The Loneliness of Suffering in Silence

Helenkellerbest

suf·fer·ing noun the state of undergoing pain, distress, or hardship.

Too many people are suffering in silence. Our neighbors, classmates, colleagues, members at our church and our social media friends may not look like they are struggling because most people do not wear their loneliness and shame on their sleeve.

We all have become pretty darn good at hiding our suffering.

In vulnerable and authentic conversations, I hear people say:

Well…everyone seems to have it all together.
Why am I still struggling? Others seems to get over challenges quicker than I do.
I am the exception to grace, forgiveness and peace.
I can’t talk about my loneliness. No one will understand because I have so many blessings in my life, I will just seem selfish. 
I am tired of trying again and again and nothing seems to work to help me feel better. 
It only makes me feel worse worrying the people around me – it is better to just keep my pain to myself. 
If I really told people about why I am hurting, I would lose my job, my family, my friends. No one at church would talk with me anymore. 
I do not have the resources to get help. I need to just figure this out on my own. 
I do not think people want to hear the pain. It seems everyone wants to fix me instead of understand me. 
Too many people think mental health struggles are my fault. If I could do something to stop feeling this way, I would! I have tried!

Story shame disconnects, blames and fuels fear beyond its protective origins.

Shame wins when you stay silent about your pain. And shame also wins when you shrink from the messiness of entering into another’s story of struggle because of judgement, blame and fear.

I made a vow to myself when I was in high school to do everything I could to make sure people did not suffer in silence like I did during my teen years and beyond.

The mentors, friends and professional in my life were anchors as I navigated figuring out how to adult in a way that made sense to me and was sustainable.

Eventually studying why people struggle helped me develop a deeper understanding of my own story, my brain and the spiritual aspect of suffering which eventually led me to my current professional passion as a therapist.

Mental illness is real and the statistics around those wrestling mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, PTSD, eating disorders are way too high.

But even greater is the epidemic of loneliness.  This is the kind of loneliness that is not based on whether you have people around you but more about whether you feel seen, heard and understood.

The kind of loneliness I am talking about is a deficit of social connection – which may seem ridiculous to those who say we are more connected then ever in this era of social media. But what is presented on social media is often not a holistic picture of people’s lives.

This video address the connection of loneliness and social media brilliantly:

Loneliness impacts our physical body and our souls. It is a biological warning sign there is a threat to our social connection. It activates the pain triggers in our brain to inform us we are in danger.

Loneliness is different than depression but is a bedfellow with it, for sure. And shame, oh the narrative of shame, gets fueled when we are in connection deficit.

Experiencing positive connection often does not eradicate the loneliness immediately. But if steadfast in the practice of reaching out and showing up with the right support, you can begin to get your mind, body and soul to recalibrate. Genetics, temperament, history and life experiences all play a role in the impact of loneliness and suffering along with how we heal from these difficult states.

It is also risky business to be steadfast with someone struggling. Rarely are there quick fixes and it can be intense navigating how to help, when to help and when to step back.

It is scary to reach out for help. It is also scary to help someone.

Committing to help someone struggling involves uncertainty, messiness and stress.

Committing to keep trying to heal involves energy, motivation and commitment.

When judgement spikes when confronted with stories of struggle, be clear it is armor to your vulnerabilities which have been triggered by giving witness and feeling painful emotions.

“Who can listen to a story of loneliness and despair without taking the risk of experiencing similar pains in his own heart and even losing his precious peace of mind? In short: “Who can take away suffering without entering it?” – Henri J.M. Nouwen The Wounded Healer: Ministry in Contemporary Society

We desire so deeply to be seen and when we are  – it can also be one of the most terrifying experiences, too.

I think there is more we can do in our communities to decrease the numbers of those suffering in silence.

We are not the ‘other’. Either we are struggling or we have come out of our time of suffering so we can support those who are in the pit of pain.

We need to cultivate in our communities permission to share struggles, regularly communicate the message to never stop trying and that showing up for help is deeply important, if not necessary.

This UCLA Loneliness Inventory is a useful tool in assessing you loneliness scale and the need for additional support. 

For those feeling suicidal or who know some struggling with suicide and need support, connect with someone at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. To text for help, contact Lifeline Crisis Chat or Crisis Text Line. Outside of the U.S., click here international support. Grief and loss resources are available here. (link http://www.griefshare.org/.)

My challenge to you is to dare to reach out this week to one person – whether to share you care about someone or to reach out for your own help.

Never underestimate a courageous act.

With gratitude –

Rebecca Bass-Ching, LMFT

Living and Loving in a Culture of Never Enough

 

Respondingtopain

 

Preparing for my talk at Flood Church this weekend on “Parenting in a Culture of Never Enough”, I wrote this slide inspired by a week that stretched me with my own children.

Whether you are parenting your children, caring for your pets, or anyone in your charge – it hurts when your loved ones hurt.

