It’s often said we don’t know what someone is struggling with, or battling with and that everyone has their own personal struggle of some kind.
Clients often bring something, an issue or problem they are ‘struggling’ with. What do we mean when we say we are struggling with something? That something is hard, challenging or difficult to resolve? That we are coping with a sense of inability to do something ‘well’? That we are trying to make something happen and it’s not? That we are tangled in something and can’t find a way through because we don’t know what to do?
When we consider what’s involved in struggle there is effort and force, often in opposition to what is. We can be struggling to pay the bills, to get everything done or time or struggling with getting out of bed with the alarm in the morning. We are likely struggling with bigger issues such as struggling to enforce boundaries or of struggling with our sense of de-motivation in order to do something or with our anxiety so we can go and meet our friend. Struggle is the opposite of acceptance, we are efforting, often through will, to effect something, often to take action to overcome its physical or felt existence which is impeding or imposing our sense of natural ease or order. Struggle is about our relational response, it’s a form of mental, emotional, energetic engagement in response to something in order to resolve it; we take it on. We struggle as we perceive our need to be free or find a position with something, beyond it.
Is it the ‘thing outside’ of us we are struggling with or are we struggling with ourselves? Is it the ‘thing outside’ of us that is creating the struggle or are we?
Most people are engaged in an internal struggle with themselves. This often describes a process whereby one part of us wants one thing and another feels differently. Take getting out of bed as a simple example. One part of us says you need to get up or you will be late, you need to get on with our day. Another says, but I don’t want to, I’m tired and I can’t face it, I want to stay here. Both parts hold wisdom and both parts wish for a different outcome. Both parts of us actually want to give us what need. This is an internal polarisation. The struggle comes when we feel torn or pulled in different directions. The struggle comes from the experience of being caught up in between. However being in between doesn’t have to be a struggle. I’d like to offer the word tussle as a lighter more playful state, where we recognise the pull but don’t get so caught up in the state of the in-between as being so difficult and draining.
Internal struggle is so pervasive that we don’t realise that we are continually engaged in it. Mainly because it’s so integral to the human experience it’s assumed that’s how we need to live. It’s also masked by the external things we draw into our internal struggle; other people’s behavior, injustices and the events, challenges and happenings of everyday life where we struggle to accept or reconcile them. Of course we can hold positions of opposition against something we actively chose to reject or take on; political ideologies for example. Is this a struggle against or a struggle with?
We hold so many ideas of how things should be, how things measure against our expectations that we are constantly engaged in a process of comparison, judgment and evaluation. Struggling with ourselves against our idealised selves, creating a state of contest or contesting.
Many people believe there is something wrong with them. We aren’t good enough, we got it wrong, we’re too sensitive, too emotional, too needy, not resilient, resourced or creative enough. Too much, too little, not enough. Always something wrong with who we are, things we need to do better, differently. Always something to criticise, judge and blame ourselves about. We keep doing the same things, have the same patterns, run the same cycles and spiral in the same way and struggle to change these things, struggle to believe they are not true or believe in something different.
Can you hear how much we dismiss ourselves, shame ourselves, deny ourselves? All inside our own brain. Created internally. A running narrative about who we aren’t. Can you hear how much energy it takes to be involved with such a dialogue, a debate? How draining? How impossible to resolve? How impossible to find space away from this internal battering, just to be ourselves? The struggle of self-acceptance. This struggle is about not being able to relax into. It is also the struggle of not getting caught up in negative dialogue. Can you hear the tightening, constricting, restricting, toughening this creates in the body? A tension and rigidity towards the self from inside the self? Before we’ve even had breakfast and started navigating the day ahead?
Softening is an essential quality to overcoming struggle and conflict. Softening comes with allowing what is rather than forming a polarised position refuting it. Accompaniment is a concept I have only recently been working with and within it are the qualities of witnessing, acknowledging, compassion, presence and understanding, turned towards ourselves. Accompaniment acknowledges our essential aloneness and offers the missing experience of being alongside our own experience. This speaks to the research then when we have someone beside us, a hill we are about to climb actually looks less intimidating. Things are less of a struggle when we are not alone.
We are alone in our internal world, often with a critical, unkind self evaluator meeting our state of being. Many of our negative self impressions are formed because we suffered negative experiences without the soothing regulating presence of another to reassure us. Without another to hear us and advocate permission for our hurt, confusion, and indignity in the face of misunderstanding, diminishment and injustice. This presence of another mitigates against the internalisation and silencing of hurt and gives us recognition and validity in the context of an upsetting, difficult or overwhelming experience. Much of the impact or overwhelm in an experience can actually be softened, mediated and processed more easily if we are accompanied by someone else. We don’t grip onto it and it doesn’t hold us in it’s grips. If we don’t hold onto something we don’t continually play it through our thinking. In other words softening into and towards an experience means it has less harmful affect on us so we struggle less.
This is the same for how we treat ourselves. If we can find kindness, understanding and compassion towards our thinking and our feelings we become less defined by them. Being with our internal experience gently – we have an experience; it creates feelings then thoughts; then thoughts about how we feel and think – means we can treat ourselves with permission and reassurance: “you’re feeling undermined? of course you feel [hurt], that makes sense. [This] is hard for you. It’s ok to feel how you feel, I get it.” We tend instead to become frustrated with ourselves for feeling hurt and for becoming upset which then leads so some unkind self talk. The self talk leads to a struggle between how things are and how we think they should or shouldn’t be.
I take you back to my earlier suggestion that struggle is a state of response, it’s a form of mental, emotional, energetic engagement in response to something in order to resolve it through efforting to overcome it. We can chose to soften, acknowledge and accept it rather then struggle to assimilate.
It is possible to chose to struggle less and still progress.