It’s one of life’s many conundrums: what do you do when things get tough? And by tough I mean really tough, as in ‘completely out of your depth, prolonged suffering and fear for your sanity’ tough.
So what do you do, and why? If you pull back, is it because fear makes you avoid a healthy confrontation or because you are wisely giving yourself space to grow?
Or if you push forward, are you bravely taking on a heroic challenge that will transform you or are you just smashing your head against the proverbial wall until you crack?
When we hit that wall, our most basic survival patterns are likely to emerge. These patterns have the potential to turn a bad situation into a worse one and cause severe damage. I know, because in every decade of my life I have hit my head against at least one major wall. Repeatedly.
My university years, for example, were turbulent. I was depressed and spent more time writing bad poetry and experimenting with psychedelic drugs than actually studying.
Initially I ‘studied’ political sciences and philosophy. When I failed my year, I switched to Japanese. When I failed that, I filled a gap year with mind-numbing telemarketing. I then returned to university, only to quit studying law after three months.
For years, I pushed myself to study and berated myself for not succeeding. I forced myself to keep on trying. To try harder. To try a different course. Hoping every time things would get better and ignoring the pain and dwindling self-confidence.
Slowly it dawned on me that unless I changed tack, I was going to break up instead of break through. Without a plan B and knowing my entire university-educated family would castigate me, I finally quit university.
This gave me just the space I needed. I ended up getting a job as a newspaper reporter in Kuwait, which kickstarted a successful career as a business writer. Those three years in the desert allowed me to blossom and find my inner strength.
Pain is for pussies
In my 30s I had a similar experience, but this one nearly killed me.
I was in New York for my MBTI certification and on the first day of the course I noticed a minor stomach ache. I ignored the pain, pushed myself to do what I had come to do and even went to the city’s main Aikido dojo to practice a few times. Pain is for pussies, right?
By the end of the third day, the pain had become excruciating. But instead of relenting, I dragged myself through the streets at night looking for toys for my children back home. I was angry at my body for failing me and used that visceral power to push through the pain.
On the morning of the fourth and last day of the course I was no longer able to function and finally consulted a doctor. After spending the better part of a single minute to diagnose acute appendicitis, I got emergency surgery at a nearby hospital.
Unfortunately, my appendix had already began to burst and by the time I flew home a few days later, I had begun to develop an abscess in my abdomen. Eventually I needed a second, more evasive operation.
My surgeon later told me I was lucky to be alive, because I had begun to develop peritonitis, an inflammation of the inner abdomen that can be fatal. It took me months to recover fully.
Both times I hit the wall the same thing happened. Initially, I gave it my all to break through because a challenge makes me dig in my heels and double down my efforts. And in both cases my efforts were futile because I had reached my limit, whether emotional and cognitive (university) or physical (New York).
Deep down, my body-mind must have known the point of surrender had been reached. It knows what I need and knows when there is no point doing the same thing over and over again, expecting different results (supposedly Einstein’s definition of insanity).
The problem was that in both cases I didn’t listen. Instead, I denied my vulnerability and pain, ignored my fears, and turned my feelings of helplessness into anger. I forced myself to continue trying to break through the wall until I damaged myself emotionally and physically. All of this is part of my survival strategy.
And patterns get repeated
At this point in the story, I would like to tell you that I have attained a modicum of wisdom and found a better way to deal with my walls. Specifically, stop when it is time to stop in order to rest, grow and wait for a more auspicious time. Unfortunately, I have just repeated the same pattern.
Some background. I have spent the past two-and-a-half years in a very challenging therapy training programme. And while I love to learn and feel deeply attracted to this particular approach, I hit upon a massive wall: my inability to be in and connect to a group.
I will spare you the details, but I find being in large groups extremely stressful and for two-and-a-half years I pushed myself to confront that difficulty. I kept going to class and kept exposing myself to the very thing I feared in order to get to the other side. To no avail.
Instead, the joy got sucked out of me and my stress levels went up, to the point I was so frayed that I was unable to learn anything at all. A few weeks ago I was finally able to admit to myself that I was not healing but hurting myself and that I needed to back the hell off.
So I have decided to quit and give up, at least for now, my dream of incorporating this wonderful therapeutic approach in my practice. I feel angry, sad and frustrated, at not having been able to get to the other side, at having had to abandon something I wanted so much.
But I also feel relieved that I can finally rest, that I no longer have to try so hard any more. Instead, I can work with my own therapist on both issues, being me in groups and me becoming relentless to myself in the face of hardship.
Without the pressure of needing to follow a programme, I can do all of this at my own pace. And trust that my decision to stop will create space for something new and better, as it has done every time in the past.
What do you do?
Which brings me back to you: what do you do when things get really tough? Do you move towards or away from your wall? Do you fight it, ignore it, run away from it, dramatise it, or just fantasise about all the things you can do to it without actually doing anything?
And which beliefs are at play, about yourself, about the wall, about what is possible, expected, needed or allowed? And what do you feel, about yourself, about that wall, and can you allow yourself to honour those feelings?
I am not going to tell you how to deal with your wall. But what I can suggest is that it may be helpful to identify your patterns and delve into their emotional and cognitive what and how. And do some inner work around it, which engages your mind, body and heart.
It’s a trite thing to say, but the actual wall is inside rather than outside. Duh. But if you’re as stubborn like me, maybe you will need to bump into yours a few more times before you can learn what it is you need to learn.
Ilja van Roon
P.S. I may not have any answers, but I can offer you a powerful way to explore and potentially chip away at your wall. Check out the Life Foundation programme or contact me for other options.