She was in the hospital recovering from surgery but had developed pneumonia, so she had been moved to the intensive care unit.
For the first few days she was in the ICU, she kept up with texting and Facebook via her smartphone.
I asked mutual friends if they had heard from her. They hadn’t.
A little poking around revealed that only one friend was listed as a contact on Noreen’s hospital medical chart, and that friend was out of town.
Frustrated and scared, I decided to go to the hospital to see if I could find out what was happening with Noreen.
On my drive there, more questions came up in my mind: Where was Noreen’s family? Who was her closest friend? Who was supporting her through this?
I arrived at the ICU and called the nurse’s station. I didn’t have much hope that I would get information due to privacy laws, but I had to try.
Inexplicably and mercifully, Noreen’s nurse came out to talk with me. She explained that Noreen was “out of it”—disoriented and not making any sense. The doctors weren’t sure what was causing the problem.
I was allowed in to see Noreen who, as reported, was not making a lot of sense. She told me that she needed to go home because she had a lot of things to do. Her face was ghostly white, and the tubes running in and out of her arms looked like a mass of plastic spaghetti.
So began a long journey for Noreen and her friends who love her.
I reached out to Noreen’s other friends and asked each one, “Are you closest to her?” Each time, the answer was, “No, I just know her from our dog obedience classes.”
After a while, we formed a group on Facebook so we could keep in touch with each other about how Noreen was doing. Slowly, we started to piece things together.
Noreen has family in another state but is estranged from them and didn’t want them coming to help her. She is a very private person, and it seemed this was why no one could step forward as her best friend and also why we didn’t know how serious her medical condition had become.
We quickly organized. I took the lead role and was designated as Noreen’s health care advocate. Other friends took care of her dogs and tended to Noreen’s home and financial affairs.
Still in the ICU, Noreen’s condition deteriorated as she contracted infection after infection. We almost lost her—twice.
But, excellent medical care and a steady stream of friends by her bedside, holding her hand and urging her to pull through because we needed her, somehow brought her back from the brink.
After two months in the ICU, Noreen is now in a rehabilitation facility and intent on getting back home to her dogs and her life.
Does ‘social support’ always mean having a best buddy and tight-knit group of friends?
Noreen’s story illustrates one of the components that contribute to the ability to bounce back in life: social support.
But, notice how Noreen’s social support was a bit different than what you might ordinarily envision.
When I suggest to people that increasing their social support may be helpful in getting through a rough time, I often receive replies such as these:
“I really don’t know a lot of people.”
“I’m shy, and it’s hard for me to make friends.”
“I’m new to the area, so don’t know anyone yet.”
“I don’t like to have a lot of friends.”
These are all valid responses and are true for the people who said them, so it’s not my place to say they are not doing social support right!
I’m not convinced there is a “right” when it comes to social support. We often think of social support as having lots of close friends and family or having a best friend. While close relationships are wonderful means of support—and I do encourage them when possible!—they’re not the final word in social support.
Let’s look at Noreen’s situation again. Does she have a best friend? Apparently not. Does she have family here to support her? No. Does she have many friends? Mmmm . . . sort of. She has a number of acquaintances; one might even say close acquaintances, plus a few good friends. But even her friends don’t know her that well.
The thing Noreen has that is so important is community.
Noreen is reserved and private and chooses not to be very close to people. Yet she is also part of a distinct group. She is a dog enthusiast and has participated for many years in activities in the world of dog sports. In so doing, she created a network of people with common interests who know her and grew to love having her as part of the dog-enthusiast community.
Even though she doesn’t have what we would ordinarily think of as social support—the best friend, the close circle, the tight family—she still has a community who became concerned when she took ill and sprang into action to help.
What’s your community?
Maybe your community isn’t centered on a common interest. That’s okay, it can still be a community!
A friend of mine told me a story about going into a print shop that she used to frequent often but hadn’t visited in a few years. As soon as she walked in, the owner broke into a huge grin and said, “It’s you!”
