Getting a grip

A couple of months ago I was sitting in the movie theatre with my 15 year-old daughter, weeping my way through Still Alice, the movie she’d urged me to see with her.

Unlike my daughter, I hadn’t read the novel the movie is based on but I knew enough of the plot – a woman’s descent into early-onset Alzheimer’s – to come with tissues prepared.

I was right to be prepared, it’s a gut-wrenching tale. Much of the movie centres on Alice’s relationship with her family (and especially her youngest daughter), as they all try to come to terms with her aggressive illness.

I sat sniffling in the dark, completely caught up in the story unfolding on the screen. I wasn’t just watching Julianne Moore playing a character from a novel, I was imagining myself learning that Alzheimer’s would make me lose myself a little at a time (and remembering that time I put the mail in the freezer, wondering if that’s a sign!)

I didn’t just see the complex mother and daughter relationship depicted on the screen, I connected to my own relationship with my daughter, how much she means to me and how quickly the years pass…

Said daughter, having endured enough vicarious embarrassment, broke into my reverie by leaning over and whispering, “Get a hold of yourself!”

Perhaps not the most empathic intervention one could offer, but it did shake me out of my painful pondering.

Although I try to put it more gently, I realize it’s the same advice I often give to clients when they’re caught up in anxious ruminating: “Get a hold of yourself, stay present with what’s happening right here right now, notice the stories playing out in your mind, and also notice that they are just that – stories.”

That isn’t to say that sad and terrible things haven’t happened or won’t happen, it’s just to acknowledge that our memory of something tragic or our projection of something feared is different from our lived experience in this moment.

Our minds are endlessly creative and uniquely skilled at spinning tales that will entertain, enliven, or terrify us. Anxious minds usually opt for terrifying. To paraphrase a famous quote by Mark Twain, some of the worst things that ever happened to us never happened to us.

If we can get emotionally caught up in a tale developing in front of us in a darkened movie theatre when we know it is all make-believe, it’s no surprise that the tale is that much stickier when it’s playing in an endless loop in our own heads, and stars us and the things we care most about and are most afraid of losing.

We might choose to distract ourselves from the stories, or land on rituals or superstitions that give us the illusion of control (knock on wood).

We can also choose to practice mindfulness. To get a hold of ourselves – sometimes literally – bring awareness to what is happening right here right now, to notice the movie playing and also notice that in this moment we are in the theatre seat, not in the scene on the screen.

Letting it go

The first time I heard Frozen‘s Elsa belt out the now ubiquitous “Let it Go” song, I thought it had a familiar ring. That’s because when I ask clients how they think therapy could be helpful to them, “I want to learn how to let it go” is a common response.

The ‘it’ can be a distinct trauma we’ve survived, or the soul-crushing never-ending hum of anxiety. It can be loathing or criticism we heap upon ourselves, a hurt someone else has inflicted, or some other painful emotional pressure. Whatever it is, we all want to learn how to let it go.

By the time difficulty with letting it go has announced itself as a problem, we’ve tried many different ways to get it gone. We’ve drunk (or drugged, or fed, or TV-viewed, or worked, or exercised, or sexed, or slept) ourselves into oblivion, we’ve taken Elsa’s approach and tried to ignore and conceal what we’re struggling with, we’ve started new relationships to get over the hurt of old ones. And yet ‘it’ stubbornly remains, outwaiting and outlasting our efforts to make it go away.

The paradox of letting it go is that we first have to let it come. We have to let ourselves identify and experience what we’re feeling, and accept it. Tory Brach, author of “Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life With the Heart of a Buddha” defines radical acceptance as having two elements, “an honest acknowledgment of what is going on inside you, and a courageous willingness to be with life in the present moment, just as it is.” Radically accepting something doesn’t mean condoning it, liking it, or resigning yourself to having it always be so, it simply means becoming more willing to experience all that is present for you in this moment without judging it, resisting it, or pulling away from it. It means noticing your desire to judge, resist, and pull away, and radically accepting that as well.

Carl Jung said that “What you resist, persists” while Buddhist Shinzen Young chose to articulate the issue using a mathematical formula: Suffering = Pain + Resistance. We cannot influence our experience of pain – what has happened has already happened – but by learning how to bring more acceptance to the experience we can save ourselves some suffering.