At the top of Mount Bachelor the gnarled trees huddled together against the bitter cold. I had ridden this particular chairlift on many ski trips, but on this day I noticed how the trees hadn’t grown. Weather-beaten and braced against the brutal wind, pelting rain, and blistering sun, the trees were barely alive.
The short, twisted trees told a story of adaptation. Though few in number, they were determined to live; they were surviving—not thriving, but accommodating their environment.
The trees remind me of women I’ve seen in recent years who cling to life, maintaining a modicum of calm in the face of a relationship storm. The women strive mightily to continue their careers, parent their children, care for their homes, and stabilize their marriages in the face of significant relationship stress.
But these women aren’t thriving; they are barely surviving. They’re just coping. And coping also has a powerful, adverse impact, destroying their zest for life and eroding their physical stability. Something is lost in the process of coping—losing health, well-being, and quality of life in the face of ongoing stress.
What does it mean to cope?
We all face stressors. We find ways to cope, emotionally dealing with those stressors by eating, exercising, staying busy, shopping, or any number of other ways to ward off the anxiety of a stressful situation.
Coping is the process of using our conscious energies to deal with personal and interpersonal problems, mastering, minimizing, or tolerating stressors. We seek to minimize damage, turn off our emotions, and live as if nothing horrific is happening.
We applaud those who cope with hardship: The loss of a loved one, an overbearing boss, multiple moves due to job circumstances, and even divorce. When a person seems to make it past a challenging event, we affirm them for striving to get past a stressful situation as if nothing has happened.
But something has happened! Damage has been done and is probably still occurring. You may be living with a troubling situation, where stressors insidiously mount. You cope with one situation, then another, and another. Soon you are living in a new normal, carrying tension and anxiety in your body. Coping, for its advantages, also exacts a toll, crippling you, much like those trees clinging tenuously to life at the top of Mount Bachelor.
Are you coping or thriving? Are you feeling your feelings, really living your life? Or do you believe your relationship stress is something you can cope with, as your body (and brain) record something entirely different. Even though you believe you can simply move forward with your life, your brain and body record your pain.
Cynthia was the perfect example of adaptation and coping. Separated from her husband, she now faced the end of her second marriage. She had remained in her troubled marriage for several hard years for many reasons.
“Look at my life,” she said. “I’m going to be single again with two kids. I’ve tried to adapt to everything life has thrown at me, but I don’t think I’m doing very well. I’m going to be living in a dumpy apartment now, driving a crummy car, and scraping to make ends meet. What does my future hold?”
I tried to think of something positive to say to her, though silently agreed with her. Her life ahead appeared challenging by anyone’s standards. She was going to have a difficult time moving forward.
“I’ve got you stumped too, don’t I,” she said smiling. “My doctor doesn’t know where all my physical pain is coming from and referred me to you.”
“What is happening physically?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” she said, “and neither does he. He’s giving me tests but can’t explain why I’m so tired and weak. I ache all over. My whole body hurts. They don’t know what’s going on.”
“I suspect you do find ways to deal with adversity, Cynthia,” I said. “There must be some lessons you’ve learned from your experiences.”
“I think my divorces, money problems, and relationship issues have caused incredible stress on my body. The doctors say that’s why I’m in pain. What if I can’t do this alone? What if my body completely breaks down?”
The Danger of Refusing to Grieve
Cynthia’s coping style was quite obvious: Suppress pain, be tough, and face head-on any challenges that come at you. This approach has worked to keep her alive, but not to really live. Though she had a life marked by disappointment, losses, and trauma, she didn’t see herself as a victim. She denied and dissociated her pain and viewed herself as someone who coped well. That wasn’t true.
Clinging to old patterns of coping, to our various attempts to not feel the full weight of our pain, separates us from our true self—the place we hold our true feelings and dreams for our life. We’re all creatures of habit, and our brains like consistency, no matter how damaging this ultimately is to our emotional and physical well-being.
Becoming real means letting go of our false self and leaning into our real self. It always involves some degree of fear as we stretch into someone we may not fully know. It almost always involves feeling feelings we have suppressed, thinking thoughts we’ve pushed away, and considering possibilities. It can be an exciting and scary journey.
To recover her lost parts she had to go through a rather arduous process, as you must also do, involving the following steps:
- Reflect on your life. Not everyone wants to take the time and energy to reflect on their life. Most have busy lives and can find a thousand reasons for not spending time quietly journaling and pondering who they are, where they have been, and where they want to go. You must spend considerable time reflecting if you are to gain any kind of perspective on your life.
- As you reflect, consider how you were earlier in life and compare that to how you are now. This step involves reaching back and looking at the person you used to be. What were you like years ago?
- Grieve what you have lost. Yes, you must create space to consider and grieve what has been lost. You cannot make up lost time. You cannot regain youth. You can, however, grieve what you’ve lost so you clear space for moving forward.
- Allow yourself to dream about who you would like to be in the future. After taking a glimpse of who you were and what you’ve lost, reflect on who you want to be. What might your best love life look like? What kind of work do you want to do? Where do you want to live, and how do you want to spend your time? Consider someone’s life you admire and note what makes that life different from yours.
- Embark on a journey to “live into” this new person. Now, put some feet to your dreams. Lay out the path you want to take and begin this new adventure. In this way, you can recover what you have lost.
Everyone has lost parts. Everyone has regrets and wishes they could do some things over again. Those who thrive accept these regrets and live into the future. They recognize what has been lost, grieve it, and use these emotions to motivate them into positive change.
Adapted from In Sickness and In Health. Copyright © 2019 David Hawkins, PhD, published by Harvest House publishers, used with permission, all rights reserved.