Once or twice a week I go to my favorite restaurant where everybody knows my name. The servers all know me, the management knows me, and some of us regulars know each other. When one of us is missing for a while, we start asking after each other.
Where do I start?
If you’re asking yourself, “How do I develop community?” take a look at what resiliency researchers Steven Southwick and Dennis Charney suggest:
Gaining and giving social support is a process, not an event; it doesn’t happen overnight. Nevertheless, even if you feel friendless or isolated, it is important to start somewhere. No matter how small or weak your current network may be, you can take steps to increase its size and strength. For example, you might make a habit of smiling and saying “hello” to the neighbor at the elevator, or the coworker who sits near you, or you might pick up the phone and call a family member who is lonely or take the time to have coffee with a classmate who has just done poorly on a test. p. 95
So, you don’t have to have a best friend. It’s okay to be shy. No one says you need to have a huge circle of close friends.
But it helps to have a community. And that doesn’t happen overnight.
What does your community look like?
Reference: Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges – Ten key ways to weather and bounce back from stress and trauma. Steven M. Southwick and Dennis S. Charney. 2012. Cambridge University Press.
You’re alone, except for a pack of scary demons hiding below the deck. As long as you keep floating around on the open sea, they stay below deck and you feel okay—for the most part. Except for that nagging feeling that there are frightening creatures just out of sight.
When you decide you’ve had enough of floating around and turn the tiller to head toward shore, the demons come rushing up from below, gnashing their teeth and waving their razor-sharp claws at you.
“You have to stay out on the open sea!” they roar at you. “We’re going to slice you up with our razor-sharp claws if you don’t turn away from the shore!”
Frightened and intimidated, you turn your boat around and head back out to open sea. Slowly, the demons shuffle back under the deck.
For a while, floating aimlessly again on the open sea is okay. At least you have some peace and don’t need to worry much about the demons lurking close by.
But then you begin to notice other boats heading toward shore. You remember that you have plans to go ashore to see things you want to see and do things you want to do. As your hand moves toward the tiller to change course, you hear the muffled sounds of roaring and growling below.
Your hand trembles above the tiller. How can you reach shore with those threatening demons ready to pounce at the least movement of the rudder? Read more…
I wrote my last post a month ago. What happened to me? Did I get sick? Did I have an accident on my new bicycle? Did I have a family crisis? Did I win the lottery and depart on a world cruise?
No. None of those events happened. Nothing happened in my life except that it got a little busier.
I’m preparing a workshop that I will be presenting in June. I’m moving my therapy office from one location to another. Those two tasks alone have taken up much more time than I anticipated. But why did I allow them to get in the way of my writing here—especially when I know so many of you are as excited as I am about our journey and the prospect of learning to live a more meaningful life?
I lost sight of my values.
I am taken aback by how easy it was to slip back into living in a manner that is less conscious than I want my life to be. Slipping is part of the journey, and that is the topic of today’s post.
Before we go any further, let’s do a quick review about our journey toward a more values-based, meaningful life.
A few months ago, I posted How to live a more meaningful life: An open invitation. We had a great discussion about the idea that most of us are tired of living a life based on thinking, “When I acquire or achieve ______, then I’ll feel better or my life will be good or I will have ‘arrived.’”
The problem is that we spend much of our time trying to acquire or achieve whatever fills in that blank rather than fully living the life we have now. And then, when we finally acquire or achieve _______, we feel great for a while, but soon we’re back to feeling empty. And so we start striving toward the next __________ that we believe is bound to make us feel better.
The missing component is living by our values. Our values address questions like: What is my life about? What impact am I making on the world? How can I strive to live a meaningful life when I’m dealing with painful thoughts, feelings, and events?
Naming our values
Next, I posted Naming your values: The compass for a rich, meaningful life. I also created a worksheet to help us name our values and identify which ones are most important.
And then, we looked at whether we are actually living those values.
I found that three of my top values were community, kindness, and making a difference.
Writing the Bounce blog and conversing with you is one way I create and enjoy community, exercise kindness, and make a difference in the world.
