How to Go Through Hell: A Primer

Dante and Virgil visiting Hell. William Blake
Dante and Virgil visiting Hell. William Blake

As some of you know who have been reading this blog, I have been working for the past couple years on becoming more emotionally resilient. For my entire adult life until two years ago, I was married to a man who made it his business to solve any problem I had, big or small. When we separated and I also lost the support of my faith community and many friends, living in a foreign country far from my family, I realized that my emotional resilience level was about zero. There were some men hanging around and I saw that I had the option of choosing one who would take care of my problems for me again. But that didn’t seem like the best option for a smart, strong, independent New England girl. I said to myself, I’ve got this. I can use this time that I’m single to develop the skills I need to take care of my own emotional needs.

It’s been a rocky ride. And I’m not referring to the trials that have come my way. Everyone has problems, challenges, etc. I’m talking about how I handled them. Sometimes I’ve failed quite spectacularly. Sometimes I’ve been needy, selfish, inept, and awkward. However, this time I succeeded. I have to say, I didn’t know I had it in me. I’ve come a long way.

In the last three weeks, I’ve been to Hell and back. I finally told a friend most of the story last night and when I was done, her mouth was hanging open and her eyes enormous. I didn’t tell her all of it because there wasn’t time, and I won’t tell anyone all of it. It’s the kind of thing that could happen to anyone and it doesn’t matter what it was. I’m fine. Hell no, I’m much better than fine. (More about that later.)

A couple of the things that came up in these weeks were things that I’ve never had to deal with in my life, or even think about. I felt overwhelmed, confused, scared, and very alone. I started confiding in a friend but that ended up backfiring and making me feel worse. I felt too vulnerable, so everything she said only made me feel worse. For a while I kept it all to myself. I know that my friends and family are there in part to help me through difficult times, but I wanted to hold off and see how much I could handle on my own without troubling or stressing other people. And I wanted to see how emotionally resilient I could be.

I can’t believe I’m saying this now, but I’m glad all of this happened. In my efforts to establish order in this chaos and find confort, I’ve learned valuable coping techniques that work for me and that I can apply next time I have to go through something like this. (I know I said I was glad this happened, but please God let there not be a next time!) I also discovered a strength that I never knew I had, or at least never considered it a strength in these circumstances. I learned new things about myself as well as useful information about another individual that it was much better to know sooner than later.

Here is my little primer for going through Hell:

1. Let yourself feel your feelings. There were a lot of negative and intense feelings all at once, each competing to have its turn. Guilt, fear, confusion, pain, uncertainty, sadness, disappointment. It wasn’t always convenient or possible to give way to these emotions during the day when I was out and about in the world. It was good to have times where I had to go about my business cheerfully. That made me feel more cheerful, in fact. But it was just as good when I was alone in my bed at night to let myself cry for a little while. I found that when I did this I was less likely to wake up to panic attacks during the night. Further on in the post I talk about what I discovered when I let myself cry.

2. Take care of your body. Even though sometimes I didn’t feel like it, I got myself outside and exercising most days. I made sleep a priority. Even though I had no appetite, I continued eating healthy food. When you are going through Hell, you need all the physical strength you can muster. Be good to your body and it will be good to you.

3. Refuse to self-criticize. It would have been easy to blame myself for these trials and to obsess over what I’d done wrong. However, constant self-criticism is damaging to your self concept and even affects you physically. Attacks to yourself, even if you are the perpetrator, stimulate the body’s threat defense system causing it to release high levels of cortisol, which could eventually cause your body to shut down in a depressed state.

4. Have rational talks with yourself. As opposed to beating yourself up, this works wonders. Remind yourself that what is done is done, and as the past falls into the category of things you do not control, let it go. Ask yourself what you will do differently next time. Be grateful that you are learning and growing.

5. Find distraction in the beautiful and the edifying. I was going to go crazy or become depressed if I thought about my predicament all day. I found marvelous distraction in William Blake, my children, my friends, and an exciting, suspenseful novel. It was nice to escape now and then into someone else’s world. Distracting yourself from your problems doesn’t mean running away from them. It means preserving your good health, physically and mentally.

6. Pray. I am going to piss off all of my friends with this, atheists and avid Christians alike. I don’t know what form God takes, but I suppose I do believe in something because I believe in prayer. It always makes me feel better. It works.

I am glad that I paid so little attention to good advice; had I abided by it I might have been saved from some of my most valuable mistakes.  -Edna St. Vincent Millay

I can not say it better than my fellow Maine girl, poet and playwright Edna.

These sleepless and harrowing nights in my bed crying, I found out that I’m strong in a way I hadn’t noticed before. It happened every time that I would be lying there feeling like utter crap, and suddenly, I would start laughing. It wasn’t hysteria. It was that I could not help recalling something funny someone had said, or seeing something funny in my situation, and it made me laugh. This happened naturally without trying, and when I was giving myself some time to feel negative emotion. What if I had tried to suppress these emotions, forcing myself to “think positive?” What if I’d tried to medicate those feelings away with drugs, alcohol, or food? I never would have discovered that my sense of humor automatically steals in to save me when I need it.

My dad probably had a lot to do with this. Like me, he had the annoying habit of sometimes laughing uncontrollably in inappropriate situations. We would share with each other embarrassing examples of when in concerts, meetings, and other serious places we would find ourselves snorting, choking, and shaking, trying to hold it back. I was so glad that everyone laughed so much at Dad’s funeral. He wouldn’t have had it any other way.

Recently I was listening to a podcast of an actor or writer or someone, I wish I remembered who, who said that the best comedy has an undercurrent of sadness to it. He said that jokes that do not have that touch of sadness are superficial and harsh. I want to think more about that. Maybe that’s why some of the best comedy writers are Jewish.

