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The Real Medicine!

In a cab with two friends, tensions were high. After several confusing bus-rides back from the Western coast of Ecuador it was looking like we’d miss our first of four closely connecting flights from Guayaquil to Vancouver. Dehydrated, hungry and worn thin from travel, our anxiety spiked. The voice in my head said, “This-is-bad-this-is-bad-this-is-bad.” Looking to organize my thoughts, I was lucky that Cici did it for me.

“I’m kind of freaking out,” she said, “but panicking isn’t going to help. We need to stay focused.” And she was right. For our so-so Spanish to negotiate land, sea and air we needed absolute calm. I liked travelling with these two because this is how they responded to basically every challenge we faced. If our group had a mantra it would have been: This sucks, and I’m going to deal with it.

Hardship Creates Growth
I later realized that in between the highs of travel, our entire journey had been like this. Hard things happened while we learned how much weight our minds and bodies can actually hold up. While shouldering sickness, loss, hunger, injury and even moments of existential terror during a plant medicine ceremony something odd happened: I felt much better. While I’d traveled to South America to learn about plant-based healing rituals, the real medicine turned out to be something else. Healing took the form of non-avoidantly enduring hardship.
Back home, everything felt different. I questioned if whether certain comforts were actually helping me or holding me back. Would the world really end if I went to work without enough sleep? Did I really need the girl at the gym to find me attractive? Did it matter if the audience noticed my voice shake while I started presenting? My need to control myself and the environment through obsessive behaviours, constant distraction, or by having that extra drink had softened while my tolerance for discomfort and pain had increased. Let’s look at why:
My nervous system had been through tremendous misery, and nothing bad had happened. Anxiety is a physical sensation of pain just like anything else, and can be tolerated all the same. It starts and it ends, and the act of enduring it actually trains us to handle more next time.
To practice this yourself, consider how you can challenge your normal standard of comfort. Is it by performing tasks even though you feel anxious? Is it by camping overnight away from your daily comforts? Is it by working for 10 more minutes before you distract yourself with the internet? Is it by meditating and watching that sensations like leg pain, boredom and itchiness have a beginning, middle and end? For me personally, these are all effective ways of strengthening my endurance to pain and emotional distress.
Hardship Alone Isn’t Enough

Despite what I wrote up there, people often tell me that they’ve tried just ‘powering through’ challenges and only hit walls, exhausted themselves, cycled into shame and felt more lonely and overwhelmed than before they started. This is almost always because of a missing key ingredient that ensures challenges are truly growth experiences and not just self-punishment.

In Ecuador, what let me be transformed by hardship was the voice of self-compassion; positive inner messages that supported me while I experienced profound physical and mental lows (this was turbo-charged by travelling with two positive and non-judgmental friends). Had I experienced deep shame or self-criticism the burdens might have been more than I could handle. Instead, much like eating and resting properly after a workout, self-compassion aided a different type of recovery.

To do this yourself, practice self-compassion exercises (I like lovingkindness meditations, myself), learn to monitor and challenge negative self-talk, talk about shame and share vulnerability with those you trust, or pursue counselling.

Consider then that GROWTH = HARDSHIP x SELF-COMPASSION (something I call the Mathematics of Growth and what I will discuss next time). This to me isthe real medicine, and something that made my most recent journey one of transformation and connection. Oh… And when we finally made it to the Guayaquil airport? The flight turned out to be delayed anyways. 16 hours later we’d made it back to Vancouver… However things weren’t quite the same 🙂

 
 
 
I’m Carson Kivari MA RCC, a Vancouver based psychotherapist and wellness coach. Follow me on Facebook and reach me via carson@thrivemens.com or 604-227-0297.
 

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