It had been a rough week. Questioning my capabilities as a leader, reconsidering my definition of success and professional purpose, and absolutely flooded with emotion. How can I dislike emotions so much given my training as a therapist?! Okay, this isn’t exactly true most other days, weeks, and months of my life, but this day, it is my truth. Feelings suck. Disappointed, confused, misunderstood, judged, vulnerable, sad, contemptuous, angry, and fragile— yep, all of these pulsed through me as I was coping with life’s difficulties. My mind linked up with these feelings and seemed to drive them faster, deeper. The thoughts that fueled these thunderous emotions were completely predictable, of course. “You are not good enough.” “You aren’t fooling anyone, and people are figuring out that you are a fraud.” “You aren’t cut out for this.” Ugh.
Swimming or drowning
I found myself desperately trying to function while feeling so fragile. If I’m being honest, I was overwhelmed with fear. I couldn’t seem to access courage. I was left in a place of just swimming in the “ick.” I now have the advantage of looking back as I recall this experience, and I choose the word “swimming”; but in the moment, it felt more like trying to tread water while fully clothed. Swimming involves graceful and intentional movements, swiftly gliding through the water, all body parts working in unison, including breaths and thoughts.
I was definitely not “swimming” in the ick of the moment: I was trying not to drown. There was nothing graceful about how I was processing at the beginning of learning the news that set me down this path. Nope, nothing graceful at all. Instead, my proverbial arms were flailing, my mind was racing, my breathing rapid and shallow, and my head kept dipping under the water. I needed to slow down – my breathing, my thoughts, and heck, even my eye movements.
Float, not flail
Any swim instructor would advise that when you are in trouble in the water, it is important to relax and try to achieve calmness. A sound option is to lay on your back in the water with your arms out. This is a very difficult pose to achieve when anxiety or panic has overtaken your body and mind. Rather than relaxing, you have the urge to move your arms and try to control the situation (which, all the while, is exhausting you and causing much more harm).
Figuratively, I calmed myself in the troubled waters. I did this by first tuning into my feelings, allowing myself to physically and mentally acknowledge them. I cried. I dried the tears because I needed to feel like I could compose myself. Then I cried again (and again). There is something cathartic about this physical experience that should not be underestimated. Without me knowing it, I was cleansing myself and moving into the next stage of processing.
Meditation as ‘treading water’
Treading water was an essential skill that I learned when taking swimming lessons as a young child. The purpose of treading water isn’t to get from one place in the body of water to another. Rather, it is about remaining calm and conserving energy while being immersed in water that is deeper than one’s height. It sounds much easier than it actually is. Meditation and mindfulness are actually quite important elements to being successful at treading water. Treading water includes being present in the moment, fully present.
In fact, it is really important that a swimmer remains calm and focused when treading water. If thoughts begin to race, breathing and heart rate follow suit, and the body is launched into panic. On this particular day, I found myself treading water in an unexpected place. It was in a dark, cool basement, sitting alone on a card table chair. I won’t go into the details of why or how I came to find myself in this strange environment, but now I am so grateful that I ended up there.
I was alone (with my thoughts), and it was quiet. I folded my hands and began a conversation with my God. I humbly asked for help. This required me to acknowledge that I was fragile, afraid, and needing strength and perspective. On this day and in this moment, prayer was my meditation of choice. The process slowed my thoughts and broadened my lens from the narrow tunnel vision that had consumed me.
Teammates in the pool
Let’s continue with our swimming metaphor. Another key element to my journey that hard day was the presence of important people in my life. In that pool with me, my husband, a dear friend, and an incredible leader in my business all placed their hands ever so firmly, but gently under my back while I floated in the water.
- Their presence calmed me.
- Their loving words validated my existence and strengths.
- Their feelings, that at times, mirrored my own (anger, confusion, and frustration), acted as artificial breaths being injected into my lungs when I was having difficulty steadying my own breaths.
Let me simplify this. People mattered in my process through fragility. Going through something like this alone would have been so much harder and taken so much longer. I am grateful for their validation and willingness to dive in and listen. These beautiful souls were life preservers for me. I am grateful for their kindness and patience.
Choosing a different stroke
Eventually, I decided to distract myself from the tough feelings and unfair thoughts by refocusing on other parts of my job and day. Although it may sound strange, this move toward distraction was quite an effective self-care strategy. The tunnel vision and thought pattern that I was in earlier dissipated, and I was able to see more clearly and broadly. Shifting my attention to other parts of my day worked to alter my emotional state. It provided me relief from the heaviness of emotions and thoughts that I experienced earlier. Choosing distraction was a merciful gift I provided to myself. I needed a break.
My intention for sharing this process is to normalize these intense moments that we all experience in our lives. Thank you for allowing me to chronicle my process on this particularly difficult day. There will certainly be more like it. Just like swimming lessons, the more I practice, my techniques will improve, and my confidence will increase. I will likely never handle my emotions like an Olympian swimmer, but I am certainly capable to navigate the pool.
Coping with life’s difficulties
If you want to work on your own swimming lessons to help with coping with life’s difficulties, connect with Perspectives Therapy Services.
Perspectives Therapy Services is a multi-site mental and relationship health practice with clinic locations in Brighton, Lansing, Highland, Fenton and New Hudson, Michigan. Our clinical teams include experienced, compassionate and creative therapists with backgrounds in psychology, marriage and family therapy, professional counseling, and social work. Our practice prides itself on providing extraordinary care. We offer a customized matching process to prospective clients whereby an intake specialist carefully assesses which of our providers would be the very best fit for the incoming client. We treat a wide range of concerns that impact a person's mental health including depression, anxiety, relationship problems, grief, low self-worth, life transitions, and childhood and adolescent difficulties.