I was discussing mental health struggles and coping/healing with them with a friend yesterday. We all have difficult experiences, thoughts, and emotions—whether this is a daily thing or something that happens once in a blue moon. From my experience, most of us aren’t aware of our thoughts-feelings-behavior patterns and we go through our life in an unconscious state of sorts. This makes complete sense. Acknowledging tough stuff is, well, tough. And uncomfortable. And confusing. And can be disorienting.
And at the same time, what would happen if we did notice our patterns? If we acknowledged feeling angry, sad, hurt, lost, hopeless, anxious? What happens if we name those tough situations, emotions, and thoughts and recognized them for just what they are?
Ultimately, all situations, feelings, thoughts, and behaviors are neutral, and only have meaning from our learning history (the events and circumstances in our lives, especially early on, that shape how we see ourselves, the world, emotions, relationships, etc.), and more often than not they are trying to protect us in some way. All behavior has a function. We don’t do any automatic, unconscious behavior pattern for no reason. There is always a reason. And almost always it is a completely understandable reason.
Imagine for a moment that something difficult or painful has happened in your life. You got in a fight with someone you love, you were reprimanded at work for something, you got in a car accident, or you’re just having a really bad day. Your autopilot kicks on and you respond how you usually do—venting about it to every friend you see for the next week, flying off the handle about things that are seemingly small and unrelated to what is causing stress in the first place, isolating yourself from your supports, or even engaging in self-harming types of behaviors. All of this makes sense. These are all behaviors that are there to try to help us cope in some way, shape, or form. They have a function and a purpose.
But what if you noticed that the pattern was happening? What if you noticed getting into that anger cycle, or the response to turn to food for comfort, or holing up in your apartment for days on end? What if you named the pattern for what it is—behaviors that make sense as a way to cope and protect you, stemming from a situation that made you feel (fill in the blank emotion), and activated long-standing (painful, unhelpful, yet understandable) beliefs? What if you accepted that you have been doing the best you can to cope for all these years, and now maybe you are ready to try something else? And all of that is okay.
We all do the best we can with what we know how to do with the tools we have in any given moment. That’s just how it works. If we knew different, we would have done different. So if you feel stuck and know that you can’t stay in the same emotional, mental, or spiritual space you’ve been in, try something different now. Acknowledge the pattern, empathize and understand how it has helped you survive for all these years, name and validate the emotions you are experiencing, and be kind to yourself.
These may seem like small steps. But when we name it, we can tame it, and we take back our power because now we are in the driver’s seat. We can choose our next destination. There is nothing more empowering than having the ability to make a choice. And the more we give voice to our experiences—even in our own thoughts—the more choice we have, and that’s when our world starts to open up again.