possibly you’re working in a job that makes you feel unimportant and pays you less than you’re worth.  Perhaps you’re relying on a person, or a bureaucracy, to take care of you, your health, or your safety, and you’re finding that it isn’t actually working out the way you’d hoped.

Consider, are there ways that I could take my power back?  Are there ways that I’ve been giving my power away that aren’t serving me?  Is it possible to move away from hierarchy and toward equality and community?

After asking myself these questions about my interactions with Western Medicine, I decided that there were ways that I could take control, take my power back, and make myself whole again.

The first thing that I did was join a yoga studio, and I will forever maintain that this move saved my life.  By joining a community of wellness seekers that accepted my body in all of its brokenness and make me feel acceptable, and then showed me how I could still move my body in ways that felt good, I began the process of taking my power back and moving toward healing.

As I slowly began to regain my physical strength, the strength of my mind and heart began to grow as well.  I became a seeker of wellness in my own right, and the doors slowly opened.  After yoga, massage became part of my healthcare routine, and the stuck and stagnant parts of my body began to move and soften.  Then acupuncture and craniosacral therapy became pieces of my healthcare puzzle.

I know that my body will never be like it was before my illness, and that I will always need to work to maintain my health.  However, I am thrilled to be able to tell you that by taking back my power over my own body and healing, I succeeded in creating a body that works.  

Not only am I well enough to function, but I thrive.  People laugh at how much energy I have to be productive, and they joke that I accomplish as much as two or three people usually do.  They’re right, and it’s because I embody my own power now.  I don’t wait for permission.  I decide what is right for me, and I go after it.  I trust myself.

If you’ve given away your power, taking it back is a process, but awareness is the first step.  Once you’re aware, you can start to make moves away from the old definition of power-over, and towards the new definition of power-within-yourself, and power-in-community.  

Rather than calling you out, I’m calling you in to a new way of being with yourself and those around you, and I support you in every step of the journey.

Radical Acceptance: Accepting Reality as it is, Not as We Wish it to Be

Sometimes it’s hard to understand why things happen the way that they do.  It’s sometimes even harder to understand how people make decisions that hurt others and find ways to justify them.  It’s been a trying time for America.  A pandemic, a quarantine, racial injustice and civil unrest, among many other issues have left people wondering what’s next.  Although I’ve joked with people about what terrible thing could possibly happen next, (zombie apocalypse, perhaps?) the joking is mostly to cover up a lot of concern.

On a more micro level, things have been happening in my workplace that directly affect me and my ability to appropriately care for my patients.  Management justifies these decisions because of COVID-19 social distancing and the financial impact of the shutdown.  While I understand that these are real concerns, I also find myself in a state of resistance against decisions that I have no control over and can’t change.  

In conversations with friends, family and clients, it seems to me that many people are finding this same state of resistance, confusion, and sometimes even outrage over how things are.  Outrage can be a trap.  It wants to be fed with more outrage.  So people watch  the news, check social media, and actively look for more things to be outraged about.  Feeding the emotion creates an illusion that one is doing something about these problems, but it’s a lie.  Without some outward action, feeding the outrage is only stealing your sense of calm and well-being.

There is a beautiful equation about acceptance that I would like to share with you (this is as math-ish as I get):

Emotional Pain + Acceptance = Decreased Suffering

OR

Emotional Pain + Non-Acceptance = Increased Suffering

This is known as the Radical Acceptance equation, and it describes a great truth: being in a state of non-acceptance increases the suffering of a bad situation.  You may be asking yourself, what is the difference between emotional pain and suffering.  I see it as a question of duration.  Emotional pain is something that is simply a part of the human experience.  When we have losses, we hurt.  However, suffering happens when we feed the emotional pain and keep it around for longer than we have to.

There are many ways to be in a state of non-acceptance.  Sometimes people will cycle through different variations of non-acceptance for years after a loss.  Non-acceptance includes denial, anger, fighting the truth, outrage, frustration.  As we cycle through these emotions, they feed our suffering.

Acceptance, on the other hand, brings a different attitude to a situation: I don’t like what is happening, but I accept that it is true.  Acceptance does not mean that you condone awful situations.  It doesn’t mean that you like it, or that you are in a state of resignation and won’t do anything to work on the problem.  It simply means that you’re facing reality as it is instead of denying it or fighting against it.

Coming to a state of acceptance allows you to take the next step toward working on the problem.  It’s impossible to make meaningful change in a situation that you haven’t even accepted as truth.

I’m not saying this is easy.  It’s actually quite difficult.  I’ve been finding myself in a state of anger and resistance quite a bit lately, and I’ve watched others go through their process of accepting the truth of what is happening in the world with varying levels of success.  Radical acceptance is a process and a practice.  It may be that you work toward accepting a situation and then something else terrible happens, and you have to start all over.  It’s frustrating, but it’s the place to begin.

Here’s an example that most of us can relate to.  One day you wake up and look in the mirror and realize that you’re not happy with your body.  Perhaps you’ve indulged a bit too much lately.  OK.  Now you have a choice.  You can deny that your body has reached a place where you need to make changes and continue on the path that you’re already on, but how does that help you?  That just leads to more discomfort with your body.  It is only through accepting the fact that your body has gotten to an uncomfortable weight that you can make a choice to begin a diet or an exercise program, or both.

I’m sure that you have already started thinking of situations in your life that you might apply radical acceptance to.  That’s great.  Try it out and see how it shifts things for you.  I know that coming to a place of acceptance always eases the pain and frustration in my own heart and opens me up to take positive actions for change.  I’m sure it can do the same for you.

For more information, I recommend the book Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life With the Heart of a Buddha by Tara Brach, Ph.D. Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach Link.  There are also some wonderful Radical Acceptance resources, like some meditations, on Tara Brach’s page Tara Brach’s Website.