I recently received a text citing a friend doing something that was hard for him, and struggling with it. “It’s ok, though,” said the text, “he’s powering through it.”
“Blech,” I thought to myself. Then I typed “Is that really actually good, though?”. And then I deleted it, because nobody was asking for my opinion and it wasn’t time to start a whole big thing over text. And now I’m writing a blog post about it. So here it is:
I hate the term “powering through.” It’s right up there with “snowflake” and “get over it” as my least favorite unhelpful things to say to or about someone. And looking around the therapy world, people seem to be “powering through” stuff left and right. Am I missing something about how great this supposedly is?
Here’s why I think we should reconsider the achievement that is “powering through it”:
Powering Through Rushes Us Past Important Experiences.
One of my favorite speakers, Glennon Doyle, says of bearing witness to a friend’s pain: “When her pain is fresh and new, let her have it. Don’t try to take it away…Grief and pain are like joy and peace; they are not things we should try to snatch from each other. They’re sacred. They are part of each person’s journey.”
We live in a culture in which efficiency and quickness feel essential to our success. We feel we need to do everything faster and better in order to keep up with one another (what does that even mean?), and we often rush past our own emotional experiences without really being in touch with our inner lives at all. In order to maintain the status quo (going to work, performing our duties, keeping up with our homes and the cooking and our exercise routines, etcetera), we compartmentalize difficult feelings, pushing them aside to be dealt with at a later time, which sometimes ends up being…never. I believe this Ito be one of the most significant way that human beings cheat ourselves: We resist touching base with the rich wisdom stirring inside of us, and miss out on the lessons of life – the ones gained via the journey that we take within.
I don’t know about you, but the parts of my life in which I’ve learned and grown the most have been the sticky parts – the parts that required reflection, time, tears, humility, and some amount of discomfort. There’s been plenty of wisdom in the joyous parts, too, but the most authentic elements of myself have sprung from sitting with my fear, my doubt, my anger, and my grief. I now have immense gratitude for the difficulties I’ve endured. And trust me, it all sucked at the time.
Powering Through is Management, Not Healing.
I frequently get calls from potential clients seeking “management tools.” This must be a hot button phrase that was mentioned somewhere and picked up by the general public, because when I ask what a caller is looking for from therapy, more times than not I’ll hear a version of it: “tools to get through the school day,” or “ways to manage my fears,” or “stress management techniques.” Basically, we want a way to deal with whatever emotional experience we’re having without creating any disruption in our often over-scheduled lives. We want to manage.
That’s one thousand percent fair, and honestly, powering through our scary emotions and experiences is a good way to get there. The problem is, it’s a shortcut, and shortcuts don’t often lend themselves to lasting change. If we wish to simply survive, we can power through indefinitely, until we are managing so many things that we become overwhelmed, or sick, or burnt out, (or all of the above), and are forced to take a break and examine ourselves. When we get there, however we get there, we arrive at a place of stillness – of no longer powering through anything. And when we do that, we give ourselves the space to stop the managing, and to start healing.
Where management ignores, healing listens. Where management is hard, healing is pliable. Where management is isolating, healing provides community. Where management holds on tight, healing lets go. Where management is painful, healing is…well, often also painful, but ultimately, soothing.
If we feel we must power through, there’s no shame in that. But (and) it’s the healing that will set us free.
Powering Through is Mean.
I can’t think of a more eloquent way to put it, so I’ll just state it plain – pushing ourselves through difficult emotions and experiences without taking any time to examine and process them is disrespectful, and downright mean to ourselves. Feelings come up for a reason, and they are always trying to help us, even when they do it in misguided or unhelpful ways.
Whether it’s telling us to be afraid because there’s a lion in front of us about to bite our head off, or creating fear of something benign due to a phobia that’s developed because of a previous trauma is irrelevant. Either way, the intent is positive: parts of us are seeking to protect us from something they deem potentially harmful. We don’t need to dismiss their messages as “stupid” or brush them off because they are “irrational,” because by doing so we are basically bullying ourselves and reinforcing a pattern of ignoring our instincts. Instead, we can choose to acknowledge the message or feeling (in this example, fear or anxiety), appreciate it for coming up to guide us, and make a determination from our center (core, Self) as to whether or not to do what it’s telling us to do. No bullying, shaming, or powering through required.
Because of the dictates of our fast-paced culture and very busy lives, it can be incredibly difficult to find the time really get in touch with ourselves and feel our feelings, especially the yucky and uncomfortable ones. At times, we might opt to power through a feeling or experience, ignoring the messages the mind and body are sending our way. Doing this once might be a nod to the stress that is daily living. Doing this over and over, however, cuts us off from vital parts of ourselves, and disables our ability to truly learn and grow through the pain of life.