09/22/2014 05:28 pm ET Updated Nov 21, 2014

Self-Care in Times of Suffering

There are times in life when things fall apart, when we lose something deeply important, something that makes us feel connected, grounded or safe. Sometimes a lot of things fall apart at the same time. There are times in life, for everyone, when it feels like all our safety nets get cut, and we are stripped of everything that we considered our foundation.

A friend of mine recently went through a divorce. The end of her marriage came, as most do, with great misunderstanding and pain. The worst part for her was that she felt like her best friend, her ex-husband, had turned into someone who hated her, which created great sorrow and a feeling of helplessness. She was now a 50-something single woman with the sense that nothing in life could be counted on. If this rupture in her relationship could happen when her intentions had been so good, with someone whom she had loved so deeply, and been so honest, the world was surely an unsafe place. There was no ground to be found, nothing to root her to a sense of safety. She felt entirely untethered, terrified, as if she were floating in a space capsule that had lost touch with its earthly command center. As she saw it, the world was bleak and empty and she had no idea how to move forward.

What my friend did next is what so many of us do when we are in a situation of profound suffering, when we don't know what to do. She switched into action mode and started making plans to meet the next man, to get back involved in life. She joined "meet up" groups, registered with dating sites, starting calling everyone she knew to find out whom they knew that she might like. She purchased subscriptions to magazines that listed social activities in her city, signed up for new classes, and got "out there" in every way possible. No "next" stone was left unturned.

How my friend reacted to her sadness and fear is very normal, very human. When we dive into fierce action as a response to great suffering, we are really just tying to make the bad feelings go away, and thus to take care of ourselves. We want to feel better and so we set out to figure out how to make that happen. We feel powerless and so we empower ourselves with action steps. In fact, there is nothing wrong with and a lot right with doing things to make ourselves feel better when we are suffering. And yet, this action approach misses one crucial ingredient, namely, allowing how we actually feel to be included in the experience. What is left out of the process is feeling the feelings that we are actually feeling as we feverishly set out change them.

When we experience great loss and emotional trauma, we usually don't know what to do, or how we are going to make the problem better -- what the path to better will look like and how it will come about. In addition to allowing ourselves to feel the sadness, fear, helplessness and whatever other emotions loss brings, it is also profoundly important to allow ourselves to not have an answer, and not know how we are going to make the situation change. We can remind ourselves that the situation and the feelings will change, as everything always does, but that right now, in this moment, we can give ourselves permission to not know what to do.
For us type As, and even type B and Cs, allowing the feeling of not knowing how to help ourselves can be very hard and scary. And yet, permission to not know is a profound gift to ourselves and an act of deep self-caring. Sometimes, this act alone can lessen the suffering, remedy the pain, without doing anything else whatsoever.

Suffering, as awful as it feels to walk through, is our teacher. But it can only teach us if we allow it to be felt. Sadness, fear, not knowing, all the difficult emotions, when experienced, change who we are, which ironically is what we are trying to accomplish when we frantically take action to fix our painful feelings. When we allow our actual feelings to be here, as they are, we offer ourselves a warm embrace and the kindness of our own compassionate presence. We agree to be with ourselves in what we are truly living.

While it is contrary to how we are conditioned in this culture to respond to pain, the simple act of letting ourselves feel how we feel is the act that is indeed most helpful in both healing and generating change. Allowing ourselves to be sad alleviates sadness. Allowing ourselves to be afraid calms our fear. Allowing ourselves to not know how to fix our pain soothes the anxiety of having to fix it. Allowing ourselves to be who we are, as we are, allows us to feel deeply self-loved, welcome in our own life, and not alone. When we allow ourselves to feel how we feel, we find the company of our own presence, which always eases our suffering.

Copyright Nancy Colier 2014