Written by Sharon K. Shaw, LMFT
The other day I received an email from a dear friend who simply asked "How are you feeling?" I don't write long responses. But that day, for whatever reason I wrote, for me, a relatively long reply. She responded with how meaningful my words were to her. Deeply touched, I felt compelled to write. I was curious about what was going on inside for me personally and professionally in this crazy upside down world.
I asked myself “How am I doing?” What is on my mind and in my heart?
I am slightly depressed, or more accurately cut off, moderately anxious, depending on my own experience and the world around me, truly sad, very, very exhausted, and I am deeply grateful for all of my blessings.
And then I realized I needed to write. I am not sure about what or why. I just knew I needed to share my experience.
This is what followed.
The loss of illusion is the greatest loss for most of us, certainly for me. Even though I intellectually KNEW I had no control over what the future might bring, I now KNOW it in an entirely new way. I feel it in every breath I take. I know it in my sleep. I can't put Humpty Dumpty back together again.
My intention for myself and as a therapist is to continue to exist with and help my clients find ways to live more peacefully in the reality of “uncertainty-not knowing"and to recognize that the sensations in our bodies of”uncertainty-not knowing" is what is creating our overwhelming anxiety. Uncertainty doesn’t kill us. The physical sensations of uncertainty/anxiety sometimes feel like they can. Our collective anxiety comes from a basic primitive need for us to KNOW what's coming next. It’s our survival instinct. We feel out of control. We feel in danger. When that illusion is shattered - and we face the stark reality that we never DO know what's to come, we never can, and we never will - it can feel threatening to our very core.
I have known that there are things that exist in my personal life I have no control over, but my fantasy was if I took some sort of action, maybe I could "control” the outcome. There has been no other time in my almost 79 years where there have been so many external occurrences that force me to face the reality that I have no power to control the future. The truth is I have lived through much uncertainty in my life, as have all of us, and it didn’t kill me. So why am I so anxious now? Because I am overwhelmed by the magnitude of all that is occurring at once. I can’t deny it to myself anymore. My mind and my heart are exhausted.
THE SHATTERING OF ILLUSION - LOSS - GRIEF
Daily, on my Zoom sessions with clients, I process how dramatically the world and our lives have changed. The underlying theme for myself, family, friends, and clients is loss. When I experience loss of a person, dream, fantasy, object, illusion, I grieve. Whether I am aware of it or not, I grieve. Whether I am aware of my sadness, I am sad. I once read "Loss is to be held, not healed.” That resonated for me. I can't erase the loss and I can't get back what I have truly lost, but when I allow myself to stay with my sadness, it helps me heal. Some of my losses I get through, but I never get over. The scars of my losses fade, but there is always a faint remnant if I look long and deep enough. I will get through this time, but the losses I am experiencing will leave their scars as well.
Currently we are all experiencing loss of so many, many things simultaneously. Today we are all grieving. Loss of friends and family, "safe" choices, jobs. Loss of what we have all taken for granted; a walk without a mask; a hug we want to give or get; a meal with a friend; the loss of planning and taking a vacation and being so excited about the "when" of it; the loss of being able to go out without concern for "social distancing” ; the loss of......you name it. We share a deep spoken and unspoken sadness about the state of the world. Our world is in a very sad state.
How do I currently distract myself from the painful reality of “uncertainty-not knowing" and the anxiety that creates in me?
I WRITE MY STORIES - MY NARRATIVES
Why do I write stories, in my mind, that cause me to worry and then obsess about them? I do it to protect myself. The sad part is my stories are never positive or uplifting stories. They are ALWAYS stories involving worry and fear because they are embedded in my body. They are physical sensations of old, primitive experiences of real and perceived fear and danger. They are what I and most of us describe as anxiety.
Those physical sensations of anxiety can, at times, feel unbearable. They actually can for some of us feel life threatening. For me, recognizing those physical sensations and paying attention to them is critical.
I now call these physical sensations, a gift. They are my friends. They are like the fire alarm in a fire station. They say “Pause. Breathe. Think.” Up until the time I recognized that these sensations, which I feel in my stomach right below my breast bone, were happening, one of the ways I automatically and unconsciously responded to them was by writing a story. This isn’t a deliberate choice. I didn’t think “I’ll write a story to get away from my feelings.” It is my way to take me out of the physical discomfort I was feeling. Again, it is my way to protect myself.
What is the difference between my concern and my worries?
When I have concerns often there is fear involved. AND sometimes I have a choice to take action. There is the possibility that if I take an action I might facilitate the outcome of what I need or want.
Some of my concerns are different from others and some are the same. How to keep lights on. How to put food on the table. How to keep kids in school. How to be a stay at home mother, teacher and wife all at once. How to find work. How to take care of my health and physical well being. How to manage financially.
For me concern almost always includes the possibility of action. But, to quell my concern - for my children and grandchildren - for what their lives and world will be like in 5, 10, 20, years there is no action I can take. I sit with the unknowable.