So, how was I so easily distracted from my writing?
I slipped into old beliefs and habits.
Certainly, there is nothing wrong with my preparing for a workshop or relocating my office. However, due to the time pressure I felt I was under, I reverted to my old thought process: “When I get my office moved, then I’ll be less stressed. After I present this workshop, then I’ll get back to writing.”
I fell right back into “When _________ happens, then everything will be okay, and then I can write my blog.” It’s an old habit, and I’m guessing it’s one that you struggle with, too.
It’s easy to slip back into “When-Then” thinking. We need to accept that slipping happens, and then take action when we recognize that we’ve slipped.
Getting back on our path
In my next post, I will present some techniques to help us get back on our path when we slip.
I’d like to hear how you are doing on this journey. Have you done some work on naming your values? How have you attempted to better incorporate your values into your daily life? What blocks you from fully living your values? Have you slipped like I did? What did you learn from slipping?
I appreciate your patience with me as I stumble over some rocks in my path. I hope I can turn them into stepping stones for us all!
We accomplished our first step during my last post when we took an unwavering look at this formula: “When _______ happens, then I’ll feel better/be happier/consider myself successful.
We realized that this isn’t the best way to live our lives, because it keeps us waiting for the next thing to happen rather than living a rich, meaningful life right now. We decided to begin our journey by answering the questions, “What am I doing? And why?”
In order to answer those questions, we need to look at our goals and values.
In our American culture, it’s easy to get caught up in goals-based living as represented by the when-then formula above. Goals are useful. They help us stay on track and move forward in a positive direction. But goals alone don’t answer the questions, “What am I doing? And why?” We must examine the relationship between our goals and our values. Read more…
I just wanted to let you know that Bounce looks a little funky right now because I’m in the middle of switching hosting companies and we’re having some technical difficulties. All of my content and posts are here, though, so feel free to read to your heart’s content! I’m just trying to get all the cool stuff on the right side of the page back!
This is what happens when you have a therapist try to do tech stuff!
Thanks for your patience!
Pain is a relatively objective, physical phenomenon; suffering is our psychological resistance to what happens. Events may create physical pain, but they do not in themselves create suffering. Resistance creates suffering. Stress happens when your mind resists what is… The only problem in your life is your mind’s resistance to life as it unfolds. ~ Dan Millman
I think suffering might be unnecessary.
I think pain, both physical and emotional, is a natural, unavoidable aspect of being human, but suffering is something we bring on ourselves.
And I wonder what you think.
Let’s look under the hood of pain and suffering and see what we find.
The difference between pain and suffering
You might be reading this post because something has gone wrong in your life and it is causing you discomfort, distress, or even trauma.
Perhaps emotionally, perhaps physically, or maybe even both, but it hurts.
And we don’t like to be hurt.
It’s hard-wired into our brains to move away from pain rather than toward it.
When we were children and accidentally touched the hot stove, we quickly formulated a rule: I must do everything I can to stay away from hot stoves.
It’s the same with emotional pain. We have a knee-jerk reaction to the hot stove of our negative feelings which is to move away from them as quickly as possible.
We just do not like to feel bad.
However, in this moving away we sometimes set up a condition for ourselves called suffering.
Let’s look at the difference between pain and suffering.
Pain is a natural condition whether it is emotional or physical. We touch the hot stove or go through the breakup of a relationship and it hurts.
Pain is a cue that something is wrong in the body and/or the mind.
We need pain in order to function well in the world.
Suffering is a choice
Suffering is more of a choice than pain.
Suffering is what happens when we have an expectation about how things should turn out or when we put a judgment value on pain.
You’ve probably heard a phrase similar to “Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional.” That’s because, while pain is a natural part of our lives, suffering is something we create around the idea of pain.
American meditation instructor Shinzen Young has developed a formula for suffering:
Suffering = Pain x Resistance
With this simple equation, you can see that resistance to pain only multiplies our suffering. If we give pain a value of 1 and resistance a value of 2, we experience suffering as a value of 2.
