Well-Being as a Non-Linear Journey
Reframing the Blips and Dips That Come with Being Human
"Blips and Dips in the Recovery Journey" issue of Visions Journal, 2019, 15 (2), pp. 5-7
As a mom who works from home, I have learned to revel in whatever quiet time I get, even if that means stealing a few minutes in my car listening to David Bowie after running errands. A few months ago, I returned home after grocery shopping and I sat in my car and listened to "Heroes" five times in a row. I needed to gather myself before I faced the potential chaos waiting for me when I walked through the door—a feeling I'm sure most of you with children can understand.
On this particular day, the heaviness of my emotions weighed on me. Sitting in the car felt more like an act of desperation than of self-care. All I could think was, "Is that dark cloud coming back? If it is, I really don't think I can manage." I was worried that I was being transported back to a long season of struggle in my life—a time that I am very glad is in my past.
In that moment, I made an intentional choice to stop fighting the difficult feelings. I chose to accept the fact that I felt sad, overwhelmed and anxious. It was a relief to sit with my discomfort and struggle for a moment, instead of fighting it. I had a wee cry and gave myself a little hug as an intentional act of self-soothing. It was validating, and it allowed me to offer compassion and kindness to myself: essential parts of my self-compassion practice.
After a few minutes, and some reflection on all the amazing parts of my life, I had an "Ah-ha" moment—a sudden understanding that slightly yet profoundly shifted things for me. I realized that just because I feel a blip that is reminiscent of a really difficult time doesn't mean I'm headed straight back to that dark place.
Through much dedicated study and effort, I am learning to allow myself to feel pain without getting mired in self-pity, the way I did in the past. I am learning to feel all my feelings and not be afraid of the darker ones. I have learned to view my feelings like weather patterns. Like the sunshine, the wind and the rain, my feelings come and go. I can choose to feel what I'm feeling without being defined by those feelings, or judging them. I know now that nothing in this life is permanent.
The importance of self-compassion
Author, teacher and Buddhist practitioner Jack Kornfield writes, "If your compassion does not include yourself, it is incomplete."1 As someone who has spent almost my entire adult life working in mental health, I have learned to feel deep compassion for others who are suffering. But a few years ago, I started noticing that I didn't have much compassion left for myself. When I messed up, I allowed my inner critic to reign supreme. I constantly ruminated on everything, from mistakes I made to uncomfortable social interactions.
I began learning about mindful self-compassion through the work of Kristin Neff2 and Christopher Germer.3 Self-compassion is about having compassion for ourselves when we are suffering. I believe that my critic is trying to protect me from future failures. I know that I can never fully silence my inner critic, but I have learned to change the way I engage with it. I challenge it, and I have learned a more effective form of self-talk—one that is compassionate and kind.
I have also learned techniques for self-soothing. The practice of self-soothing as an adult is not all that different from what a baby does when she self-soothes by sucking her thumb. As adults, we don't generally go around sucking our thumbs, but we can still retain the essence of intentional self-soothing by tapping into our mammalian care-giving system. Self-soothing techniques are connected to the senses and can help calm our sympathetic nervous system. They can include actions like placing a hand on the skin close to our heart, deep breathing, rubbing an essential oil on our skin, having a warm bubble bath or sipping tea under a cozy blanket.4
The only way out of something is to go through it. Being present, learning how to sit with our difficult feelings when we are in struggle is an essential step. Processing pain means that we have to let ourselves feel it first.
I have also come to understand the importance of community and support. As human beings, we all experience struggle: it's our birthright. I have noticed that when I talk about my struggles, my shame melts away and I know that I am not alone.
How WRAP can help
WRAP (Wellness Recovery Action Plan) is a self-designed wellness program that we can all use to get well, stay well and shape our life the way we want.5 It's a simple program that encourages the deepening of self-awareness. WRAP has supported me in my efforts to crack the code of self-care on my 17-year journey of exploring how my daily choices affect my overall well-being. With the help of the mindfulness I have learned from WRAP, I know now in my heart that even if I have to go through another dark season, I can get through it because I am resilient.
I have had the opportunity to co-facilitate many WRAP facilitator trainings and to listen to hundreds of recovery stories from people from across North America. I can only compare the experience to suddenly being able to see new colours in the rainbow—colours I could never have imagined, except by witnessing the telling of those powerful stories of resilience.
In most of these recovery stories, the person experiences a major shift when they let go of the fear that can come with having a mental health diagnosis, they find support and they realize that they can actively choose hope instead of fear.
