Despite the fact that every one of us is suffering with respect to something — whether anxiety about the future, grief over loss, the pain of loneliness or the experience of shame — it’s also pretty normal to feel like we are each alone in our suffering.
If your suffering happens to be related to politics, you can have lots of support from media outlets that are aligned with your preferences, but a feeling of being ‘in the hole,’ feeling like everything is just too hard, or feeling like nobody cares can strike without warning. There is a way out.
That image of a pit comes up frequently in creative expressions of human struggle:
- Portia Nelson’s poem Autobiography in Five Short Chapters.
- This past week’s episode of South Park, in which Tweak was totally freaking out about North Korea
- Leo’s West Wing story (told to Josh) about a guy falling in a hole.
- Brené Brown on empathy.
- The Princess Bride’s Pit of Despair.
- A curving graph known as The Emotional Cycle of Change.
- Elizabeth Kubler Ross’s roller coaster of change
In the work I do with ministers and congregations, we frequently talk about this emotional cycle or roller coaster. As I described in my earlier post, even a positive change such as a new technology or new leadership often brings with it negative emotional experiences such as shock, mourning, guilt, loss, and detachment.
The path back out of the hole is not emotional reactivity, but it does begin with an experience of empathy. Empathy is that friend jumping into the hole with you by feeling what you are feeling. Not it a lost way, but in a way that acknowledges that you are where you are and doesn’t judge you for it. A friend who offers empathy taps into their own experience to say, “I’ve been here before.” (This is essentially what Tweak’s boyfriend Craig does for him in the South Park episode referenced above.)
Without empathy, we keep falling down that bottomless hole. Brené Brown believes empathy is always a social experience, although I’m not so sure about that. I have had the experience of finding (or creating) the bottom of the hole on my own through self-empathy.
If I realize “I’ve been here before,” myself, that can be enough. It’s Chapter Three in the “Autobiography in Five Short Chapters”:
I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it there.
I still fall in… it’s a habit… but,
my eyes are open.
I know where I am.
With my eyes open, I acknowledge the bad but the good as well. I can find my feet because I’m on my own side, no longer criticizing myself for feeling bad, and that helps me start finding the path out.
If you find yourself in the hole right now, know you are not alone. You have lots of company, whether you can sense their presence right now or not. Know also that the pit has a bottom, and you can get out.
The bad news? You’ll probably be in there again. Perhaps you have been there before. If this is the case, take a moment to assess– what is familiar? What is new?
Alternatively, you might know someone else who is in the hole. It’s likely that you want them to be out. This desire for them to be out of the hole is understandable. It’s caring. It shows you want the best for them, and being in the pit is obviously not the best. However, they will not get out on the merits of advice or benefits or purpose or even problem-solving. (This is one of the lessons Craig learned in the South Park episode. All of his attempts at reassurance and “talking sense” just weren’t having any positive effects.)
Someone who is in the hole needs, first, to be understood. Do what you can to spend some time on their side, seeing the world from their perspective, to where you can simply say, “I’ve felt like that. I get it.” Resist the temptation to follow that with “but, you gotta get going.”
They’ll get there.
If you are a part of a team that is falling down the hole, you might consider reaching out to me for leadership team coaching. Learn more about team coaching here.
Nobody likes to admit to their suffering (which is one reason we wind up feeling so isolated), but you can contribute to others’ learning by sharing your experience here! What has helped you the most when you’ve felt low?
*This post is adapted from a chapter in my Kindle book, Working with Stress and Fear: Your Guide to Feeling It and Rocking The Job Anyway.