Fourteen years ago, I was knocked off my bike by a motorcycle. I glanced to the right on a road I thought was clear and there it was, a motorcycle speeding towards me, swerving too late to avoid the collision. A split-second later I was looking at the ground. I was lucky not to be more severely hurt by the impact but it was a terrifying and utterly disorientating experience nonetheless. My back was twisted in the accident and in response to it being compromised and vulnerable my muscles clenched in powerful spasms around my lower spine. Though I understood this to be a natural, protective reflex, it was a new and distressing experience for me. In caution and uncertainty, I stayed in bed for the majority of two weeks after the injury, very afraid my back could spasm again and deteriorate at any moment if I allowed too much movement. I took my fear and the spasms as a cue to be still and I was very unsure about when to end that stillness.
My first journeys out were to visit an osteopath. I started having flashbacks of the motorcycle coming towards me when I crossed roads. These unexpected splinters of memory would crash into my vision and I’d involuntarily brace myself for the impact that didn’t come. My whole body became a protective spasm, over and over, unable to believe the danger was gone.
One of the many problems this created for me was that I’d booked my first ever ski trip shortly before the accident, and being a complete beginner, I was very concerned about my injury. I couldn’t see any way I’d be able to attempt skiing which would no doubt involve many falls. When I imagined the trip I’d see variously dramatic sequences of me being more severely injured, such as being airlifted to hospital with a broken back. In response to these images I’d get the spasm again and I’d hold my body rigidly still. This increased my feelings of apprehension which in turn created more images of extreme damage; thoughts, inflaming feelings, inflaming thoughts. I was just about ready to decide against skiing altogether.
Then, a few days before the trip, as I was heading home late on the top deck of a Central London night-bus, an extremely loud and drunken man unsteadily climbed the stairs. He was about to grab the post to pull himself up the final step when the bus pulled away. Missing completely, his hand grasped in mid-air and he fell backwards, out of sight. Everyone on the bus gasped in unison as we heard him tumble down the steps and onto the floor below. Though it was probably only a moment or two, the fall was followed by what seemed like an eternity of silence, plenty of time for me to imagine broken bones, head injuries, worse. Before I could get up to check on the man, his raucous laughter broke the silence and filled the bus. He immediately climbed the stairs again and took a seat as though nothing had happened.
I was inspired. I changed my mind in that moment and decided I would go skiing and that each time I fell I’d act as if I were completely drunk. I’d save myself from my fear of paralysis by becoming voluntarily paralytic. It was a revelation that the real danger for me would be to ski as though I still had an acute injury, to be tight and over-protective and resistant to what was happening, and that if instead I acted as though I was no longer injured I could meet the world with flexibility and therefore be safer.
I went out onto the slopes each day and tumbled into the snow countless times. Of course, I wanted to ski well and I tried to keep my balance as best I could, but once I’d lost it, once I’d passed that clear point of no return, instead of trying to stop the inevitable, I completely surrendered. As a result, I didn’t hurt my back once. More than that, I really enjoyed the liberation of falling. Though it seemed counter-intuitive – an act of blind trust – I felt safe in the process of being soft, as though my softness was a comfortable refuge. I switched off, lost control and simply observed the world moving before my eyes; spraying snow, some blue sky, a leg here, an arm there, a ski flying off in this or that direction. Then once everything came to a stop I would stand up, brush myself off, reattach my skis and go again.
Before this, being resilient seemed to require making powerful effort. It meant willpower. It meant digging deeply to find a sturdy strength of character.
I conflated resilience with hardiness and a determination to remain intact, to be unflappable, invulnerable, immovable. I realized this had been a misunderstanding, that it was a kind of perfectionism to want to be unchanged by external events; a futile attempt to be faultless. I would deny difficult experiences by trying to withstand them, and this kind of resistance saps an incredible amount of energy. Being resilient in this way actually becomes more of an endurance.
