Because I write openly about my struggles and recovery from trauma, I often get letters asking what I might do in certain situations involving deep, hostile family conflict or the madness that ensues from an issue of addiction or alcoholism in a home.
In years past, I didn’t have many “tools in the toolbox” for navigating those troubled waters. I’m certainly no expert. But I am experienced when it comes to turmoil and crisis. By the time our crisis transpired and in the moments when dormant issues exploded to the surface (as they are prone to do when left unattended), I realized I needed strategies in place for managing tough times and intense emotions when they occur.
First and foremost, having faith and gratitude can be some of the strongest power tools we possess. Combined, the two empower us to forgive, find hope, let go, make peace, adapt to extremely difficult situations, and get back up (over and over).
Beyond this, a set of “tools” to pull out on an as needed basis is vital. Those I have found useful…
Knowing who you are
For most of my life I allowed a background of dysfunction and the issues in my life to cause me to feel intrinsically worthless. When we come up through a toxic mess, we believe our identity to be based out of every area of deficit, which results in even more toxic connections and environments. Because it’s our normal.
Like many, I personally thought I deserved less than anyone. I spent years second guessing myself and not trusting my intuition even when it shouted at me. I’d usually believe someone else had more authority to be right about me than I did. Many times after things took a wrong turn, I’d look back and see all the signs I had ignored because I simply didn’t believe in myself.
When this is your thought pattern, you’re at the mercy of everyone around you. You will believe that drawing lines, setting boundaries, and sticking up for yourself are selfish things. But they’re not selfish, they’re healthy.
Unless we know who we are and that we were fundamentally created with value, we become easy prey for those with a dysfunctional agenda.
Therapy and recovery work
Therapy is not for the faint of heart. Therapy and recovery are strong tools that serve to identify and separate us from our issues.
Spending time with a counselor is not a sign of weakness. It’s actually quite brave to admit that we’re struggling with something. (Therapy probably kept me from having a mug shot.)
How much better to just be real and get it over with than to pretend we’re not in a struggle, put on a mask, and end up acting it out.
Alongside therapy and recovery, great tools to rely on are regular spiritual practices. We can prop ourselves up on faith and find there to be no better support.
During more than a few major storms, while facing what I felt were huge obstacles and impossible odds, I discovered that I could always find comfort in the Higher Power of my life. The Unseen Force of kindness and strength that is always for me, always helping, healing and strengthening me. The Presence of peace that never leaves us in the worst of times. Even when it feels like everyone else has.
The reminder to: “Guard your valuables!”
This incredibly powerful tool was a piece of advice frequently given to me more than a decade ago and it took almost as long to fully grasp it.
I have a close friend who counsels families in crisis I would sometimes call her to complain about whatever emotional injury du’ jour that I’d sustained. Usually my frustration pertained to a snide comment from a friend or coworker that was delivered at the worst possible time. Or maybe it was an issue I was having with my mom, another relative, or my son.
Her response was never to shame them and baby me (which is important), but instead to point out that once again I “hadn’t protected my valuables.”
“You didn’t guard your valuables.” she would gently remind me.
“What are my valuables?” I’d asked in confusion.
“That’s your problem, you don’t know.” she said more than a few times. “When you figure them out, you’ll protect them.”
We established over time that valuables are the things that make up who we are. Guarding our valuables involves protecting our confidence, peace of mind, goals, problems, sorrows, dreams, and opinions; the deep places of the heart.
Guarding your valuables means being cautious with whom we reveal what is going on in our life.
She would also suggest that valuables are how we respond to others and allow them to speak to us. Self-respect and dignity are valuables.
We aren’t protecting ourselves when we’ve felt uncomfortable or unsafe around certain people yet didn’t give ourselves enough support to create a safe distance from them. We need to honor those gut feelings instead of second guessing ourselves or thinking it might be rude to be guarded.
You can only spend so many years being pulled along by others before ending up burned out and resentful, not realizing you’re betraying yourself. This is how we regularly give away our power and identity. When you live like that, it will put you at the mercy of everyone around you.
The more we grow in the knowledge of our worth and rights in those areas, the healthier our mind will become and over time confidence begins to grow.
My wise friend’s advice was a specific way of identifying boundaries along with methods of protecting myself within them. Life-saving.
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Other valuables might include:
Who we spend time with
Who we do favors for, who we allow to vent to us, who we allow to know our confidential personal business, who knows us on intimate levels, and so on. These are valuable parts of us that we need to treasure and protect.
If we don’t know that—that is where the recovery work needs to be done.
We attract the results of the work we do. If we haven’t done much work on ourselves and our sense of value, we end up surrounded by people who don’t think of us much either.
In order to recover, we have to uncover.
This is a time-saving power tool. Rigorous honesty makes life a whole lot easier when we cut to the chase. Nothing can block the flow of energy that honesty carries. Truth is a power tool.
Recognizing your participation in an unhealthy situation is a giant step toward freedom from it.
Knowing yourself, trusting your intuition when it checks you (it will always check you—it’s our built in safety system!) will protect you from being desperately hurt by people who pretend to be one thing and turn out to be another.
Open, honest, safe communication
Healthy people communicate; unhealthy people manipulate.
Maintaining peace and equanimity in the midst of chaos
Ignore those who always come running to you like their hair is on fire.
My favorite word is equanimity. Equanimity is the ability to maintain mental calmness and composure when in a difficult situation.
There are personalities who come at you to try to force you on your heels. Some people thrive on conflict, shock value, etc. Ambushes can trigger us. We have to work to remain mindful and composed. Maintaining equanimity and enough presence of mind to not merge energy with someone else’s negativity, or “hair on fire” urgency, is the goal.
Education and information are life preserving power tools
Within my own life, I prefer to have clear understanding of what is going on and what steps I need to take to find solutions. Becoming informed and educated might mean going to the internet for information, taking my questions to professionals, calling friends with similar experiences, finding books, classes and workshops on the subject, or having a counselor or therapist to call and check in with in times of stress or confusion.
When it comes to issues of addiction, alcoholism, substance use disorder and the dysfunctional behaviors they involve, clarity is the doorway to resolution. Knowing the patterns of the brain disease of addiction, understanding the situation at hand, and having tools in place when times get desperate will help build boundaries around your peace (and sanity).
A Strong, healthy support system
We all need someone to have our back and we need to be that for others in return. The ebb and flow of support is what heals people. I cannot stress the importance of support enough. Friends to call, a recovery group, a family support group, a unit that is compassionate, kind, and treats us with sincere, positive regard will heal just about anything.
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Having strategies and tools on hand for tough times are as important for our lives as a toolbox or first aid kit.
When a tornado rips a house apart, once the storm is over, life does go forward, yet it’s different than before. We can’t just proceed as usual now that the winds have stopped. There’s damage to deal with and rebuilding that must take place. It takes time to gather the tools to build stronger lives. It’s a process.
Speaking from personal experience, it’s one that is definitely worth it.
Peace and equanimity are possible.
Host of: The Unhooked Podcast
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For information, comfort, encouragement and support: