Before anything else.
Before you can get any help, or start working your way through a tricky situation or painful experience, you have to acknowledge it exists.
The universe I inhabited before my thirties was a place where it was not the done thing to express discontent.
We were loved by God and had everything we needed. We were not homeless, or learning to live with a critical illness. We were not cold or hungry. We did not have to walk miles every day to collect water. We were not alone and abandoned.
Anything that did go wrong, or didn’t turn out how we expected could be explained as beyond our understanding, or as a great opportunity for growth. We were told God had a plan and to keep going, to fight the good fight. We were encouraged that nothing was impossible for God and with enough faith and determination, it would all work out.
And in this culture of positivity, it was difficult for any expression of dissatisfaction, pain or distress, not to sound like complaining.
(Like the Israelites grumbling in the desert on the way to the promised land… And what did that do? Delayed their arrival for 40 years!)
Somewhere along the way I had swallowed the lie that if you knew Jesus, nothing could be wrong. That there was a reason, a way of understanding, that made it okay.
I had also mistakenly got a memo telling me I was on Jesus’ press team.This meant even if something really did go wrong, my ability to cope with it, to remain strong under pressure, to keep a good attitude and remain faith-filled, would show Jesus, God and the whole system as CORRECT. In this way I would be a good advertisement, a good example.
These ideas kept me miserable for a long time
In my 30th year I started to see my oh-s0-wonderful therapist. After a few sessions I realised there was a phrase she used quite often. This collection of unremarkable words made a massive difference to me. The words were:
That must be really hard for you.
Written like that, on the page, they almost look sarcastic. Or at best, like pity.
But what they actually were, was acknowledgement.
She was reflecting back to me that my life was not easy.
Having spent a long time trying to ignore the things that niggled at me, the sadness that had crept in, the fear that struck without warning, these words were like a long drink of water on a very hot day. Refreshing. Relief.
These words spoke to my soul and told me what I was feeling was real, and that it was legitimate.
My feelings were valid.
Because if you think your pain, or sorrow, or grief is too much, or too big, or has gone on too long, that it is unnecessary and frankly seriously inconvenient to everyone else, sooner or later you start to feel like less of a person. Like you don’t cope like everyone else, you aren’t as good, or as able, as everyone else. Like you are weak and a burden.
These words were the first step on the path to honesty, to acceptance, to health, to freedom.
Six years later and I still see my therapist, albeit more sporadically now. As I talk about my week, the stuff that is happening in my family, or my work, occasionally she will say,
that must be really hard for you.
It still surprises me.
I have got better at acknowledging when things are hard, things that hurt and threaten to knock me off-balance.
But sometimes I still struggle to recognise difficulties when they arise. A lifetime of pushing past the pain means that my default position is to just pocket the hard stuff. Keep it in the dark, in a secret place, and only show others the good bits.
But this reflex of minimising the truth, is actually called denial. And it is all too easy to become very, very good at it. Until eventually it eats you up and makes you bitter. Until it poisons you and stops you from connecting with anyone.
This is why sometimes we need those who will see the truth for us and tell it like it is. That life can be tough and painful and your emotional response is valid. We need to be told
that must be really hard for you.
Not for pity, or for even for sympathy. But because as we recognise, as we acknowledge, the messy truth about the state of our souls, as we are honest about our inner life, we gain the courage to bring it into the light of day. And in the warmth of the sun, healing becomes possible.