How to cope with difficulties

The following text is a written version of the speech given by clinical psychologist Prof. Dr. Hanna Nita Scherler, who spoke on the second day of the 6th Turkey Psychotherapy Summit held on March 18th and 19th, with her permission.

This morning, I would like to briefly talk about “how to cope with difficulties” with you.

First, what is difficulty? I want to start by talking about that. We have all been physically ill in our lives. We may have lost a loved one, suffered physically, or felt rejected, unwanted, or unapproved by others in terms of our emotional relationships with others. In terms of our relationship with ourselves, we may feel mentally inadequate, unsuccessful, weak, and losing self-esteem. Or we may find ourselves experiencing a general loss of meaning and purpose in our lives on a more spiritual level. Any experience that can fall under these headings can be defined as a difficulty. No human being can go through their life without encountering some difficulties in these areas that I have mentioned. This is impossible. So we will all inevitably encounter various difficulties at different times in our lives.

The problem is not actually experiencing these kinds of experiences. We grow up with social programming that refers to these kinds of experiences. So, we prefer the healthy, vibrant, and physically pain-free aspects of our experiences, and we grow up with an doctrine from social programming that says “be healthy, live long, don’t suffer” or “being alone and being rejected is not a good thing, be loved by everyone”. The most common social programming is about issues such as success, competence, power, and respect. If we feel uninterested or unsuccessful in these feelings, it is not very supported by those around us to remain in those emotions or talk about them. We often hear phrases like “it will pass soon”, “you will be successful soon”, “you will recover soon and forget the pain of loss”, “life is like that”. Especially, the loss of meaning and purpose in life is not an acceptable thing, and we may feel under pressure to quickly have meaning and purpose, and to quickly recover. What happens then? The person not only faces difficulties related to their life experiences, but also the discomfort of being in an experience that is not very preferred by social programming is added on top of that. It doesn’t end there. Each new difficulty also triggers unresolved issues from similar past difficulties.

For example, in this earthquake disaster, many old unresolved issues and wounds may have been triggered even in people who were not directly affected by the earthquake, and this is very natural. In this case, we are faced with the pressure to get out of this situation as soon as possible, both from the experience we are going through and from our social programming, as well as with unfinished issues related to old experiences that have been triggered by this experience. It is really a difficult situation, and we do not know what to do in this situation. There may be guides on what can be done in this situation, and we may need guidance. We may not be able to find our way. All of these are very natural, and first of all, let me say that there is nothing more natural than asking for help. When a person is in a difficult situation, when they are struggling, they can ask for help from their surroundings. They can easily share that they are struggling, having difficulty getting out of this situation, and that they need help. I have never seen anything wrong with this. Now we do not have a guide, and we do not know what to do, but the key is this: in such situations, when we are struggling, we only need to connect with the reactions we are experiencing emotionally, physically, and mentally.

Many of you may have come across Peter Levine’s videos on YouTube. He explains it beautifully. In short, when a person experiences a traumatic event, their body contracts, meaning that energy becomes blocked in the body. Based on observing animals, he developed the assumption that when an animal encounters a threat, if they can handle it, they attack. If they can’t handle it, they run away. During a threat, the blocked energy in their body is expressed when animals attack or run away, but this is not the case for humans. Most of the time, when we experience trauma, we neither fight nor flee. We either can’t fight or flee, so the energy remains blocked.

Every experience has physical, emotional, and mental manifestations. That means human existence is a whole with all its dimensions. We don’t live them separately. The experience resonates in every dimension of our existence at that moment. What we need is to connect with ourselves. What does it mean to connect with ourselves? I am responsible for describing the bodily sensations accompanying emotions and thoughts. This is what connection means, how else can I connect? I can’t hold onto the pain in my body, if something hurts I can rub it, but I can’t hold onto it. But I can describe it. I can describe my emotions. I can describe the bodily sensations created by my emotions. For example, when I’m afraid, I can describe that my heart beats fast. When I’m anxious, I can describe that I clench my jaw. Or when I get angry, I can describe that a warmth rises from my chest to my jaw. These are things that can be described. What we need is to connect with ourselves and describe all the physical, emotional, and mental manifestations related to that difficult experience.

we often resist because we don’t know that this is what we need or because we can’t think of a way to do it even if we did know. How do we show resistance? By blaming ourselves or others, feeling angry, experiencing anxiety, helplessness, hopelessness or shame. These are the “substitute satisfactions” we choose instead of connecting with our actual needs. Yes, we are engaging with something in that moment, but we are not connecting with our true needs. Instead, we are engaging with something that prevents us from connecting with our actual needs. But here, I also want to be supportive and say that if you find yourself more clearly angry, fearful, anxious, helpless or shameful than usual, you can see this as an opportunity to connect with yourself. Clear negative experiences and emotions are great opportunities for maturity, growth, and an inner journey of connecting with oneself. So instead of asserting oneself to someone else, trying to explain oneself to someone else, striving for someone else to understand you, or ignoring someone else, all of these are substitute satisfactions. All of these are things that prevent us from connecting with the experience of difficulty in the moment.

