Today’s blog post talks about one of my personal life philosophies: that it’s OK to struggle when times are tough. Rather than giving ourselves permission to acknowledge that our feelings might be a completely rational response to a difficult situation, too often we seem to compound their struggles by feeling bad about feeling bad.
A few years ago I was struggling to deal with some potentially life-changing news affecting somebody very dear to me (and, by association, me). I spent months trying to come to terms with the situation before accepting that I was feeling worse and worse, and needed help. Fortunately for me, help was available via my employee health coverage, so I arranged for a short course of sessions with a local counsellor.
At my first appointment I poured my heart out, telling the counsellor what was going on and how I was feeling about it. And rather than trying to reassure me that everything would be OK (which was what most well-intentioned friends and family members did), he simply agreed that it was an awful situation. And then he told me that I should be feeling scared, stressed, unsettled, and overwhelmed, because I was dealing with a scary, stressful, overwhelming, unsettling problem. In other words: it was totally normal to find this particular moment in my life difficult. This was such a straightforward message, and I’m sure some people might not have found it comforting to hear expressed so bluntly, but it was the perfect feedback for me. It gave me permission to stop adding ‘guilt at finding life such a struggle’ to the emotional burden I was carrying around. I can’t pretend that I felt better overnight, but getting this explicit permission to accept and acknowledge the reality of my situation certainly helped me to move on. I still had hard days, but they were never quite as hard after that.
I had a reminder of this life philosophy when my twins were newborns. Life with two babies was astonishingly hard, particularly during the ‘witching hour’ that, in our house, lasted from 5pm until 10pm virtually every night of the twins’ first twelve weeks. At our standard six-week paediatrician’s appointment I tearfully explained hat one of the babies had to have colic or reflux and probably needed medication, because the behaviour we were dealing with was so awful and unsettled. The paediatrician, a big bearded South African chap, very kindly explained to me that what I was describing was completely normal: this was just what newborns are like. His advice? Give up. Stop trying to keep to a routine – instead, make dinner, put the babies in a wrap to have a protracted evening snooze, eat, watch TV, and leave the whole bedtime attempt until later in the evening, when they might be ready.
I’d started life as a twin mother feeling that I might be able to handle it, largely because everybody reassured me that following a routine was key to success. I loved routines in my professional life, so I was sure I could transfer that approach to parenthood. The shock of discovering that babies aren’t robots and can’t just be programmed according to what you’ve read in a parenting manual was a terrible shock to my system, and the stress of trying to keep to a routine hugely contributed to my struggles. Being given permission – by a medical professional – to do less was a revelation. Again, it didn’t result in a miraculous change in my circumstances, but it did help me to find some equilibrium (and ensured that we actually ate dinner occasionally).
As I’ve mentioned before, I sought help earlier this year to deal better with the challenges of juggling university and family life. In that case, I was able to devise strategies that could actually improve my situation (which isn’t always the case with other problems, including the ones I’ve already described), but the benefit of the help was not just the proactive nature of the discussions: it was also the recognition that my situation was hard.
Sometimes, life is tough. Our babies won’t sleep. Our children are challenging. Our jobs or university lives run us ragged. We grapple with health problems, either affecting ourselves or those close to us. We have awful flatmates. We have relationship dramas. I’ve learned the hard way that the worst thing we can do is to fight against the perfectly understandable feelings that occur as a reaction to tough times. When you’re having a hard time the last thing you should be doing in putting on a brave face, or privately beating yourself up for struggling. Be kind to yourself. Do what makes you happy. Talk to a professional, if that’s what works for you (it definitely works for me). Vent to friends and family members, and assure them that they don’t need to solve your problems – they just need to listen. Remember that it’s OK – it’s normal – to find life difficult, so just go with it. This too will pass.