Becoming a parent was not a life-long dream for me. I was wary at best. Then I met my husband and I took the dive into this role knowing he was a voice of reason and strength at my side. Now I am all in with two little people who expanded my heart and continue to stretch me in ways I did not know I could be stretched.

My husband and I found new edges in our relationship when our first child was diagnosed on the autism spectrum. While the diagnosis gave us a framework to understand her brain and nervous system, she was her own unique person who did not fit into any mold.

There is a saying within the autism community: If you have met one person with autism, you have met one person with autism.

Parenting a child on the autism spectrum may not be very different than parenting any other kid  – there are good days, hard days and days you can barely breathe.

However we get there, I believe we all can relate to the roller coaster of emotions involved in being responsible for a loved one.

This week took me to the ‘barely breathe’ edge as my daughter’s nervous system made wearing clothes, smelling certain smells, seeing anything she deemed “gross”, hearing sounds at a certain volume unbearable.

Everything hurt. What feels like a tap to you and me felt like a punch on her skin. Noises we barely notice were causing her to cringe.

And when that kind of assault on a nervous system is going on, she responds like most of us – fight and flight, but mostly fight. My girl can scream and turn on herself in an instant. It can be dizzying.

And when her brain goes into limbic mode, she has her own shame spiral to reckon with as she hates feeling different and doing things that may not respect herself or others.

It takes a lot of energy to hold space in these moments.

When those I care about hurt, I hurt.

Their hurts + my hurts intersect and in a millisecond my brain decides whether to let the feelings wash over me or go into fight, flight, freeze or numb out.

I love my passionate, deep, brilliant, brave daughter.

My love does not waver but I sure want to shrink from it when others give witness to her pain, my pain.

There is nothing cool, smooth, elegant about a public meltdown.

In a culture that says you are not: enough, doing enough, strong enough, Christian enough, calm enough, professional enough, wealthy enough, cool enough, skinny or fit enough, have-it-all together enough – the pressure can feel like something fierce.

It hurts to see my daughter misunderstood. I know it hurts her, too.

And my own stories of feeling misunderstood, ashamed and alone get activated during these times too – whether I know it in the moment or not.

Both of our nervous systems were hot messes this week.

My colleague Bobbi Hannah, an occupational therapist here in San Diego, sent me this chart after we recently were geeking out talking about the nervous system. She shared how the impact of too many “dings” on our nervous system can lead to us feeling flooded, shut down or taking measures to defend ourselves from more triggers.  I gave her an ‘amen’ as I see this so much in my daughter, myself and many of my clients.

This metaphor also fits with all I have learning in my EMDR training and other trainings + readings from people like Bessel van der Kolk, Dan Siegel, Richard Schwartz and more.

Dings

When we get enough dings on our nervous system, our hearts, our souls – we start to engage in protective choices which may not be aligned with our core values. Shame creeps in and we may begin to believe the lies of scarcity mindset which is a cocktail of shame, comparison, competition, fear and loneliness.

In those moments of feeling exposed, confused and helpless – it is a nervous system overload.

The shoulds, the supposed to’s, the rules, the plans – they can get all jumbled up between your loved one’s pain and your pain.

The default is to stop the pain of your loved one so you stop hurting – and sometimes we attempt to shut down this pain in ways that lead to some serious empathic failure.

Making the choice to stay calm, respectful and patient happens. But not as often as I would like. Frustration, fatigue and vulnerability can get the best of me during these times.

I suspect you can relate.

We all mess it up and want do overs.

But that is the awesome thing about grace and failure – we get to teach how to fall and fail well – and rise again after those moments where all we know to be true and right goes out the window as we jump to shut down the pain in ways that make everyone feel crappy.

How we handle struggle – our struggles and the struggles of those we love –  can potentially be powerful medicine for our relationships and communities if we dare to be vulnerable.

The pressure to never fail, mess up and make a mistake can be immense. Perfection says if you are not perfect, you are letting your loved one down.

But one of the biggest gifts we can do is show how we recover when we mess up.

THIS is the space of courage, grace, learning, inspiration and connection.

Yes, falls and failures invite the naysayers, the shoulders and the I-told-you-so voices.

Digging in and dealing with past and present hurts is ground zero for responding differently when the hurts of our loved ones collide with our hurts.

All of us on the Potentia team are honored to support people who desire to respond to differently to discomfort, pain and shame so not hurt themselves or others. Sometimes this work is nuanced and takes time. And sometimes it just takes a period of getting outside your head and finding out you are not alone in your struggles.

It is brave work loving people and navigating the messiness of real, honest, meaningful relationships. And when the dings get too much, remember you are not meant to struggle alone.

Daring to reach out and ask for help is a powerful example to model to those you care about. Keep showing up. The dark emotions are part of being human. And never forget we are all on this deeply human journey together.

With gratitude –

Rebecca

Struggle does not equal failure – and other thoughts on struggling.

struggle does not equal failure

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 rebecca@potentiatherapy.com 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