My story-writing only serves me temporarily because the minute I finish writing the story I worry and obsess about it. It is my automatic unconscious way to move from the physical discomfort in my body to my head. Worry creates the illusion that I can change something. I may not have formulated it out loud, but, at some level that’s what I believe. It becomes my habit. However, the truth is worry is just another illusion. My worrying feels like I’m “doing something.” In “real time” it changes nothing. It takes me out of the present and into the future. It only exists in my head from my story.
FACTS not FICTION
Worry is always in the future. It is never in the present nor the past.
Worry is an illusion of control.
My stories feel real and true and cause me pain and suffering.
My stories are not real or true.
My stories are fiction not fact.
Consider the following question:
How can something that has not happened yet be real? Given it’s not real how can it be true?
Answer: It can’t be. Yet, the power of my story makes it feel so real and true.
When I recognize this::
Take a deep breath
and repeat out loud or silently:
My story is fiction not fact.
My story is never in the present. It is always in the future. AND it is never a "What is.” It is always a "What if" or "What if not." It’s never a positive hopeful story. If it was, I wouldn't be anxious and worried.
I continually remind myself:
My story is causing, feeding and fueling my anxiety.
When I give my power to my story, I feel powerless and riddled with worry and anxiety.
No amount of thinking or doing will take away the reality that I do not have the power to know the future.
Another way I distract myself from the painful reality of “uncertainty-not knowing" and the anxiety that creates in me is I become a "human doing."
I clean and organize drawers, closets, my refrigerator, and whatever can be MORE organized than it already is. As long as I am busy doing, I can distract myself because my insides feel wildly messy and out of control. I might-eat, drink, clean, shop -anything to run away from the physical sensations of anxiety- when I am in my “doing” mode. And then I might write shaming stories about how I feel with some of the choices I made to avoid my feelings. Sadly, all my story-writing, worrying, and doing, doesn't change the reality of “uncertainty-not knowing." I still don't have the power to change the future.
Of this I am certain: I do have the power to make choices in the present.
What do I want and need to do to take care of myself with self-compassion and kindness today and always?
I have meditated daily for 10 years. My meditation practice has allowed me to experience a sense of calm I had never known before and to deeply value the present. And yet, during challenging times I return to my story writing and doing. Because when I feel out of control, I write my what if's or if not's. My when. Gratefully, I don’t live there anymore, but occasionally I visit.
I know that meditation isn’t for everyone. However, mindfulness can be. Simply paying attention to your thought process is the beginning.
CONSIDER ASKING YOURSELF: DO YOU HAVE
A desire not to suffer in the way you have been suffering?
An awareness of where your “fire alarm” rings in your body and when you are aware of those sensations will you pay attention to your thoughts and actions?
A belief that you can change?
And a willingness to make a choice that when you recognize that you are writing a story or being in your “ human doing” mode, to pause and try some of the techniques I and many others have used to bring us away from our stories and our doing and into the present?
Below are a few of the practices that I use. They soothe me……most of the time. They are my pathway back to the present.
I choose to be mindful of my feelings. I continue to “hold” my sadness and honor my “fire alarm.”
I consciously and slowly take 3 deep breaths.
I let go of my story and focus on my breath, the sounds around me or whatever feels soothing and gives me a sense of comfort and calm.
I clap my hands, wiggle my toes, stand up and take a walk around the house or wherever I am. I pay attention to the fabrics and colors in the room, put on some music; do yoga; dance; do a load of laundry; write in my journal, sing; play with and talk to my dog. If I'm outside, I might take off my shoes and stand on the grass or pavement; look up at the sky and notice it's color and cloud formation; listen to the birds; see if there are leaves or trees that are being touched by the wind; hunt for rocks; smell a flower. I am fully in the present. No past; no future; just the present. The reality is there is only the present.
It is not easy to change a lifelong habit of story-writing, worrying and doing. Actually, it's quite challenging and yet it is possible. I know as I was habituated/addicted to my stories and my doing. Thankfully, now they are few and far between and when they do show up-and they do- I am able to bring myself back to what is, not what might be. The more I do this, the more quickly my choice becomes evident and easier. That is the beauty of my practice.
And when I pause and turn inside, I remember that everything I need to learn, I know by heart.
My hope and my intention in writing this is that my experience may have meaning for you and help you create your pathway to a more peaceful, moment-to-moment, perfectly imperfect life that I, you and each of us deserves.
At this moment, I continue to feel gratitude for all that I have. Each moment is all that exists and I am grateful for the gift of that truth. And then I take one breath; one step; one moment at a time.
About the Author
I have been practicing for 35 years as a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. My primary focus has been in attachment theory. 10 years ago I trained in MIndful Self-Compassion. I now integrate psychodynamic, attachment theory and mindful self-compassion in my work. She can reached via email and by telephone @ (310) 274-5747