Struggle does not equal failure – and other thoughts on struggling.
Last spring I had the chance to give a talk on a topic that is near and dear to my heart: body and story shame. One of the slides I shared during my talk – featured at the top of this post – garnered the most feedback from participants. I was struck by how powerful this statement was to so many and what a relief people said they felt when they gave themselves permission to separate struggle from their worth and value.
This feedback echoed one of the most common frustrations I hear from people about their frustration with the presence of struggle in their lives and the suffering that often ensues.
Many of the men and women I have met over the years show up in my office feeling like a failure because they are struggling (or are frustrated because they are still struggling) believing “everyone else seems to go through life without struggles like mine.”
Comparison is a beast to reckon with when it shows up. Our brains think comparison is helping us get safe when in fact it just pushes us deeper into the tar pit of fear and frustration.
I have given witness to countless individuals who realized what they believed about struggle was fueling shame. They decided to take a leap of faith and reach out for support – hoping a different approach to their struggles would offer much needed relief.
Some of the most common myths I hear about struggle are:
- All struggle is bad.
- Struggle means I am a failure.
- I am always going to struggle.
- A life without struggle is possible and if not achieved, you are doing something wrong.
- Only weak people struggle.
- There is no place for struggle at work or in relationships.
- Struggle means it is all my/their fault.
- I can’t handle struggle.
- When something is achieved without struggle, it is not worthwhile or valued.
I believe struggle is crucial to healing and growth. My desire is to continue to grow, heal and learn for the rest of my life, so I know struggle will be a reluctant companion of mine for seasons. It is now important for me to reflect on how my struggle came to be and what has/has not been done to achieve change but also how I respond to the struggles I face.
Be wary of responding to struggle with perfectionism: look perfect, act perfect, be perfect, never let people see you struggle, never let anyone struggle or be disappointed. Perfectionism keeps us frozen in homeostasis, squelches faith, keeps us chasing the unattainable and robs us of the opportunity to build our bandwidth for struggle.
Also caution against responding to struggle with shaming, finger-wagging questions like, “Why did I do that again?” or “Why do I not have this figured out by now?” or “I know better, why I am still struggling?”.
Taking a posture of curiosity and respect when looking at your struggles or those of your loved ones is crucial. Turning away from the seductive reactivity of judgement, blame, gossip and numbing when struggle arises is also important so not to devalue the pain and uncertainty struggles trigger.
Responding differently to struggle involves (re) redefining your struggle narrative. I believe wholeheartedly in the following:
Struggle is data not an identity.
Struggle is a place of refinement.
Struggle can help discern if it is time for an ending, a change of focus or direction.
Struggling refines and builds fortitude.
Struggle is opportunity to engage and move through the pain, uncertainty and fear.
Struggle is where discomfort and breakthrough meet.
Please note: While I believe struggle is a foundational ingredient to sustained change, if struggle ever involves physical, emotional, spiritual abuse it is imperative you remove yourself from the situation and get safe along with the appropriate support.
While we are walking this planet there is not a guaranteed end to struggle – which makes all of us susceptible to believing offers of quick and easy ways to deal with the pain of struggle. I am very suspicious and often frustrated with people who offer quick fixes to pain.
These gimmicks feed on fear and exhaustion with well-written promises that are enticing by speaking to your pain points. Good marketing is just that – good marketing. It even gets to me and causes me to challenge what I know to be true: there is no way around the pain of struggle except through it – taking one step at a time while using hope as a flashlight in the dark.
We also need to caution against equating the duration of our struggles with our worth.
We like the certainty of quantifiable data and there is indeed a good amount of information available which can provide perspective and frameworks on your expectations around struggle. There are many excellent resources available in books, blogs and courses to learn, grow and develop important practices which can revolutionize how you engage with life.
But one-size-fits-all formulas which fuel unrealistic expectations and offer a cure to our struggling are misguided.
To change the narrative around struggle, we need to improve our bandwidth and tolerance for struggle along with the messy and uncertain. Doing the work to address trauma and distressing life events in your story is an important place to begin or continue healing. We are big proponents of EMDR Therapy at Potentia because of its efficacy, the research behind it and the respect it offers when addressing the tender parts of a client’s story.
There is nothing tidy about being a human who desires to engage in a life full of meaning and purpose. Figuring out how to set and maintain boundaries (not walls), getting clear your core values (which help you set boundaries) and building a sustaining shame resilience practice are necessary components to the journey of being human.
The story you tell yourself about struggle can have a powerful impact on how you show up in your relationships and at work; how you pursue dreams, handle rejection and disappointment.
What is the story you are telling yourself about struggle?
Start by sharing your stories of struggle with people who have earned your trust. If you do feel like you have someone to trust with your unedited story, write it down and start wrestling with all aspects of your story of struggle with a posture of respect and curiosity.
It is my hope you view struggle not at something to erase or mask but instead a space where redemption and grace ooze and fill in the holes of pain, loneliness and shame.
For those of you in San Diego, there are some workshops coming up at Potentia where you can can more clarity on the story you are telling yourself about struggle. Register here for the following:
- (re) Define Perfection: July 31, August 7th and August 14th from 9AM-12PM Cost: $197
- (re) Define Courage One Day Redux Workshop: August 21, 2015 Cost: $247 Ministry, Student and Wellness Professional Rate: $197 RDC Alumni Rate: $100
And for those of you not in San Diego:
- The (re) Define Body Image:Choosing Respect Over Body + Story Shame e-course will be launching again this fall on October 5th. It will be a pay-what-you-can fee, though the suggested rate is $97.
I am also going to be giving the (re) Define Body Image: Choosing Respect Over Body + Story Shame talk I referenced at the beginning of this post at San Diego First Church of the Nazarene on September 19th from 9AM-12PM. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will send you the registration details when they become available.
Cheering you on as you seek to tell a different story about struggle –
Rebecca Bass-Ching, LMFT