And with tears of frustration and exhaustion she looks at me expectantly. Waiting. Hoping but not believing that I can say something, anything that will make it better. That will make her less afraid. That will give her hope.
And I want to – desperately. I want to fix it. I want to hug her and reassure her that things will get better and she will be fine. But I cannot take her pain or hurt or anxiety or sadness away. I can’t get inside the boxing ring that is her life and fight for her. And at the end of the day, that’s not what she really wants or needs from me.
Sometimes she needs a mother who can offer a strong yet gentle presence that says – You are okay. You are enough. You can do this thing. You’ve done it before and you can do it again. I know you. I believe in you. I’m proud of you.
Sometimes she needs a coach who can help her study blind spots and triggers. Who can help her see that always moving and doing and working to outrun the bad feelings isn’t working.
So we close our eyes and imagine the scene before us. We listen to the seagulls and the waves crashing onto the shore. We feel the heat of the sun beating down on our backs. We breathe deeply and smell the salty wetness of the ocean air. We taste the saltwater on our lips. We curl our feet and feel the warm sand funnel through our toes. We look to our right and to our left to see the beach stretching for miles in either direction.
Then we turn our eyes to the vastness of the ocean in front of us – its massive beauty and power. And we breathe.
Breathing in peace.
Breathing out fear.
Breathing in new life.
Breathing out anger.
We talk about the ocean. How it’s both powerful and soothing, giant yet peaceful. I feel calm, she says. It’s a little easier to breathe.
What if the ocean was your fear?
But then what happens? The water goes back out.
You don’t have to run after it, swim in it or be pulled under by it. You can simply stand on the beach and allow the water to wash over your feet, and then go back into the ocean.
Let it come. You can’t stop it.
And then release it. Watch it go back out again.
What if you treat your fear like that? What if you practice seeing it like that?
Let it come, and then watch it go back out. Instead of trying to fight the ocean and beating yourself up for ever having feelings of fear or worry or anger or sadness, what if you accept those feelings for what they are?Acknowledge the feelings, but then release them. Release their power over you.
Let the feelings be what they are – a tide that washes over you and then retreats.
The feelings are not you. You are not your anxiety or depression or anger or fear.
The water comes and goes, but you are you.
And I am here. With you. Ready to go for a walk on the beach.
Note: As a therapist, I find that quieting visualizations can be incredibly helpful for regulating emotions. Of all the exercises I use in counseling, this is one of my favorites. Being able to see our painful emotions as something outside of ourselves (the ocean), and as something that happens to us (a wave of depression), rather than intrinsic and unavoidable provides a practical way of coping with distress. I use this in my own life and share it with many of the folks who sit in my office. I hope it can be an instrument of hope in your own life as well.