When we’re going through challenging transition periods in our lives, or when we feel seriously overwhelmed, we can get triggered. Our “stuff” can come up big time — and by “stuff” here I mean our “core issues.”
For example, if one of our core issues is feeling like we need to do it all on our own because we’re not allowed to ask for help, we may coast along seemingly doing it on “all our own” during times when we’re not particularly challenged.
But one or two important elements of our life shift, we recognize we’re feeling in over our heads, and suddenly, bam! The core issue is pressing on us: “I need to do it all on my own, but I’m in new territory here and it feels like I can’t do it on my own, but I have to because I’m not allowed to ask for help/ if I were a strong person I wouldn’t need help/ maybe the kind of help I need isn’t out there.” (I use this as an example because it’s, in my experience, a pretty common core issue for my perfectionist-leaning clients — and for myself as well!)
Another core issue could just as easily be “I can’t do it on my own — I need someone to do it for me or I won’t survive.” You can see that, while this could indeed be very true for a child, for an adult it might not be true in many circumstances (depending on what the thing is and any number of other factors).
If we, as adults, don’t take a look at the core issue that is popping up for us during challenging times, we can stay in a sort of “spin cycle” for a really long time because we don’t see a way out of it.
Usually, working with a core issue involves gaining more and more perspective around it over the course of our lives, so that what once may have felt debilitating or terribly shaming to us becomes something we understand, something we can work with, something we can hold.
So, when we’re really challenged by circumstances inner or outer or both, we need to find ways to calm and soothe our nervous systems so we can relax and detach enough to see the core issue and work with it rather than running away from it, ignoring it or pushing it down.
One of the ways I’ve noticed seems to be particularly helpful here is to call on our strengths by asking them to come forth with this question: What do I know about myself that will help me here?
What’s useful about the framing of this question is that it presupposes that we do know things about ourselves that we value, are unique to us, and that have helped us in the past. This circumvents our tendency during stressful times to go to a place of self-doubt or a place of noticing what’s NOT working and what we’re NOT good at (which is totally habitual for most of us when we’re feeling dazed by something we’ve never dealt with before and in over our heads.)
This works even if we don’t have a lot of life experience. When I was in elementary school, I absolutely hated participating in team sports, but I was forced to for daily gym class. At one point, I was struggling through some sport or other in the gymnasium, wearing my red gym uniform that always seemed way too big, and my teacher shouted out, “You’re holding your own, Jill.” (I’m pretty sure my fourth-grade teacher had gathered by this point that I hated gym, since I sometimes pretended to have a stomach ache to get out of it.)
Now, oddly, when my teacher told me I was holding my own, I believed her. It felt true — I was holding my own. I was actually somewhat nimble and good at catching balls here and there. I just didn’t enjoy any of it — I wanted to read Judy Blume books under a tree somewhere, not dodge the elbows of my aggressive classmates.
What got me through playing countless team sports in gym class for several years after that, though, was my belief in what my teacher had observed: I could hold my own. It sucked, I didn’t want to do it, but since I was a kid and I didn’t have the agency to get out of it, I could hold my own (though not so well in wretched games like bombardment!).
This was my “kid version” answer to the question “What do you know about yourself that will help you here?” “I am pretty good at holding my own.”
(And, Hallelujah, when I got to high school I had way more options for gym class and I took almost all dance classes, which I actually enjoyed.)
Now, notice that if I hadn’t believed my teacher’s observation that I was holding my own, it wouldn’t have been useful self-knowledge to draw upon. When we draw on what we know about ourselves, it won’t feel supportive if we don’t have a certain conviction about it.
A client I worked with several years ago had been through an incredibly stressful relationship break-up. I asked her what she knew about herself that could support her in this bereft-feeling place. She said (shared here with her permission), “I am really good at finding comfort in the most unexpected places.”
What a beautiful piece of self-knowledge! And notice how her essential self served that right up when I asked? We always have within us the seeds of what we need to navigate those extra-challenging spaces, even if they are only seeds and have some maturing to do. That’s often how the hard places end up serving us in the long-run — by maturing the seeds within us that are so ready for growth.
What do you notice about this for you? What do you know about yourself that will help you in a situation you’re currently facing? I’d love to hear from you!
And: In celebration of fall, my favorite season, my Autumn Transition Coaching Sessions are back! If you’re in an “in-between” space this fall and needing some support, you might want to learn more. You can do that here.
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Above photos, respectively, by Anh Tran, davide ragusa, and Jakob Owens on Unsplash