But if we resist so much that the value of resistance becomes 10, now our suffering increases to 10 as well.
It makes sense: the more we resist, the more suffering we will experience.
But what if we don’t resist at all? What if our resistance value is equal to zero?
Then our suffering will be zero as well.
The pain is still there, but the added suffering is gone.
We are used to resisting. It’s a normal human reaction to the inevitability of pain. But it also increases our suffering.
So what to do?
The first thing that must happen is to become aware that you are resisting.
It’s likely that you are not aware of it nor has anyone pointed it out to you.
Look for clues that you are resisting such as feelings of frustration, resentment, restlessness, and anger.
Note your inner thoughts. You are probably resisting if you find yourself thinking, “I can’t stand this. I hate this. I want this to stop.”
Now figure out a way to go with the painful situation rather than working against it.
When my late partner was in treatment for breast cancer, she let go of being angry at the effects of the chemotherapy.
She never grew to like chemotherapy – liking the pain isn’t required here – but she dropped the negative feelings that went along with it.
And I let go of my anxiety about not being able to ‘fix it’ for her.
The experience was still painful for us – physically for her and emotionally for me – but neither of us felt that we were suffering all of the time. We tried very hard not to add on any negative emotional tones to the pain that came with the experience.
Think of your painful situation as a river you are trying to get across. The current is swift, but not so swift that you can’t wade across to the other side.
Now, one way to reach the other side is to go straight across. This requires you to keep your balance and fight against the flow of the river each time you take a step.
But an approach that works better is to walk diagonally down river toward the far shore. In this way, you are wading with the current.
The flow of the water propels each step forward as you make your way across. You will end up further down the river than you had initially intended, but you will still have made it across.
And with much less effort and struggle than if you had stubbornly chosen the most direct path.
I’m really interested in hearing from you on this subject.
Am I being too simplistic?
What about people in under-developed nations who don’t have enough food, water, clothing, and shelter? We often say they are suffering. Is their experience of suffering necessary or unnecessary?
What about people with chronic pain or terminal illness?
I still hold that in each of these instances, suffering is unnecessary.
What do you say?
I was on my hands and knees on the floor, and I wasn’t sure how I got there.
It was three o’clock in the morning, and I stumbled out of bed to use the bathroom. But on the way back, it hit me again as though for the first time: Ruth was dead.
She died a few weeks ago, and she wasn’t coming back. Ever.
The rawness of reality hit me hard in the stomach. I doubled over as a long wail rose from my gut and came out of my mouth as though it had a life of its own—as though it was possessed by some mad demon of grief.
I found myself on the floor, keening and sobbing.
“Oh, no! Oh, no! Oh, no!” I gasped. The awful truth—the person I loved most in the world was gone forever—had broken through the thin protection from awareness that sleep provided.
Grief had cold-cocked me right in the heart.
The rest of the story
In most self-improvement blogs, including mine, this would be the point in the story where I would say, “But then _______ (fill in the blank) happened,” and everything was better.
I would give you several bullet points so that you, too, can feel better than ever right away! Act now!
But that’s not what happened.
The rest of the story is that I cried so hard on my hand and knees, I thought I was going to vomit.
I cried and wailed to Ruth about how much I missed her.
I thought the pain would never end. And it didn’t.
Finally, exhausted and my tears spent, I was able to crawl into bed and go back to sleep.
The truth about pain
It wasn’t pretty.
It wasn’t easy.
There wasn’t any checklist of bullet points for me to follow that made it better.
The next day, I recounted the episode to my friend, Laurie, who is one of those people who can spiritually attune to other people’s wavelengths.
“It’s not like the movies, Laurie,” I said. “They make it seem so romantic when someone is grieving.”
Laurie looked at me lovingly and replied softly, “Pain is only romantic at a distance.”
No truer thing was ever said.
I was watching The Amazing Spiderman the other night and chuckled a bit when Spiderman, resting after an epic fight with The Lizard, looks down at his gashed torso and says, “That completely sucked!”
That’s how it is with pain.
