The Way Forward

In last week’s blog post I talked about acknowledging changes in our lives and finding the resilience necessary to accept the changes and adapt to the new reality whatever it might be.  Acceptance is the first step toward moving forward.  But what comes after that?  Depending on the type of setback, it’s length, your age and a host of other variables, the next steps will be different for each of us.

For some of us, the idea of returning to any kind of routine might seem impossible.  The change feels so great we may feel like the darkness is permanent and unyielding.  We can easily sabotage ourselves and become our own worst enemies.  For example, if you’ve fallen and suffered an injury you might develop a debilitating fear of a recurrence.  This might keep you from making even simple moves toward regaining your strength.  We’ve all heard the expression “get back on the horse that threw you”.  This can be a totally daunting prospect.  And, in fact, might not be appropriate in all cases.  Still, inertia can become a wall and finding a way through or around that wall can be overwhelming.  In previous blog posts I’ve often talked about the difficulty of resuming activity, especially exercise, after being away for a while for whatever reason.  Of course, it is important to take steps to avoid the circumstances caused the fall, but that shouldn’t become an excuse to stop you from all activities.

On the flip side of that coin, there are those of us who throw caution to the wind and get back on that horse way before we should.  Perhaps we have not fully recovered from the injury, illness or whatever precipitated a change in our lives.  Some of us might even have the hubris to believe that our case is special and the usual rules don’t apply.  This type of thinking might lead one into that “danger zone” referred to in an earlier post when your energy begins to feel restored and you start to feel like your former self again.  This is a place I know all too well.  The desire to return to the way things were overshadows the reality of the way things are.  Returning too quickly can lead to discouraging setbacks.  At best, the process of recovery will take that much longer or, at worst, may be jeopardized altogether.

Actually both cases call for the same prescription – courage, patience and above all the decision to go on with your life taking whatever baby steps are necessary to follow through on that choice.  Interestingly, in my opinion the same leap of faith is required wherever you’re at.  If you are the fearful type described above, the decision means taking that first dangerous step back into your life no matter how scary that might be.  If you want to start moving again, the first step is the hardest.

After my back surgery a physical therapist gave me some exercises to do right away.  They were pretty simple movements, but they were difficult at first.  Among them was the suggestion to walk for 5 minutes several times a day.  For a person who used to run ultramarathons that might sound easy, but just getting up and overcoming the initial stress of moving was itself a formidable task.  My doctor had given me the simple instruction, “If it hurts, stop; if you think it’s going to hurt, don’t do it.”  Sounds reasonable enough, right?  For the fearful person, that initial hurt might be enough to encourage stopping altogether.  In fact, I even found myself thinking I would never overcome that initial discomfort.  But what I discovered was that if I just got started, I would eventually start to feel better.  If I began to feel pain I stopped for a few minutes.  The pain would usually stop and I could resume the walk.  Or I could simply try again later.  I would set a timer for 5 minutes, stop it when I needed to wait for pain to subside and start it again when I started walking again.  It might take me half an hour to do 5 minutes worth of walking but I quickly learned that the more I walked, the easier it got.  I noticed too that once I got going and my body adjusted to the movement, the initial soreness would usually subside.

Our bodies are made for movement.  Fortunately, the medical profession has recognized that movement following a trauma like surgery is actually beneficial.  Anyone who has had surgery recently knows that patients are required to get up and move as soon as possible.  Although rest and sleep are important to the healing process, retraining your body to move as much as it can is also essential.  Still it’s not easy to overcome the many excuses that loom in front of the starting line.  That’s where the decision-making process comes in.  Making that decision to try to move even for a few minutes takes courage.  Beyond that is the resolve to follow through even if it the first few efforts are unsuccessful.  I knew the physical therapist would not have told me to walk if it wasn’t the right thing to do.  But I also knew I had to abide by my doc’s advice and stop if it hurt.  Even that was hard for me having been a person schooled in the old notion of “no pain, no gain.”  So both starting and stopping required decisions.  I had to consciously remind myself that extremes in either direction would not help my recovery.  That meant believing that I would, in fact, recover and that the directions given provided the road map to get there.

Bottom line – moving forward is not rocket science.  Have patience and be kind to yourself.  Do what is recommended and stick to it until you’ve healed.  After that be mindful in all your activities and avoid being careless, head strong or just plain stupid.  If it hurts, stop; if you think it’s going to hurt don’t do it.  That’s not an invitation to do nothing.  It just means pay attention.  Simple, right?  But not easy.

Making the decision and taking that first step is the hardest part.  Especially if you’re not used to moving in the first place.  If you keep at it, no matter what you are doing will get easier.  Although we often think of stress as a negative, your body needs a certain amount of stress to adapt to a change.  The trick is to know when to back off.  As acknowledged in last week’s post, life may be different after a set-back.  Those differences need to be honored.  But that shouldn’t be a license to drop out.  No matter what has changed, there will still be things you can do.  Give those positives a chance to shine and they will lead you forward.