Finding and holding onto hope is not subscribing to a simplistic Pollyanna optimism. Real hope is the profound paradigm shift that happens when we believe that we have some control of our life choices and there is a reason to get out of bed in the morning. Hope is the first of the five key concepts of recovery in the WRAP program.
The key concepts of recovery
The research of Edward Deci and Richard Ryan on the idea of self-determination suggests that human beings have three basic needs.6 We can summarize these needs the figure below:
WRAP builds on this theory of self-determination to formulate a simple, yet not always intuitive, process for recovery. The five key concepts of recovery that are the foundation to WRAP are hope, personal responsibility, education, self-advocacy and support. The intentional choice to actively incorporate these concepts into our daily lives can cause a few significant things to happen:
When we choose to look for hope every day, we most often tend to find it—even in small, seemingly insignificant ways, like breathing in the scent of a wildflower
When we step into the driver’s seat of our life and take personal responsibility for our circumstances, we get to steer, and choosing the direction of our life feels like freedom—even when we experience bumps in the road
When we choose to educate ourselves and get curious about our feelings, our thoughts and where we fit in the world, we can find the courage to face challenges instead of ignoring them or sweeping them under the rug
When we believe we have value, decide what we want and need in life, choose to equip ourselves with what we need to know and assertively self-advocate, we can do amazing things
When we accept that as human beings we are wired for connection and community—when we both give and receive support—we find that we can live a full life
When we choose to mindfully notice and shift the implicit biases and long-held beliefs that are rooted in our past experiences and get in the way of relationships, we can choose compassion over judgement
Setbacks as part of the recovery process
Going through a setback is scary. It's especially terrifying when everyone, including the person in the midst of the struggle, is seeing the event through the dire lens of “relapse.”
But setbacks happen. If we give into fear when we experience a setback, we can go crashing into a downward spiral. The antidote to this downward spiral is normalizing the fact that setbacks come with the experience of being human. When we stop and choose to see setbacks through a different lens, we experience a powerful paradigm shift. We can choose to see setbacks as opportunities for learning and growth, introspection and self-awareness.
Isolating ourselves when we struggle keeps us stuck. Reaching out when we are suffering creates the opportunity for connection and healing. Sometimes we might find ourselves in a desperate place, feeling too broken to hold onto hope. We can remind ourselves we are not alone. Everyone hurts. When we intentionally seek to build community and relationships, we can take solace in meaningful connections. Shame is destructive to our well-being, but it has a hard time surviving in the light of an empathetic connection.
It's easy to let ourselves become defined by our perceived deficits. However, when we learn to gracefully accept the fact that we make mistakes and have imperfections, when we practise self-compassion, we are more equipped to sit with the pain and discomfort that comes with difficult times. We can offer ourselves "loving-kindness" and tenderness, knowing that while a particular period may be difficult, it is not going to be our reality forever.
Blips and dips are just a part of living. I'm constantly making peace with that in my own life.
I need to remind myself of these truths, as I did in the car that rainy spring day in April. Now, many months later, I sit at my kitchen table, writing and listening to the pounding rain against the side of the house. I am reminded that, like the rain, pain and struggle will inevitably come my way again, and that's ok. When that time comes, I will choose to remind myself that I am not alone, though it might feel that way.
I will choose to linger in the car a bit longer if I need to.
I will choose to listen to some comforting music, while sipping tea under my hand-knit blanket.
I will choose to reach out to someone I love.
Because I know that the sun will shine again.
About the author
Jenn has over 25 years of experience in community mental health. In 2015, she started Luminate Wellness, which offers mental health trainings and consulting for organizations. She trains WRAP facilitators and presents workshops on self-determination, self-nourishment and burnout prevention for practitioners, appreciative inquiry, self-compassion and WRAP. Recently, she wrote the peer support training curriculum for Alberta Health Services. She works with PSR (Psychosocial Rehabilitation) Advanced Practice (Douglas College) and oversees communications for PSR Canada
- Kornfield, J. (1994). Buddha's little instruction book, p. 28. New York: Bantam.
- Neff, K. (2011). Self-compassion: The proven power of being kind to yourself. New York: William Morrow.
- Germer, C. (2009). The mindful path to self-compassion: Freeing yourself from destructive thoughts and emotions. New York: Guilford.
- Neff, K. (2011). The chemicals of care: How self-compassion manifests in our bodies. HuffPost (June 27). www.huffpost.com/entry/self-compassion_b_884665.
- WRAP was created by Mary Ellen Copeland. You can learn more about WRAP at www.wrapandrecoverybooks.com/store/wrap-2018.html.
- Deci, E. & and Ryan, R. (2017). Self-determination theory: Basic psychological needs in motivation, development, and wellness. New York: Guilford.