If a part of our body hurts, or if we fall and hurt ourselves, do we hit that part? No. We approach it with tenderness. We take a cotton ball, some antiseptic, and gently tend to our injured part, blowing on it with care. There is no difference in this case. Perhaps there is no blood, no bruising, but there is a part of us that is bleeding and bruised in an abstract sense, and we must approach it with tenderness as well. How can we do that? What is the way and method? There is only one way to connect with oneself, which is to describe, depict, and make sense of our experience in the physical, emotional, and mental realms, without trying to criticize, judge, or attribute value to it. We don’t say, “Why am I angry now? I’m angry because of this or that.” We don’t criticize ourselves by saying, “I’m showing weakness now. I should have been stronger.” We don’t judge our emotions as good or bad, or assign them any importance or value. We don’t try to approach or distance ourselves from any experience. We simply describe it.

To be able to do this, it is necessary to acquire a certain presence quality, that is, to take care of myself, to show compassion towards myself, to approach myself with acceptance in the moment of need. How? By connecting with what arises in the moment, simply by describing and depicting it, by being there for myself only. I show acceptance to whatever emotion or thought comes up. I do not question or judge, whatever emerges in my awareness, whether it is anger, fear, anxiety, helplessness, I take it in, I accept it. This presence state is very different from pushing myself to the position I designed in my mind. I show acceptance to whatever arises in my awareness. I do not question or fight it. I do not attach importance to it. The only reason for being with myself there should be to respond to my own needs. It should not be to react to events or external factors, or to respond to external stimuli when my presence is in contact with difficulties. It should be to respond to my own needs. What do I need to do for this? I need to slow down. By slowing down, I mean that if I am experiencing anxiety, and my heart is starting to race, and I feel like I cannot breathe enough, I do not immediately try to get out of this state by saying “oh no, something is happening, I need to get out of this state.” Instead, I mean slowing down.

To slow down; to notice that my heart started beating faster and I feel like I can’t breathe enough, I noticed it and thought, “How nice, I am beginning to connect with myself.” By slowing down, I mean trying to describe this faster heartbeat in every possible way. So my heart is going up and down or left to right really quickly in my chest. I imagine my heart bigger than it is, I see it as bright red or pitch black, I can hear its sound in my ears, and an internal voice echoes in me. When I hear this voice, I realize that there is anxiety accompanying it. Interesting… Slow down and accept whatever I am describing at the moment without criticism, without judging it as good or bad, without saying it should or shouldn’t be, without thinking “Oh no, where is this taking me?” Just accept it. Accept whatever is appearing. In fact, it’s also useful to say that if I describe anxiety, I should say, “I am not anxiety. Anxiety is an entity that is appearing in my consciousness right now. I am that entity and much more.” Or my current feeling is fear. It’s an entity appearing in my consciousness. I cannot define myself as fear, anxiety, or anger. I cannot define myself as helplessness. I am those emotions and much more that appear in my consciousness. When I can create this presence quality in myself, I can connect with my needs and respond to them.

Another important quality of this state of being is not to judge the outcome. When I start this practice of connecting with myself, I should not have the expectation that my heartbeat will return to its normal rhythm immediately, or that my breathing will return to its usual tempo right away. I should not have the goal of getting rid of fear, anxiety, or helplessness immediately. I need to approach it as a guest and let whatever comes up happen. I have something to offer as well. What I can offer is my attention, impartial attention, kindness, acceptance, and embrace. As I offer these things, I will see that my guest’s perception of me is changing. To do this, I need to slow down. Another aspect of this practice is to have faith that it will serve me in connecting with myself and my needs. I’m not trying it out because someone else said it’s a good idea, but because I believe it will benefit me. I’ve tried many ways before, but they didn’t work. Now, I’ll try this way and describe my physical, emotional, and mental experiences of it while taking it slow.

I wonder, what is happening? How am I generating thoughts? What emotions accompany them? What are the physical manifestations in my body? How am I contracting? I notice which muscle groups in my body are contracting more. Am I getting warmer? Sweating? Shaking? Does it feel like someone is playing drums inside my head? Or like an elephant is sitting on my back? Like an elephant is sitting on my chest? Like someone is stabbing me in the back? What am I experiencing? Describing it. We can understand that we can support ourselves by experiencing this. Since childhood, we have wanted someone to encompass us, to make us feel safe and secure, to show us love, kindness, and compassion. It is completely natural to want this as a child. Of course, a child will want this, but when we become adults – I emphasize again, there is no harm in asking for help from others – we can also help ourselves. You know what we want others to show us? We can show them to ourselves too.

This Gestalt mindfulness practice that I have described will be a practice of tolerating our angry, fearful, anxious, and hopeless states in which we struggle to get rid of as soon as possible, and instead, will be a practice of showing ourselves care and compassion. Therefore, I call the practice itself healing. Because by defining my state that I want to get rid of as quickly as possible, I can see that I can embrace it, and that I can tolerate it. In other words, I can simultaneously bring out the childlike part of me that is afraid, seeking attention, love, care, safety, and security, and the parent part of me that encompasses it. There is also an adult part of me that remains in the position of a witness, allowing both of these parts to emerge. Therefore, I say that this practice is healing in itself. I believe that just starting to try it, slowing down, and sincerely believing that it is a practice that will respond to my need for connection, will help.

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