Many kinds of coping strategies are formed in response to external threats, whether developmental traumas or sudden impacts. Whilst these responses and strategies are completely natural and sometimes essential to our survival and wellbeing, if they’re continued beyond a useful period they become a burden and a prison. It’s when our instinct to survive is in overdrive for a prolonged period, when we’re preoccupied by a repetition of a trauma, that we can unwittingly set ourselves up for more and unnecessary distress. It’s completely understandable that once hurt we might cling to a strategy that’s worked for us; we come to the brink of a new experience and hope for a signal that life is safe again, instead we’re confronted with the fear that it’s still hostile or full of peril out there. But, if we want to live fully again, at some point we need to recognize that sustained caution prohibits growth.
Resilience is the ability to make it through various stages of life over time. Often, the best way to retain our shape in the long term is to lose it completely in the short term, and of course, vice versa; the surest way to be broken more severely is to aim to remained unchanged at any cost. That’s when life hits us the hardest.
So, what do we do? One thing is to be optimistic about a future even though life has shown itself to be unpredictable, difficult or painful. In a ‘fake it till we make it’ way, we need to let go and act as if we are OK already. This gives us a chance to regain a felt sense of safety and trust that failure, injury, accident or trauma can be integrated into life as a whole, with ups and downs and ups again.
Life is dynamic and changeable. We are in a state of constant pulsation; breathing in and breathing out, pumping blood, reaching out for contact with others, drawing in for contact with ourselves; perpetual expansion and contraction. Allow this movement to happen. Be flexible. Be both. Know that it’s possible to fall down and stand up, to be soft and strong, to be broken and to be healed, to be formless and then be reformed. When we allow ourselves to meet life in its dynamism and changeability we’ll find that we can expand our experience of being alive. We can tolerate more of its texture and variability, safe and secure in the knowledge that everything is going to change and that we can change with it.
Being willing to be shaped and reshaped by what happens to us is counter-cultural. There are so many messages about being impervious and strong, for all of us and especially for men. It can be against the social rules to lose face, to allow it to crumple in despair or beam with joy, so others can see that we are affected, that we care. Many people talk about being knocked down and getting back up again. But what about going volitionally, to work with, rather than against, what comes our way. Relaxing all my muscles and falling over in the snow was a letting go of fear and fixedness, and releasing what could have become part of my identity for too long as an injured person, or a person who is now cautious, or injury prone. I trusted that my body knew how to fall without my conscious, busy mind being involved in anything deliberately evasive or acrobatic. Instead of falling into snow it could have been allowing myself to cry or dance or dissolve into sleep or collapse into a break from work.
Whether it’s relationships that have run their course, behaviors that don’t come from the heart, unsatisfying work, or losses that we’re reluctant to accept, it’s worth asking ourselves what we’re holding onto that has become redundant and limiting. What is it that we are tolerating because of a sense of fear or pride, or because we won’t allow ourselves to imagine a different kind of experience than the one we’re accustomed to, the one that’s been modeled for us by others, or maybe just the one we are comfortably proficient at.
A lot of people say they want a different and better life but many people change their mind once they realise it means letting go of what they currently have, as well as the version of who they currently are, to make space for what’s next. This is basically wanting change without having to change.
It takes courage to let go because we go through a phase of deep uncertainty at the point of release (Will we be safe? Will we be able to function in the world? What comes next?). What’s certain is that the uncertainty is temporary. Even if we can’t see the next phase we can trust it’s there.
The first time we let go it can be very frightening, especially if it seems the change is forced upon us. Whatever the reason, the more we allow ourselves to let go of one phase of life and then relocate ourselves in the next, the more we come to trust that life is intended to be a series of growth phases. Once we’ve let go, we know we can do it again, and the more we do it, the easier it gets. And the best thing about trusting life to happen this way is that more we let go, the more we have.
Tony Linkson is a psychotherapist, coach, creativity consultant and writer based in London, UK. The heart of his work is supporting people to get clear about who they really are and how they might create the lives they want. Tony’s website is www.tonylinkson.com and he sometimes tweets @tonylinkson
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