I made it through my horrible wailing night, but it wasn’t the last such episode that I would experience. Intense grief was a long-term companion for me, and I was wracked with painful spasms for a few years before my grief finally ebbed away to a manageable distance.
It completely sucked.
On the nature of pain
I’m very close to my older sister, Susie. She’s been telling me about the pain she’s having in her joints.
It moves around, this pain. Sometimes it’s in her feet, sometimes in her shoulders, and right now it’s in her fingers. They’re swollen, inflamed, and so sore that it’s hard for her to unscrew the cap off a water bottle, let alone do her job as an electrician.
She finally got in to see a specialist. She’s been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis: an ongoing painful disorder.
I hate this and want to fix it.
The other day, as I rode my bike, I was pondering the nature of pain.
I was riding up a hill and challenging myself by peddling in a higher gear than normal. My breath was coming in gasps, my heart was thudding out of my chest, and my thighs ached.
I wanted it to hurt, because I wanted to understand more about pain. Maybe if I understood about my own pain, I could help Susie with hers.
But then I realized that I was tolerating the pain in my body and continuing to push myself because I knew my pain was going to end as soon as I got to the top of the hill and got my breath back.
I called Susie later that day and told her about my realization that my tolerance of pain was based on the idea that it was going to stop. But what about her pain that may or may not end?
“I think ongoing pain is similar to when elite athletes train for an endurance sport—like a triathlon,” she said. “It depends on how much suffering you’re willing to put up with that day. Some days you can run a marathon and other days you can only tolerate five miles.
“But you keep training anyway.”
Why there are no bullet points
By this point, you might be wondering when I’m going to get to the good stuff. When am I going to give you the magic bullet points that will make life’s painful episodes better?
And here’s why: I receive emails from readers who tell me about their pain and their extremely difficult circumstances that break my heart to hear about.
Bullet points aren’t going to help.
Okay, maybe they will help a little.
But what I want you to know, what we all need to know and understand, is that sometimes life cold-cocks you in the heart.
And it hurts. It just fucking hurts.
And you make your way through it however you make your way through it.
Maybe it’s by sobbing on your hands and knees until you can’t sob anymore.
Maybe it’s by calling your friend at three o’clock in the morning.
Maybe it’s by tolerating as much as you can each day.
Maybe it’s by shouting and raging at God.
Somehow, miraculously, while you’re doing these things, time passes.
And one day, you look back with wonder and say, “I made it.”
I’m interested in what you think. Please leave a comment below.
I had too much to do.
And it was all spread out on my desk. I was looking at it and it was looking back at me shouting, “You need to do something with us! We’ve been sitting here for days!”
So I did what I usually do when overwhelm sets in.
I couldn’t decide what to do first, what was most important, what order I should do things in so I sat there, incapacitated.
And this was not the first time this scenario had played itself out. I am a chronic avoider so I unfortunately find myself sitting at a desk with various notes stuck here and there, each with a reminder to complete some task.
You’d think I’d learn.
And, for some reason, this time I did.
I don’t know if it was echoes of reading David Allen’s Getting Things Done many years ago, reading some kick-ass productivity blogs lately, or remembering the motto of my last boss: “Never let anything pass over your desk more than once,” but somehow it came to me.
Just do the thing in front of you.
A cautious trickle of relief started to thaw my frozen state.
Could it be that simple?
I picked up the note that was closest to me. My usual inner protests kicked in.
“It’s not most efficient to do this one first! You should prioritize!”
I did it anyway.
It felt great! I had accomplished a task, even if it was out of order.
I threw the first note away and picked up the next one that was in front of me.
I finished that task, too.
You know the rest of the story.
After awhile, my desk was clear save for a few notes with tasks that could only be completed at a future date.
Making it through by doing what’s in front of you
Just do the thing in front of you.
Now that my desk was clear, I had some time to ponder this simple idea a little more.
I had recently sent out an email to followers of Bounce and asked them how I could best help them. What did they struggle with most?