Sorrow prepares you for joy. It violently sweeps everything out of your house, so that new joy can find space to enter. It shakes the yellow leaves from the bough of your heart, so that fresh, green leaves can grow in their place. It pulls up the rotten roots, so that new roots hidden beneath have room to grow. Whatever sorrow shakes from your heart, far better things will take their place. -Rumi

After going through this, I feel cleansed. I absolutely feel like the yellow leaves have been shaken free and the rotten roots pulled up. I don’t know where the new joy will come from, but I’m ready to receive it.

Oh! And here’s one more from Agatha Christie. I believe this to my very core.

racked-with-sorrow

self-criticism and rumination

 

I don't know why I picked this particular painting for this post. Any excuse to look at Chagall, I guess.
I don’t know why I picked this particular painting for this post. There is a cow, and cows ruminate, right? Any excuse to look at Chagall, I guess.

I used to analyze myself down to the last thread, used to compare myself with others, recalled all the smallest glances, smiles and words of those to whom I’d tried to be frank, interpreted everything in a bad light, laughed viciously at my attempts ‘to be like the rest’―and suddenly, in the midst of my laughing, I’d give way to sadness, fall into ludicrous despondency and once again start the whole process all over again―in short, I went round and round like a squirrel on a wheel.

-Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment

This mind set that Dostoyevsky describes so accurately is indeed torturous. It’s self torture. I’ve been there, as have most people. Over-analysis of your faults, comparing yourself to others, social anxiety, self doubt, and self criticism are all symptoms of a personal identity crisis and/or feelings of low self worth. An identity crisis can come along at any point in your life and at any age. It’s when you doubt who you are, what you stand for, and where you fit in. Any life event that shakes up your status quo can trigger an identity crisis. If you are experiencing an identity crisis it means that you are growing out of your previous identity and it’s time to redefine and recreate who you are. It’s time for an upgrade! No matter what brought on the identity crisis, it’s an excellent opportunity for personal growth.

However, though ultimately a good thing, an identity crisis may initially bring on the sort of negative thought patters that Dostoyevsky so keenly describes in the above quote. Before you can proceed with the deeply rewarding work of redefining yourself and finding just where it is you fit in, you need to get off that wheel! Here’s how.

1. Eliminate or severely limit self-help books and anything else that has you focusing on your weaknesses. Avoid like the plague those articles entitled the likes of, “56 Toxic Things About You that are RUINING Your Life FOREVER.” Maybe in casting about for some way, any way, of digging yourself out of this identity crisis pit, you landed upon the idea that if you can only fix yourself you will fit in, people will like you, and everything will be ok again. But no, that’s not going to work and here’s why: This is not a good time to take on massive self-improvement projects because right now you are feeling so vulnerable, all of your weaknesses are going to seem magnified way out of proportion to what they really are.

2. Stop self-criticism and start self compassion NOW. Constant self-criticism is damaging to your self concept and even affects you physically. Attacks to yourself, even if you are the perpetrator, stimulate the body’s threat defense system causing it to release high levels of cortisol, which could eventually cause your body to shut down in a depressed state. Practicing self compassion has the opposite effect, lowering cortisol and releasing oxytocin and opiates. Self-compassion is accepting and loving yourself as the imperfect person you are. It’s treating yourself just as you would treat a good friend. You might find these guided meditations and self-compassion exercises helpful.

3. Stop ruminating. Rumination is obsessive analyzing and thinking about negative past events or current situations that you can’t change. For example, if you have just ended a relationship, it’s constantly replaying the events that led up to the break up and obsessing about what you might have done differently to save the relationship. Or fixating on what a terrible person your ex is and planning how to get revenge. The best revenge is a life beautifully lived, but you’re not going to get there with these kinds of thoughts.

What I personally found most helpful in halting rumination was learning to let go of the things I don’t control. I realized how fruitless it was to worry and stress about the past, people’s opinions of me, my health, and any myriad of things that could go wrong. I created mantras that I repeated to myself throughout the day any time I felt tempted to think about those things. In less than two weeks I saw a remarkable difference in my thought patters and after a month, I found that I didn’t need to repeat my mantras as often anymore because I was starting to believe in a deep down way that I have absolutely no business worrying about what I do not control

Other effective ways to stop rumination are:

  • Scheduling a set time to worry every day, maybe 20-30 minutes. That way every time you get a negative, worrying thought you can think to yourself, “Ok, I’ll save that to think about during my worry time.” Then it doesn’t become a permanent mind set, and yet you aren’t trying to suppress negative thoughts or feelings, which can cause other problems.
  • Write about it. I found that writing provided a more constructive and positive way to deal with my issues than keeping it all in my head. Writing helped me make more sense of everything that was happening to me. In many cases, I found that once I wrote about a problem I was experiencing, I no longer felt the need to keep thinking about it. I was ready to move on.
  • Focus on the here and now. Let me ask you something. If you had the option to either go about in the world freely or lock yourself in dank, smelly basement, which would you choose? When you are ruminating, you are not living in the moment. You are living in the equivalent of a dank, smelly basement. Get out of there! Practice mindfulness by giving your full attention to the lovely, simple pleasures of daily existence.

4. Surround yourself with the right friends. Avoid people who are constantly critical. Even if they are not directing the criticism at you, they could be infecting you with their negativity and even provoking rumination and self-criticism. If in social situations you start to feel like the above Dostoyevsky quote is describing you, here is a sure-fire quick fix. Stop talking, stop trying to impress people, and start listening. It will require a lot of attention and it won’t be easy at first, but it’s worth it. Listen to people. Repeat back to them what you think they are trying to say to make sure you understand. Try to put yourself in their shoes. Understand. Forget about yourself for a while and listen. You may be surprised at the results. I know I was.