Self-improvement during difficult times

As you are probably aware, if you are reading this, I am writing a book on self-improvement. I take the view that we should endeavour to make ongoing incremental improvements to ourselves over time. Doing so helps us live a life with purpose and meaning.

But there will be times, as it is for me now, when life deals you a hand that is difficult to play – where for whatever reason, you are hurt, afraid, confused, scared, lonely, struggling or bereft. There will be times when you feel you can barely scrape through the day, let alone be actively working on yourself to make yourself better.

Such times can arise for a variety of reasons: loss, rejection, failure. These experiences shake our understanding of ourselves, of others, of the world and our place in it. Powerful negative emotions are triggered which we carry in our minds and bodies (e.g. the heaviness of sadness). It often isn’t just one negative emotion. It might be many that seem to be on some hellish roster throughout the day.

Our thinking changes. We start second guessing who we are, the trust-worthiness of others, how the world works, our value and self-worth. We plot revenge on others or the world as a whole. At worst, we might flirt with thinking about how the world would be better off without us.

These emotional and thinking changes dominate our mental landscape, making it difficult to concentrate or attend to the activities of daily life. Others may notice we aren’t ‘ourselves’ or we are acting differently. We may make bad choices, based on faulty distressed logic.

I liken these times to having experienced a significant psychological injury. We’ll all experience significant psychological injuries over the course of our life.

When elite athletes injure themselves, their normal modes of training typically require changing. Their daily run might become a walk, or their gym sessions are modified to cater for the injured area. They might have to increase their rest time or focus on another aspect of their training (e.g. nutrition). They dial back the intensity of their training and add activities that will rehabilitate the injured area. In fact, the injured area becomes such a focus that I am often amused that the injuries of elite athletes often become newsworthy, for months at a time, as we (the public) are given a blow-by-blow account of the status of the ‘hamstring of athlete X’.

So what do we do if we sustain a psychological injury?

In contrast to when something hurts us physically, when we know we need to rest and recuperate and rehabilitate the injury, we often do the opposite when hurt psychologically. We do everything we can to distance ourselves from the psychological injury.. We bury ourselves in work or hobbies or activities or substance use or anything that can take our mind off what has happened.

To a certain degree this is both understandable and appropriate. Distraction and avoidance can be helpful short-term strategies for pain management (physical or psychological).

But if we want to truly rehabilitate the psychological injury, thus reducing the likelihood it will flare and cause us pain again in the future, we are going to have to consider addressing it directly, rather than distancing ourselves from it.

How do you rehabilitate a psychological injury? These are the themes/ideas I encounter most often in regard to this kind of question.

Acceptance – If something bad has happened, you will be distressed. Fighting against that distress (distraction, drug use, ignoring) may work in the short-term but will unlikely work in the long term. Ignored distress will pop up again in other ways – physical illness, dysfunctional beliefs about the world, changes in behaviour. Acceptance is easy to recommend, hard to do. It means sitting with the emotional experience of what has happened, without any attempts to modify it. If you’re busy, this might mean actually scheduling quiet time to sit with these feelings.

Processing what happened – Humans construct stories on the basis of their experiences to describe themselves, others, the world, their past, present and future. We are constantly telling and re-telling our stories in our thoughts, feelings, decisions and choices. These stories shape how our life unfolds. You’ll have to find a way to embed what has happened to you, in your personal story, in a way that allows you to move on with your life. My experience is that this is rarely done successfully just entirely in your head. Often it requires writing (e.g. journalling), talking to trusted friends and family or talking to a therapist or health professional. This isn’t necessarily an easy process, because your experience might require you to significantly re-write how you understand yourself or the world. Regardless, you need to integrate what has happened to you in your ongoing narrative, otherwise it is going to play an unnecessarily large part in derailing your future.

Taking lessons – This is related to ‘processing what happened’ and is often an end-point of the process. It is about taking lessons from what happened that you can apply from this point onwards. Maybe there are things you need to change about yourself. Maybe you need to change your expectations of others. Maybe you’ve been moving in the wrong direction or ignoring something critical in your life. The actual lessons learned will be idiosyncratic to you, but I suggest you need to be able to articulate what those lessons are. At best these lessons can be translated into specific actions taken. At a minimum, they are mental notes you can refer back to in the future when similar circumstances occur that guide you more successfully though a difficult time.

Self-compassion – Your difficult times might be the result of your mistakes and failures – things you should have done, or shouldn’t have done. It is easy at these times to settle into self-criticism and self-loathing. Self-compassion is not about giving yourself a free pass and wiping away all of your misdeeds. Self-compassion is about acknowledging fully that you fucked up, that you were responsible for at least part of what happened, but also acknowledging that literally everyone fucks stuff up. Humans can be irrational, emotional, illogical and cruel. You are human, and thus you are subject to the same vulnerabilities. Self-compassion is the realisation that you, along with everyone else, can find a way back from failure and/or bad choices and that you have an inherent right to be able to find your way back.

Forgiveness* – I asterisked this one because what you experienced might have been the result of the malicious actions of another person. I don’t think forgiveness of those who mistreat us is always possible or maybe even appropriate, but if there is room for you to be able to let go of the need for an apology or the other person to set things right, then I suggest it can be freeing to do so.

Values – Values are your internal compass points – who you want to be, the life you want to lead, the way you want to live your life. When we sustain a psychological injury it can be helpful to restate or re-assess our values. Perhaps you failed at something that was important to you and you need to be reminded to dust yourself off and try again. Perhaps you realise that you haven’t been living according to your values and this is an opportunity to get back on the path. Or perhaps you find yourself directionless, and the distress you are experiencing is at least partly a signal to spend time working out what direction you want to head in. A sense of being lost, out of control, directionless often accompanies a significant unpleasant event. Returning to your values at these times can help counter those feelings.

Lifestyle (sleep, diet, physical activity, people) – There are core ingredients of life that are associated with wellbeing. During difficult times we tend to neglect those core ingredients. We don’t get enough sleep, our diet turns to shit, we lie around moping. Probably worst of all, we withdraw from other people. A counsellor I work with wrote a simple document for individuals going through difficult times. The essence of the document was to create a regular, healthy but gentle schedule and follow it as best as possible. Regular means routine, which is healing. Healthy means it includes sleep, good food, physical activity and connection with people. Gentle means that the schedule doesn’t run you off your feet – it is achievable, but it has plenty of time to rest or to cry or to think or reflect. It is the kind of schedule that you’d give to someone who is rehabilitating.

When difficult times happen to us, our intentional self-improvement efforts might need to be put aside whilst we do some psychological rehabilitation. Because a commitment to self-improvement is an attempt to gain some control of one’s life, the idea that it might be derailed temporarily by upsetting, unpredictable or unexpected event can exacerbate feelings of loss of control that accompany such events. You get a double whammy of loss of control – the upsetting event + derailed self-improvement efforts.

But just like physical injury and rehabilitation are unavoidable parts of the lives of athletes, psychological injury and rehabilitation are an unavoidable part of all of our lives. Harness the self-respect that drove you to self-improvement in the first place to give yourself a gentle space in which to rehabilitate.

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