Several months ago, I was speaking with a coaching client, “Tom”. Tom was a STEM graduate student, and his advisor was pretty emotionally abusive and critical. My client was understandably struggling with anxiety and self-confidence, and he acted like someone in an abusive relationship. He would tell himself that if he just got certain things accomplished or worked seven days a week, his advisor would finally become supportive and help him move forward with his academic career. However, because his advisor has never displayed kindness or emotional support, Tom’s thinking was irrational. This led to frustration and pain as he kept hoping for support and a response that would never come from this particular advisor.
While working with Tom, I was reading a wonderful book, Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind by Kristin Neff, Ph.D., as I was preparing a self-compassion workshop. In the book, I came across an equation that reminded me of Tom:
Suffering=Pain x Resistance
As Dr. Neff writes, and as Buddhism teaches, suffering occurs when we compare our reality to our ideals. When we keep wishing and hoping for a different reality, and when this reality does not match our desires, we suffer. We can’t avoid pain, but we can avoid suffering – if we accept “what is”. We suffer emotionally because we want things to be different than what they are and by not accepting our actual situation.
I think about this concept with respect to the pandemic, and I can see how I personally struggle with it. At times, I find myself frustrated and angry by the pandemic and how it is impacting my life. I focus on all the things I cannot do, all of the things that I have lost, and all the ways that my life has shrunk considerably since March. When this is my focus, I am upset. On the other hand, when I can accept my current situation and work within my life’s current boundaries and find its COVID silver linings, I actually feel calmer and more positive.
Tom and I spoke about these ideas, and we looked at how his lack of acceptance was contributing to his anxiety and distress. This concept was really eye-opening to Tom and stopped him temporarily in his tracks as he thought about it. We looked at how he could approach his relationship with his advisor with acceptance, acknowledging that the advisor could not be anyone other than they were.
As Tom began to shift his focus, his anxiety and self-confidence began to improve. He was able to stop internalizing the negative messages from his advisor and protect himself from this hurt. Tom developed more of a “screw them” attitude, which improved his resilience and inner strength, and gave him distance from the abuse. He also began to recover emotionally much more quickly from toxic encounters with his advisor. Tom’s advisor has not changed, but Toms’ ability to deal with his current circumstances and build a better future has.
Breakthroughs do not have to be thunderclaps from the clear blue sky; sometimes they can come from small shifts in perception, like this one. This move towards accepting the situation- that his advisor was not going to change his behavior- helped Tom take ownership of the aspects of the relationship he could control: his own responses to the negativity and stress.
Our reality may not always be what we want or what we dreamed, whether it is dealing with the pandemic or struggling with a challenging relationship. However, with a little bit of acceptance, we can always find joy and happiness in the present and work toward a better tomorrow.