When life throws you one challenge after another and when you are suffering, you get to learn fast. I bet you’re learning every day and trying your very best to make it useful. Some things took me an awful lot of time to work out and I’m offering you some shortcuts here.
My daughter’s struggle with anorexia, age 10-12, then again at age 15-16, sent me on a roller-coaster of learning.
For parents of a child with an eating disorder, what I learned was an entire book’s worth (details here). Many of the things I learned are universal and helped me tremendously with other challenges.
Clearing a path through contradictory approaches
As I researched approaches to dealing with difficult feelings, I found contradictory instructions. There were encouragements to ‘feel the feeling’, though it wasn’t often clear whether this refers to the whole thought-entangled emotion or just the physical sensations. Some therapies are very clear that emotions must be expressed: cry, scream, thump some pillows – anything less is repression. With some Buddhist approaches I found the opposite – an injunction to detachment: notice the feeling and bring your attention back to, say, your breath. Some mindfulness approaches invite you to feel feelings in your body, at which stage some tell you to do nothing, while others suggest you visualise a healing breath, light or warmth going into the affected area. Then there’s cognitive-behavioural approaches that instruct you to change your feelings by changing your thoughts and behaviours.
Here is the process I’ve ended up with. Mindfulness and compassion are at the heart of it. You can do this as a meditation or you can do it on the fly, right in the middle of a difficult interaction.
- You start by recognising your thoughts and feelings as they happen.
- Give yourself kindness and understanding for what you are experiencing.
- To help you be less overwhelmed by the feeling, look upon it as a rising and falling wave in the ocean of your being. Suffering is part of the human experience, and it passes.
- As soon as you can, move on to where the thought or feeling manifests itself in your body: this is where you’ll get the greatest relief.
- Keep your attention on the physical sensations. Describe them to yourself (pounding, tight, tingling, heavy, cold etc). Allow them to do what they’re doing (they might intensify for a short while), and allow them to keep changing (e.g. tears might come). Stay present to your physical sensations and respond with kindness and care. You could place your hand on your body and send tenderness to the affected part. You could ask it, ‘What do you need from me? What do you really want for me?’
- What then tends to happen is that the intensity of the physical sensation diminishes, and so do thoughts and emotions. You get space to be who you truly are, in touch with life-enhancing needs or core values.
A helping hand
You might enjoy free or downloadable audio resources I have created to guide you through this process. More details here. Let me know how you get on!
How about happiness?!
And in case you’re feeling fantastic right now: the mindfulness skills you’re learning through suffering are perfect for making the wellbeing stick. Mindfulness is a great way of savouring the moment, of feeling genuinely happy several times a day even during unhappy times.
About the author
Eva Musby is the author of “Anorexia and other Eating Disorders : how to help your child eat well and be well” This offers practical solutions, compassionate communication tools and emotional support for parents of children and teenagers. There is also a website and videos to complement the book and give parents immediate support.