Facing Pain, Gaining Strength
If you have ever lost a loved one, suffered through a serious accident or illness, had a miscarriage, a divorce, financial troubles, an addiction, a painful relationship, stress in your job, or just lost your way . . . the list is endless . . . you know it can seem like life will never be good again. How do you get through such debilitating losses? If you’re going through something hard right now, I am so sorry and I want you to know I am writing this for you. I hope that my story and ideas will be of some comfort and benefit to you.
I had a boss early in my career who regularly said, “Life is hard and then you die.” That sounded so depressing. She said it with the laugh of someone who knew something about the negative realities of life. She also had a sign in her office, “Angels fly because they take themselves lightly.” Joanie, thank you. You taught me much. She modeled resiliency. In truth, life is really hard at times, and I don’t know anyone who hasn’t gone through a rough patch at some point. I am sure you’ve heard the phrase, “You can get bitter or better.” So true. It’s a choice.
Here are some steps you can take through the journey of adversity that can help you heal, help you grow from it, and hopefully gain wisdom so you have more to give to others as they face their own pain.
1. Face the raw, ugly, and awful feelings.
Yes, feel it. Cry, yell, pound your fist and protest. That’s the appropriate response to something really bad happening and it’s also a healthy emotional expression. People who don’t have much access to their emotions often wind up turning inward, withdrawing from life, which can lead to a state of depression. Thoreau said, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” So if you have trouble with emotional expression, maybe God is showing you a pathway to get some help with that!
2. Connect often with the healthy, safe, emotionally available people.
You will probably need daily time with one of those people who aren’t afraid of pain and who won’t minimize what you’re going through or tell you to toughen up. Rather, they’ll give you a listening ear and an open heart with empathy, understanding, and patience. You also may need a reality check when you are thinking, “It’s all my fault,” “I’ll never be happy again,” “God is punishing me,” “I must be unlovable, defective. . .” Those dark, self-blaming, judging obsessions that can take you down. John Townsend said, “People are God’s Plan A.” We are designed for relationship. We need the nutrients found in authentic human connection to grow, survive, and thrive. Not everyone has the capacity to feel and walk alongside you, so if you don’t have enough of that kind of friend, then go to step 3.
3. Find specific support for what you are experiencing.
There are groups that help people address grief, codependency, addictions, and financial struggles. Not all support groups are great, so shop around. A part of your support might also include an excellent counselor and/or coach. I often hear people say they tried that and couldn’t find an effective one. Or they went to two sessions and it didn’t help. Stay with it. Get another referral if needed.
When I went through divorce, I had a counselor, a great church, an adult singles small group, a divorce care group, plus some intensive experiences like The Road Adventure and The Ultimate Leadership Program (see more below)—maybe I’m overly needy, but I can tell you it was painful and I hated being alone with all the anxious feelings I was having. And after three years I was truly stronger and happier. And bonus—I processed lots of my own issues of which I was not aware. It made me a stronger coach, and I’m now in a healthy and satisfying marriage. Actually, all of my relationships are better because of that journey.
4. Research everything you can find on what you’re going through.
Whether it’s how to get through the loss of a love, how to recover from chemo, how to find safe people to date, how to understand your own patterns that prevent wholeness, how to find another job or rework your career, read everything you can get your hands on. Listen to inspiring podcasts. Information is power! It will also help to hear stories of what other people have gone through to help you see the light at the end of the tunnel!
5. Make time each morning to journal and pray.
It gives perspective, it builds hope, and the connection time with God is transformational. “There is joy in the morning.” I found that to be so true when I had horrible dreams and a sleepless night. I got up and sat in my prayer chair, poured out my sorrows, and read scripture. Sometimes my hand would be moving as I wrote and I was sensing this was Almighty God talking directly to me. He cares, and He is real.
Get a blank journal and a good devotional such as Jesus Calling, The Daily Bread, and Streams in the Desert. Don’t have time? Get up earlier. Time of self-reflection and time with God is a critical component to growth and healing. Psychologists and neuroscientists now agree that journaling, meditation, and white space time each day leads to self-awareness. “Self-awareness is curative,” as the late Dr. Paul Warren often said. Daniel Siegel, the renowned interpersonal neurobiologist, writes in Mindsight that daily meditation actually changes the brain, creating new neural pathways for integration. (Siegel once spoke about this to Google executives.)
6. Get back in the saddle.
While all the emotional connection and reflection is happening, it’s also important to gradually get back in action. There is much research on the power of fully engaging once more in your life, even while you are still raw from a painful experience. The study of September 11 survivors and those who lost family members showed that those who got back to work while also continuing to process their grief had a healthier mental state and fewer incidents of long-term depression. Sheryl Sandberg, in her book Option B, was encouraged to start dating again only eight months after her husband died. She thought that was a horrible suggestion, but she listened because it was from her deceased husband’s own brother! She did follow his advice and although she still had deep grief, and continued seeking an abundance of support, it helped to take those steps as an internal sign that it was possible to move forward with her life.
Pain is inevitable.
Barbara Johnson said, “Pain is inevitable but misery is optional.” So, realize you are not alone, and it’s normal to have difficulties in your life at times. It will be messy and you won’t do it perfectly. Give yourself a break about that. If you take the initiative and get enough of the right kind of support, you will get through this. In fact, it’s biblical that pain is part of life, and it builds your ability to persevere. Perseverance leads to hope. Hope is fulfilled in your relationship with God and in servanthood to others as you model Christ in the world.
I wish you well through this season, and that you will come out the other side with more trust in God to care for you, more compassion for yourself and others, and a sense of accomplishment for building the strength to overcome such a tough chapter!
My best to you,
Some of my favorite books on building strength and resilience:
Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience and Finding Joy by Sheryl Sandberg, author of Lean In and COO of Facebook
Streams in the Desert, L. B. Cowman, updated by James Reimann
How People Grow, Townsend and Cloud
See www.townsendnow.com for lots of short but profound videos on many life topics.
Some of my favorite growth programs:
The Townsend Leadership Program. John designed TLP to give leaders, who are often isolated, the opportunity to grow in a confidential and emotionally safe environment. As a TLP leader, I have seen the results of this approach. (I start my Dallas TLP each January and limit it to 10 leaders, so email me if you’re interested. it fills up fast!)
12 Step Programs
If you have been through a hard life experience and would like to share what helped you or some resources that worked, I welcome your thoughts!