On a sunny spring day recently, I was lost in sea of dark thoughts and feeling stuck emotionally and thought that a nice walk around my neighbourhood would help shift things. As soon as I got out my front door, I was met with the magnificent sight of cherry blossoms from all the gorgeous blooming trees. The petals were gently falling to the ground, creating the effect of a sweet smelling pink snow all around me. Then came the flowers. Since it’s my first spring living in Victoria, I cannot possibly describe in words how magnificent the flowers here are. Suffice it to say, it’s like living in a children’s wonderland full of bright, happy colours sprinkled all over the place smiling at everyone who passes by. I was struck by the fact that perennial flowers continue to grow, spring after spring, year after year, regardless of how tough the winter which proceeded them happened to be. And then…
I saw the image captured in the photo above reminding all of us- flowers, trees, animals and humans- to GROW. I knew in that moment that I had the fodder for an article to share with you, my lovely readers. This bright and uplifting flower box so graciously shared with passers-by reminded me to remind you of this one important thing:
REGARDLESS OF WHAT HAPPENS AROUND US, TO THOSE WE CARE ABOUT, AND TO OURSELVES, WE ALWAYS HAVE THE OPPORTUNITY TO KEEP GROWING AND MOVING FORWARD.
In my therapy practice, I’m blessed and honoured to witness many women’s stories; many of them filled with extreme pain and suffering. Many come to therapy because they want to grow from their suffering and view their challenging circumstances as a very difficult, yet important, growth opportunity. The best way of describing this process I’ve ever found is in Elizabeth Lesser’s book, Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow. I wrote an in-depth article about this fabulous book a few years ago.
Resisting the Urge To Bolt
One of my favourite quotes of all time is from the brilliant Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron who tells us:
Never underestimate the urge to bolt.
I have read this sentiment in a number of her books, my personal favourite being, The Places That Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness In Difficult Times. One of the greatest messages of this book is to not shut down when the going gets tough- to make a conscious and courageous choice when you feel like bolting (i.e., running away) from the pain/challenge/difficulty before you to STAY. This particular piece of wisdom also applies to working through anxiety and is the foundation of specific therapeutic modalities designed to help people rid themselves of various fears and phobias. It also happens to be the most difficult choice you can make. However, like most difficult tasks, it can also be one of the most rewarding and life changing.
I will illustrate what this looks like by giving you an example…
One of my clients (let’s call her Liz), in her early thirties, really wanted a solid, long-term relationship, which included having children. She had been in multiple relationships over the years, never making it past the two-year mark. She told me that in the past three relationships, they all lasted just roughly under two years and that in each case, the man she was dating wanted to marry her. She sat in the seat across from me in tears as she told me that each of these men was decent, kind, and loving and would have made a great husband and father. In retrospect, she was certain that she would have had a really good life with any of the three. The problem was that in every relationship, when things started to get really serious and the man worked up the guts to ask her to marry him, she completely panicked and ended the relationship immediately. She felt awful for breaking three different men’s hearts, while also ending up completely confused by her reaction in each case. When the crying subsided a bit, she looked me in the eye and asked:
Esther, why do I push what I really want away every time it comes to me? I really do want to be married and have children with a good man. I’ve had three separate chances at having that and I’ve blown each one. I’m not a stupid person so why would I do something that is the complete opposite of what I really want?
I responded with:
The choices you made in each of these situations has nothing to do with how intelligent you are. When you go into fight or flight mode (i.e., the urge to bolt), it’s your primitive brain at work. Your nervous system senses some impending danger and reacts in that moment in an attempt to keep you safe. For some reason, when a man asks you to marry him and have a family together, your primitive brain registers this as dangerous…
This discussion led us to investigating the theme of marriage and family life in her family-of-origin and the leftover ‘unfinished emotional business’ she was carrying around as a result. When viewed at from this particular lens, her urge to bolt from the whole prospect made a lot of sense. In short, her father was a violent alcoholic who abused her mother and was an absent parent, leaving her mother on her own to raise four children. Her mother ended up in a deep depression when the kids were young and was in and out of the psych ward for years after. Liz was the eldest and became the ‘mini mom’ when their mother was unavailable due to her mental health issues and ended up missing out on a lot of a carefree childhood as a result.
The warrior-level work Liz then embarked upon focused on facing her childhood squarely, without blinders on and sitting with the emotions it brought up. This proved incredibly challenging for her because she considered herself a happy-go-lucky person who had ‘nothing to complain about’ when she saw people around her who had been through ‘much worse things’. As it is with most of us, we’re very good at showing compassion towards others who are suffering, but have a very difficult time doing the same for ourselves. I gently but firmly guided Liz to practice sitting with her inner little girl who was feeling really sad and scared and felt she had nowhere to turn with the pain she was experiencing.
She showed immense courage and even though it was extremely difficult, she sat in my office, week after week and practiced staying with that little girl even when she desperately wanted to run away. After a while, she got in touch with her pain and I gave her some tools to comfort herself when it came up and to remind herself that she was an adult now and that she was safe and had lots of places and people to turn to in times of great anguish.
She wrote a series of letters to her father (all unsent- read here for how to do this), expressing her anger towards how he treated her mother and her frustration at his addiction to alcohol. She wrote about what he had taught her about men and marriage and raising children and how this had become an impediment to her getting married and raising a family. She told him that she had learned to ‘keep herself safe’ from getting into the same situation as her mother by pushing any man away who wanted to marry her. She wrote it all out, felt many different feelings, all with courageous honesty. Then she let things sit for a while.
A couple of years later, she sent me an email to let me know that she had learned to stay and not bolt with good men and that she had recently got married to a fantastic guy and was pregnant with her first child. She was still fearful, but at the same time, optimistic about the possibility of having the partner and family she had always wanted.