I received a glut of responses that had the same theme: I’ve got too much on my plate! What do I do?
From Laurie who found that her well-ordered daily to-do list soon was in shambles due to the crises that arose during the day to Lynda who was in danger of losing her housing, was in debt, and had recently decided to leave her husband.
From Cathie who, facing retirement, has suddenly found that she doesn’t know who she is without work as her identity to Leslie who has lost several loved ones to death recently and then faced an IRS audit on top of it all.
I could hear the same question coming from all of these people.
What do I do first? How can I bounce back from this?
So I wondered – is doing the thing in front of you the answer in these situations as well?
I think it is.
I’ll give you a personal example to explain.
Perhaps I knew about this principle a long time ago, but just didn’t recognize it then.
You see, I lost my partner to breast cancer in 2004. I had never lost anyone close to me and we were extremely close.
Even though I knew she would die of cancer, I was in no way prepared for the grief that followed.
It was excruciating.
I sometimes found myself on hands and knees on the floor, sobbing, wondering how I got there only to remember that a powerful gust of grief had just buckled my knees and caused me to collapse.
I didn’t know when the pain was going to stop and I couldn’t imagine getting through days like this let alone weeks and months.
And then, blessedly, the thought came to me, “Just get through the next hour.” Then, quickly, “No, just get through the next five minutes.”
And I did get through those five minutes. And the five minutes after that. And the next five, too.
Did it take my grief away? No.
Did it make me feel better? No.
But I made it.
In my next post, I’m going to talk more about that time, but for now the important lesson is that I just did what was in front of me. I took the next five minutes and got through them.
So when I look at the crises facing Laurie and Lynda and Cathie and Leslie, I see that, while this isn’t going to make the sky open up and a chorus of angels sing, just doing what is in front of you will get them through their circumstances as well.
How to do what is in front of you
This idea is actually a very active version of mindfulness.
It requires you to notice what is in front of you, have no judgment about it, and just do it in the present moment without thinking about the past or future.
Maybe we can break it down a bit further.
1. Look at what is in front of you.
Maybe it is a tangle of material things like the notes on my desk.
Or maybe you’re looking at a series of life changes that caught you off-guard and completely surprised.
2. Pick the thing closest to you.
If it’s a to-do list, choose the first item.
If you’re staring at a closet that needs to be re-organized, grab the thing nearest to you.
If you’re trying to decide whether to leave your husband or stay with him, choose that to work on.
3. Do something with it.
Complete the task on the to-do list, even if it’s more efficient to do three other things first. I don’t care. Do the thing in front of you.
When you grab the thing out of the disorganized closet, do something with it. Don’t just set it down, make a decision: keep, throw away, or donate.
When you choose to make a decision about your relationship, do something about it. Go see a therapist. Talk to your spouse. Write in your journal to organize your thoughts.
4. Rinse. Repeat.
As you accomplish tasks or start making your way through a life crisis, keep this process going.
You’ll still get overwhelmed sometimes.
You’ll find yourself on your hands and knees now and again.
Just take a breath and do the thing in front of you.
What’s in front of you right now? Let me know in the comments below.
With the Olympics in full swing, this is a good time to hear from some of the world’s best athletes on what it takes to bounce back in sports and in life.
1. Kerri Walsh Jennings, Women’s Volleyball
Adversity, if you allow it to, will fortify you and make you the best you can be. Read more…
I get depressed when I stay home by myself too much.
For a long time I thought there was something wrong with me. I wasn’t making the connection between being at home and depression. After all, who doesn’t want to work from home and have all of that time to yourself?
Then I took a course to become a certified practitioner for the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator® (MBTI) and I finally got it.
Aha! That’s why I get depressed sometimes when I’m working at home.
I’m an extravert.
I get my energy from being around other people and activities. Although I enjoy working from home most of the time, if I don’t have enough interaction with people, I get drained of energy and ambition and my mood swings toward the low end of the scale.
Why is it important to know if you’re an introvert or an extravert?
Here’s why you need to know whether you’re an introvert or an extravert: Read more…