Choosing Assistance

There are times in all of our lives when we need a little help from our friends.  Yet some of us have a hard time acknowledging that.

Last week I was talking with a friend who was commenting on the struggle she was encountering with some home repair projects she was trying to complete on her own.  Any of you who have attempted something similar, especially after the loss of someone you relied on to do these things, will recognize the dilemmas these tasks present.  It can seem like an overwhelming chore looming over you like a black cloud. You find yourself succumbing to the procrastination mantra:  I’ll do this when ________.  Fill in the blank with any mythic event in the nebulous future that will somehow enable you to handle this on your own.  As we talked, we both wondered why it was so hard to accept that sometimes you just can’t do everything all by yourself.  And, in fact, there are times when it is better not to even try.

Our culture has ingrained in us this mythical idea that self-sufficiency is the ultimate noble goal.  We need to be strong and face all of our challenges by ourselves.  This concept seems to be in our national DNA.  In fact, our society carries it to such an extreme that we get upset with people who we perceive as “not carrying their own weight”.  You can see this in the current debates raging around us, particularly when it comes to social services.  Policies are built with rules that will prevent the “undeserving” from obtaining services.  This means that arbitrary moral judgments need to be made about who is or is not deserving.  Sometimes following those rules is so daunting that even the “deserving” can’t get access to services.  Thus everybody complains and nobody benefits.  Somewhere along the line we have lost the sense of community and common good.  Or worse, our sense of community has become so distorted that only certain people are allowed to join.  If they don’t meet the requirements they become outsiders, not worthy of our generosity or even compassion.

This scenario may seem extreme, but I think you all know what I mean.  Still I can hardly profess to having the answers to all of the world’s problems.  One thing I do know, though, is that we can all do a better job of accepting our own limitations.  Sure we’ve all heard stories of people overcoming impossible obstacles to achieve some amazing goal.  Those stories can be inspirational.  But too often we forget that these are the exceptions, not the rule.  When we find ourselves unable to accomplish similar feats we can easily become discouraged, focusing on perceived inadequacies rather than recognizing that we, too, each have our own amazing skills.  Instead we withdraw into our safe little cocoons afraid to let anyone know that we might not measure up to the impossible standards we set for ourselves.  And – yes – we impose these standards on ourselves.  You can try to blame outside circumstances, but ultimately we make our own rules for acceptable behavior.

Let’s all engage in a little thought experiment.  Look back in your own life and try to find at least one achievement or experience you have had in which you accomplished something that you didn’t think you could do.  My guess is you’ll find something.  Probably more than one thing. We have all faced struggles and challenges.  Chances are, too, that each of these has been a learning experience. This is something that the “vulnerability expert” Brene Brown talks about in her speeches and writings.  Her message is that even though we think that putting on a brave face is what is expected of us regardless of how we feel, it actually takes more courage to acknowledge that not being perfect isn’t a measure of self-worth.  In an interview with Krista Tippett on the program “On Being” Ms. Brown said, “the most beautiful things I look back on in my life are coming out from underneath things I didn’t know I could get out from underneath. . . the moments that made me were moments of struggle.”

So needing help on occasion doesn’t mean inadequacy or even failure.  What it means is that each of us has certain gifts, but no one is always good at everything.  We can fall into the trap of thinking that other people have it all figured out, but somehow we missed the boat.  We are obsessed with perfection.  Interestingly, though, perfection itself is in the eye of the beholder.  There is no hard and fast definition of perfection that works for everyone.  I like the Urban Dictionary’s definition: “an impossibility, something unattainable, something that cannot be reached..ever.”  Even the Cambridge English Dictionary defines perfection as “the state of being complete and correct in every way”.  Does anyone know of any person or thing that meets that consistently meets that definition?  Of course not!  And yet somehow we expect it of ourselves.

Here’s another thought experiment:  think of all the times when you have helped someone else.  Usually, you feel good about helping and give your assistance freely.  You feel glad that you were asked for your help.  Why not spread those good feelings around?  When you ask for help you are giving someone else the opportunity to experience those good feelings.  So instead of feeling needy, you can actually feel altruistic.

All of this can, of course, relate to my favorite topic – exercise.  Sadly, I still hear people say that they don’t want to come to a class because they are sure everyone is going to point and stare and laugh because of their inability to be perfect.  There are, of course, many flaws in this viewpoint not the least of which is that everyone starts somewhere and even people with innate abilities were not born experts.  All attempts, no matter how rudimentary, are opportunities for learning.  So give the people around you credit for their willingness to support and help you along your journey, wherever you are on that path.  Accept their help at whatever level it is offered. You might be surprised to learn that none of them is perfect either.