A few lessons we could all use during hard times
When I was approached about writing a post for Veteran’s Day, I jumped at the opportunity. Yes! Of course, yes. Absolutely. As many of you know, my partner is deployed right now. Between his training schedule and deployments, we’ve spent more than half of our almost four years together physically separated.
It feels insane to write that sentence.
Like, who chooses this? It’s something I used to wrestle with often — the idea that I chose this life. But I really did. I chose it. Why? Well, if you saw the way Richard looks at me, you might understand.
Just kidding. He’s handsome and all but, as a person with childhood abandonment issues, the choice to charge heart-first into a relationship that would seem to leave me behind over and over again looks a lot like masochism.
But if you look at little closer, you might spot an opportunity. An opportunity to face a core wound head on and heal it through a divinely placed partnership. Or at least that’s what I’ve been telling myself the past four years.
That being said, it’s been hard as hell.
So while this post is written for Veteran’s Day with the military family in mind, I hope it resonates with all of you who have knowingly chosen something hard.
Here are three lessons I’ve learned to help handle the hard
#1 — Embrace the suck
Self-care checklist— affirmations, celebration, breathwork
First, recognize and acknowledge that this will be hard.In the military, this is what they mean when they say, “Embrace the suck.”
There’s no sense in denying the difficulty. Suffering persists when you resist it. So it let it be, baby. Remember, you are the sky and everything else is weather. The storm will pass.
When I know something difficult is on the horizon, like a deployment or even reintegration after homecoming, I spend time getting myself mentally prepared.
Affirmations help me check self-doubt at the door. I remind myself over and over again that I can do hard things. I am independent. I am strong. I am safe. I am whole.
And to really internalize those affirmations, I look for opportunities to celebrate my growth. This started as something I’d do to give myself evidence that yes, indeed, I can do hard things. But now it’s something I do most days as I’m tucking myself in for the night.
With a to-do list a mile long and a high-achieving ego story, I rarely give myself credit for the things I accomplish in a day, much less a six month deployment. I find so much value in reflecting on these questions to acknowledge and celebrate my growth, my abilities, and my strength:
- What have I learned recently?
- Have I tried something new?
- Did I reach the edge of my comfort zone?
- What have I noticed about myself?
By getting to know myself better, I can truly see what I am capable of. I learn to trust myself. I have no doubt that I can do hard things. Deep breaths.
#2 — Field strip your soul
Self-care checklist — journaling, meditation, reflection
Field stripping refers to breaking down a piece of equipment to the essentials while out in “the field” for maintenance or repair. And the ability to field strip your soul in the middle of the action is a skill that’s served me well inside and outside of my military family.
This isn’t something that comes naturally to me.
I spent many of my dating years as a damsel in distress. I was looking for a knight in shining armor to save me from myself. Or at the very least, distract me.
But a year into our relationship, Richard and I had spent eight months apart. This relationship was not a distraction. It was a spotlight on all of the feeling I’d been hiding from.
During a particularly hard time that first deployment (he’d unexpectedly lost communications and I hadn’t heard from him in weeks), I wrote in my journal:
I feel anxious. I feel out of control. I feel annoyed and frustrated. I’ve been checking my phone too much. I don’t like that. I don’t want to feel that way. And, in general, throughout deployment, I’ve run into a lot of feelings I don’t want to have.
I’m jealous of my friends’ relationships.
I’m lonely when I want a hug from you or to talk to you.
I’m isolated because my friends and family don’t understand what it’s like or tell me it’s my fault for choosing this.
I’m frustrated (in a few ways) because you’re not here and we can’t even make plans because you don’t know when you will be again.
I’m sad, scared, and angry because I know this will happen again and again and again.
When I read back on that, I see a girl who seeing herself so clearly. And yet she is still blind. It will take many, many more separations for her strip down to the essentials and see her self with clarity. The beautiful truth is that everything she was seeking outside of herself — the love, the support, the home — has been within her all along.
The vacuum that his absence leaves in it’s wake has become the most fertile ground for my personal growth. I’ve learned to use the discomfort as a tool for introspection and, as twisted as it sounds, I’ve started to look forward to the dark nights because I know the beautiful mornings that come after.
I’ve gotten field stripping my soul down to a science. That’s not to say I don’t get knocked back on my heels every now and then by a trigger that comes out of nowhere. I do. But I have my tools.
I use a simple set of questions to strip my trigger response down to the core feeling and identify ways to self soothe. There’s something about journaling these questions, pen to paper, that helps me find my voice and hear myself more clearly. And when I add meditation, I’m really able to tap into where the feelings go in my body when I’m triggered. That simple awareness brings me back to center so quickly.
When I reflect on years of journaling in this way, clear patterns emerge. It’s fascinating to witness the self grow and change. I find myself returning to center more quickly each time.
When I’m centered, I can get back to the hard work.
#3 — Mandatory fun
Part of being a military family is “getting” to participate in mandatory fun. “Mandatory fun” means obligatory social events for service members and their families at which attendance is required. The food is bad and there’s probably going to be a powerpoint presentation at some point.
The idea of mandatory fun is important though, especially in the midst of the hard. We have to stop and create space for connection.
My partner’s deployments have taught me about prioritizing connection. And while mandatory fun takes some of the fun out of it, making it a point to set aside time to connect with the people we care about is critical.
For us right now, that means getting really intentional with our time together. My partner is in Afghanistan. He’s nine and a half hours ahead of me which makes communicating with each other pretty tricky. His bedtime coincides with my early afternoon and, with a richly scheduled life, finding time mid-day for a bio break much less a heartfelt phone call is super challenging. There are five thousand things I could be doing at 2:30pm on a Tuesday but the only thing I will be doing is talking to Richard. My calendar is blocked. My computer is closed. I’m not multi-tasking. It’s just me, him, and a phone line.
Getting intentional about creating connection is part of it but actually establishing connection is hard. And that’s not just a joke about cell reception in the Middle East. What have I learned about connection? Be genuinely curious about one another.
I think this serves any conversation — the rule of three questions. Ask a question. Listen. Ask a follow up question. Listen. Then ask another.
- “How was your day?”
- It was good.
- “What was good about it?”
- I only had four work calls.
- “So what did you do with your free time?”
And when all else fails, play. Snapchat has this game feature where you can play virtual mini-golf or board games together. We do this on and off throughout the week to stay connected. Just because it’s hard doesn’t mean it can’t be fun.
We will all choose to do hard things. And we do not have to go it alone.
This Veteran’s Day, I want to thank all those who serve and have served for their selflessness. And to the military families and all the other Love Warriors out there, thank you too.
If I could give you a gift today, it would be to remind you that you cannot pour from an empty cup. Self-care is simply the act of filling up so that you can continue to pour out love, service, and support for others. The Self-Care Society is a community to practice this work, discover new tools, and participate in a community committed to the journey.
About The Author
Sarah is a classically trained marketer, philosopher, and artist. A self-described ‘wounded healer,’ her writing, much like her coaching, is focused on how we heal ourselves through relationship with others. You can find her irregular writings on Medium and her post-class reflections here on Self-Care Society both under the handle @thebestofsarah.