Sometimes you have to GO TO THE HARD PLACE before it gets comfortable again
Updated: Jul 25
I had the opportunity to speak about the release of lockdown into "Support bubbles" on Radio 5 Live yesterday. As a mental health advocate this is a very welcomed option - the data in the UK is unclear, but tragically in Italy there were 37 suicides and 25 attempts with 8/10 Italians saying they need psychological support for lockdown at the time of writing.
The pain of lonliness for those of us who have not truly experienced it is hard to imagine. People have been known to subscribe to junk mail to feel that they still matter; and the sense of having no-one to turn to to share your feelings, thoughts, highs and lows has triggered depression and other psychological disorders. Filling a silence with the radio is not the same as a heartbeat nearby. Even those of us distancing with family will at least share that acute sense of "this isn't the same" when we wave to our friends on zoom or WhatsApp - and the absolute joy of being able to smile at family, those of us who could - from the bottom of the garden when we were most recently allow to meet outside.
However, this is not what this article is about - and neither is this what the title refers to. Apologies for the slight misdiretion of an opening, but I wanted to set it in context.
During that interview there was a tweet from a listener who "joked" (or perhaps he didn't) that he now no longer had an excuse not to see friends and family. Now rightly, I was able to say a couple of words on the importance of getting professional help for agoraphobia - especially if this has been triggered by the fear of disease within the pandemic; but I also took the tweet seriously. Some of us really don't want to see certain people. For some, lockdown has been a welcomed relief from all the commitments we felt unable to refuse.
Something we often forget is that not everyone - as much as we love them - thinks and feels like we do - on anything!! Just because we might be social butterflies, and some of our friends, to make us happy, have gone along with it, doesn't mean they feel so keen to pick up where it was all left off 3 months ago. This is not necessarily personal - at least not for us, but it is to them - their personal feeling is, there can simply be "too much" social contact, but they didn't know how to tell us for fear of offending, or even fearing being thought "weird".
Lockdown, while not necessarily causing any issues in relationships, might just have revealed the cracks.
Prior to lockdown we could dilute our focus. That is, if we weren't happy with work we could go to the pub with friends; if we were unhappy in our relationship we could hope that a dinner out might make things better; if we didn't really want to see people, well, we could maybe just say that we needed to "get home for the dog". With lockdown those avenues were removed. Worse still, if we had always been "displacing" our feelings, "drowning" them, "laughing them off", finding a "quick fix" - we also never really learned to deal with the root.
As a psychologist and coach I would always encourage dealing with the root (on lighter notes I've written many articles on how to say "no", or how to "live authentically") - but I know it can be tough. When it comes to happiness, although we often need to go to the "hard place" before it gets better, the "hard place" is one step nearer where we need to be. Think of, for example an unwanted relationship as one step, the hard place - the step above - and the opportunity for happiness the step above that...if we stay - we are 2 steps away from happiness, go to the hard place, and while it's hard, you're still a step closer.
The more I give comment, and the more I take questions from Webinars - the more I realise many people are really not prepared to "go to the hard place".
They don't like it when I say:
"If a boss cannot trust his employees to work from home, there were trust issues in the workplace in the first instance that need to be resolved."
"If you are saying you don't want to end lockdown because you no longer have an excuse not to see someone, it's time to chat about that relationship."
"Do you keep "asking for a plan" - when no plan will fit all because you have no plan and don't want to go to the trouble of making one?"
Now, of course, in each case - my response has more layers than it sounds - of course I completely understand the need for guidance in business, but sometimes, those who take the chance and do what they believe will work are now ahead of the curve. No two situations are the same - which is why I can only offer general thoughts in a general context - and you have to book a session with me if you want to talk specifics.
BUT the general point remains the same - we need to dig a little deeper and get a little more honest with ourselves.
Forbes said that successful leaders have four key traits:
- They ask (specifically) as they need
- They are aware (of their options)
- They take action (rather than just voice their disagreement)*
- They do, and they are accountable
*I believe having a voice and listening is important, but that as well as too much self reflection (as powerful as it is) or wide reading/learning (as helpful as it is) is no substitute for DOING!
I'm also not saying that everyone needs to be a "successful leader" - but the people who are often most at ease living their lives (rather than feeling powerless) - also embody those behaviours.
As a coach I am here to help you take action. Of course part of that is listening because listening is key to feeling validated and valued...and it is so much easier to stand forth if you feel you are worth it...and you are - you are absolutely worth it. But I will always, and this is true in my writing, my broadcasting, and my teaching - encourage you to action (don't be seduced into staying still just because you're being heard!)
So this week:
1. Identify if there is a hard place you need to visit
Not every concern has a tough fix. If you simply don't want to "spend the night" with someone because you genuinely have other things to do, then I'm really not referring to you...but if you've, say, been having a flirtation during lockdown, and now the "sex ban" has lifted you are making excuses - ask yourself why are you being disingenuous not only to the other person - but to yourself too?
2. If there is a hard place - plan the conversation
OK, what might happen is that someone may say "Why didn't you say so?" - but at least you're saying now. You cannot predict the outcome (you can certainly decide, based on it, if you were right to not want to make the effort to see someone though!) I would suggest using the "house building model":
- Outline the foundations - ie. this is what I really want/feel/think - the "truth" as I understand it. eg. I'd like to see you because you're family, but not so often and not for so long because I really value my solitude.
- Build your options - what would you be willing to negotiate? eg. I'll come for dinner, but then I'd rather check in by phone or video call.
- Work out how you can both live with it.
3. Remember, no-one really owes us anything right now - we're all just surviving! So appreciate it if someone takes the time and trouble to "go there" - it means they want to fix it.
If someone has been brave enough to "go to the hard place" with you - be glad of their honesty...believe me, they are a rare breed. (I only do it with clients - because I'm paid to; with my actors - because I have to; and with friends and family when I have time to get into it...but often - for friends and family, I'll make the time!) I had a student say to me once, "Sometimes you let me get away with things, and sometimes you call me on them." I replied "Sometimes you're not ready to hear and I've no time to talk, but if I call you out at all, I want to put in the effort."...going to the hard place takes effort - so does growth - and that's why the hard place is made easier when both parties work to deal with it...we all know it's much easier to "ghost".
4. It's also OK to say "no".
But also, the "hard place" is sometimes hard because we don't want to "resolve" anything - we just don't want to be in that situation anymore and we a) hate conflict; b) feel guilty; c) a mix of the two. One technique is to write out the "worst case scenario" if you don't take action (rather than the common CBT approach of the worst case if you do and arguing against it)...but ultimately, all I can say to you there is, you will either need to take the step to change it, or it will change you...it may exhaust you (and then physically you're in the hands of someone else to recover) or it'll build resentment and that may bring with it collateral damage in those around you.
5. Build your resilience.
The thing about going to the hard place is that you need to trust in yourself that you will be OK whatever the outcome - and that means you need to build your inner strength now...and by "now" I mean - ideally when you're not in crisis.
- Have a healthy and positive support network around you - friends that energise you rather than drain you
- Always be aware of your values and try to live them daily - because that's one way you can always connect to your authenticity
- Learn - everything is an opportunity - even an outcome that you were dreading. If nothing else, it'll remind you that you got through that, so you can do it again.
- And take action. You can listen to teachers, you can recite theory, but it is through doing that you will always make the greatest leaps.
...you may even find that the "hard place" is softer than you think.
Dr Audrey Tang is a chartered psychologist and author. Listen to her podcast Retrain Your Brain here; and catch her practical masterclasses Psych Back to Basics on DisruptiveTV & Energy Top Up for resilience For quick tips and tools: click for SKILL PILL and Q&A videos and here for Media appearances. Twitter/IG @draudreyt