STRENGTH: HOW TO COPE WHEN LIFE GIVES YOU LEMONS
Strength. Courage. Resilience. What do these words mean to you? Do they resonate within you on some deep level? Do they make your inner warrior woman rise up? Or do you try to suppress this aspect of yourself? I bet these words stir something deep down inside that wakes up your inner lion. For we all have an inner lion - that almost defiant inner steel and grit that spurs us on to keep going when times are hard, to keep pushing forwards, to simply keep on keeping on, even when life’s blows keep hammering down on us. We all know that feeling, when one thing after another hits us like thunderbolts, when we feel physically, emotionally and mentally spent. But we just keep on. And how do we do it? How do we stay strong?
A friend asked me recently, How do you cope when times are tough? What advice do you have to give? She asked me this because lately I have had to navigate the choppy waters of lots of traumatic events. Not least my experience as a carer for my mum when I was just a newlywed, with all my nearest and dearest living together in one small terraced house. I navigated a wedding, family illnesses, a house-move and the handling of grief and organising funerals as I lost my mum, my aunty, my cousin and my great-aunty in a very short space of time. Practically my entire central core of family and day-to-day support. Not to mention working in jobs that, although pleasant enough, didn’t use my passions and skills. Pleasant enough was not enough for me. All whilst trudging through the treacle of carer’s fatigue. I felt that it was now or never to make a change and jump ship, so I jumped. I handed in my notice, took a leap of faith, left a secure job for one that rests entirely on myself and my ability to be my own boss. And I’m still mid-jump and still haven’t quite landed yet either! And that’s just for starters... So, in a very tiny space of time, the dynamic of my family completely altered, and my world and the landscape of my life changed forever.
So, this is my answer to the question, how am I strong and how do I cope? In short, I have no idea. Do any of us? We simply plough on through life, coping but never wondering how we do it, and so I have no idea what I’m even about to write until I write it. Hopefully the thought processes, actions and beliefs that I hold about strength, and what it means for me, will become clearer as I write…
WORKING WITH OUR SEASONS OF STRENGTH
Firstly, I will begin by saying that I believe EVERYONE is strong and that EVERYONE has the amazing capacity to cope with whatever life throws at them. Even if you don’t think that you are especially strong – I can tell you, you are. We each have an in-built survival mechanism within us that allows us to keep putting one foot in front of the other, to just keep moving, to keep going. Nature intended us to be strong; we are designed that way.
And, much like nature, we have our seasons of strength. At times we can cope with so much with such force, passion and irrepressible drive, stoked like the heat of summer, that we amaze ourselves and others. Whilst at other times, our strength lies coiled within us, seemingly dormant, but actually gathering energy, so that we can use our re-stoked strength to full effect when we need to draw upon it.
I am reminded of how the graceful willow tree bends and sways with the storms of life. We do not stand resolutely unmoved against heavy winds, but we remain standing nevertheless because our roots grow deep. Life can shake us - sometimes a little, sometimes a lot, sometimes more than we think we can bear – yet we are shaken, not broken. You are so much stronger and more resilient than you would ever think possible.
STRENGTH AS A SELF-BELIEF
And there are many different ways to cope with storms. We all cope in our own way. One way is no better than any other. For me, I think people perhaps noticed that I remained cheerful and positive, didn’t moan too much (I hope!) and kept a smile on my face throughout whatever was going on at that moment. Why did I do this? Because I have a few beliefs that I hold dear. One: I believe I am strong, more than that, I KNOW I am strong. How do I know? Because I have faced traumas in the past, looked them in the face and coped. And I can do it again. And so can you. Two: Because I define myself by being kind and cheery. I’m not always sunny, but it is a personal value that is engraved on my spirit.
So, I think that a lot of how we cope, as an individual – because we all do cope in our own way – is based upon a few beliefs that are programmed deeply into our psyches. What do you believe about yourself and who you are in times of trouble? If they’re negative beliefs that don’t serve you, that’s OK, don’t beat yourself up about it, but know that this is more a case of self-doubt than fact. You are strong, you are a survivor, and you can cope with whatever life throws at you. Even though I’ve never met you, it doesn’t matter because I believe that we are all amazingly tough. So, hold on to the positive beliefs you have about yourself, and challenge the negative ones. Write yourself some new labels. The beliefs I hold about myself, about life in general and about other people, are generally positive ones, and my beliefs are almost akin to positive affirmations or mantras. So, go get yourself a mantra..
WHAT DO YOU THINK? WHAT CAN YOU DO?
Another thing I try not to do too much of is ruminate. It’s OK to think about problems, and we all have times when everything gets on top of us and we have a little cry or a moan or a wobble, but this is normal. We’re designed to feel. So, don’t beat yourself up about this either. If you cry or feel down, it's not a sign of weakness. We are human; we’re not robots. But we can cause ourselves to feel worse about our situation if we dwell on it too much. It’s happening, so you’re bound to think about it. You can’t help that - but try not to let your troubles consume your every waking thought. Distract yourself, make time for yourself and some fun, happy stuff. Do what you love. See the ways life has made you grow, see the lessons, see what's good.
And when we’re thinking about our problems, think about them constructively. What’s the problem? What can I do about it? If you can do something positive and constructive, then do it. But if there is nothing to be done, let it go. For me, the Serenity Prayer sums this up eloquently: ‘God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.’
So, take your time, pause for thought, but if you start thinking about all the things that are wrong in your life, you’re soon going to condition yourself to start looking only for negative things, when even in the bleakest times, there are moments of light and humour and happiness. Look out for these moments, and never fall into the trap of thinking that because life is not great now, that it never will be, or even – if you are grieving - that you aren’t allowed to feel happy or smile or laugh. Why not? You were born to be happy. Life wants you to be happy. And your happiness and light can only serve to be helpful; nothing bad can come from kindness and positivity, so sprinkle as much of that stuff around as you can muster. It will help you, and it will help lift everyone around you too. And before you think that I am endlessly positive – of course I'm not – I just try to be aware of it and to check myself. So, get self-aware and say STOP! to any negative thought processes that just spiral out of hand: What if this happens? What if that happens? What if what if what if?... What if, whatever. I will handle it, and so will you.
SETTING STRONG BOUNDARIES
Another thing that would be useful is to use any pockets of time that you have just for you to relax in whatever way you please – read, write, craft, have a bubble bath, meditate, whatever works for you.
And slap some boundaries in place to protect yourself from being drained. This is so important and something that I struggle with, as I think a lot of women do. We instinctively want to be kind and to help people, and we do things out of love, but sometimes we are acting out of duty or because we think we will upset people or people won’t like us if we do or don’t do something. But boundaries are important at protecting our energies from being sapped. I know I had a spell of being a bit run-down and poorly as I was suffering with carer’s fatigue after my mum had died. So try not to let yourself become exhausted. I know it’s hard, and I’m wishing you so much peace and wellness. If things are really tough at the moment with life’s demands, keep it simple and don’t be hard on yourself, just aim to sit down for 10 minutes with a cup of tea, or do what I did, pray or meditate in the bathroom (sometimes the only quiet moment I had!)
FINDING YOUR UNIQUE STRENGTH
Don’t worry what people or the world think of you. Just be yourself. I love the phrase, You do you, I’ll do me. And it’s so true. There are as many versions of ‘normal’ in the world as there are people. Just cast off anything that doesn’t serve you, even if it’s a socially accepted norm, as with the grief process. Now grief is different for everybody, and however you experience it is perfectly fine. But for me, I wore bright pink to my mum’s funeral, and I do not recognise society’s enforced notions of lengths of time to grieve such as wearing black clothes and acting mournful every day. I lived through my grief, as we all do, but I do not allow my grief to take over my life because my mum’s passing taught me that life is short, wonderful, and to be lived. And I will not waste a day. So, part of my strength comes from perhaps being a little unconventional. And I’m willing to bet that yours does too.
I am also kept strong by my faith which sustains and supports me. It is something personal to me that I have always turned to for words of wisdom, peace, reflection, calm and a sense that everything will be just fine. I feel that I am looked after, loved and held by something so much bigger than me. So, reading The Bible and the act of prayer nourishes something within me, holding up my soul in ways that I simply do not believe would be possible otherwise. I do not feel any of those things that people often say that they feel, such as ‘I feel like there’s something missing’, which causes them to try to fill the emptiness in different ways, using drink or shopping or whatever it is that fills the void. I feel complete and content most of the time, and I feel strong most of the time too – and this, in large part, I attribute to my faith, uncool or naïve as that may make me sound.
Strength is personal, and you have it in spades. We all do. To be human and alive in this beautiful world is a miraculous, wonderful thing, and part of everyone’s journey involves dark times and sadness, and all humanity experiences this and copes and continues to shine no matter what we have all gone through. So remember, your strength shines from you too. Eleanor Roosevelt once said, ‘With the new day comes new strength and new thoughts.’ Strength is already within you, and new strength will come.
And if you don’t feel strong today, know that that’s ok. There is always tomorrow, and the day after that...
TIPS TO BE STRONG
Know that you are already strong. You're the superhero of your own life :-)
Believe in yourself. Use positive affirmations and mantras: I am strong, I can handle it.
Know your values and use them to elevate your self-belief and thus your ability to cope
Read uplifting, motivating books, or listen to inspiring podcasts to give you a boost
Take care of yourself. Eat healthily, nourish yourself.
Take some TLC time, just for you. Run a bath, read a magazine…
Look for the smiles and the laughter. Hold on to the good times. Use humour to lighten your internal state, especially if you're feeling down or stressed. Tell yourself, 'It's OK, I've got my big girl pants on; I've got this!'
Set boundaries, where needed, to preserve your energy. Know that saying ’no’ is ok.
Be confident in your own skin and who you are, and never worry what others think of you.
Don’t dwell. Think constructively and be proactive and positive. Being positive doesn’t mean that you bury your head in the sand or try to convince yourself that everything is fine when it isn’t. It just means choosing to speak and think and act in the most positive way possible in any given situation, and trying not to allow a doom and gloom mentality to set in which will ultimately drag both you and others down. Aim to inspire, uplift and encourage yourself - and hopefully you will inspire others too.