How do you get your life back when you look ahead and see only darkness: a problem, a challenge, or pain that dominates your attention and drains your energy? No clarity, no solution, no way out or even forward. Even when you’re not thinking about it, it’s there in the shadows, waiting for a gap in your attention so it can jump into the foreground again.
It begins when something in you whispers, “Step back.”
You take one small step backward, and see in your peripheral vision a sliver of white. You realize that you’ve been standing with your nose against a big black dot on the wall right in front of you. You step back again. The dot is surrounded by white. Another step back, and another, and then you realize that the black dot, which occupied all of your attention and felt like your entire world when your nose was up against it, is not all there is. In fact, most of what exists is whiteness, not the blackness of the problem.
The biggest and blackest dot of my life was my son’s illness. I know what it’s like to have my face jammed against that dot and to be completely absorbed by a problem that seems to have no solution. I also know the immense relief that comes with stepping back and finding a broader perspective, the awareness that there is more in my universe than that black dot.
I have been asked, “How did you do that? How did you know to step back?”
Taking the first step back from the dot wasn’t a logical decision. Even the possibility of stepping back was outside my awareness then. I was overwhelmed by painful feelings, as though I were standing in a tunnel leading only down and into darkness. The most dangerous of the feelings were hopelessness and resignation, because they sapped my energy and fogged my mind.
The idea that there was nothing I could do made me angry. I could not accept that we were helpless. The anger energized me. What caused me to move, to take that first step back, was a resolve that arose from the thought “There’s got to be something better than this.” That simple statement was my first step back from the black dot. It enabled me to broaden my thinking into looking for new possibilities.
When I stepped back and felt some release from the helplessness, confusion, and pain of my black dot, I knew I could do something constructive, something that would help me to find again a sense of agency in my life and in the lives of my family.
The first action my wife and I took was to look for solutions that were still close to the black dot: finding services, arranging respite care, connecting with people in similar circumstances, and the like.
After a time, we realized that those “solutions” helped us to cope from day to day but didn’t help us to move forward. Real progress began when we began to reach farther, looking for answers and resources that would last a lifetime rather than a few weeks or months. That search led to a move across the country and a new beginning for all of us.
Your Own Black Dot
Perhaps knowing this can help you too reach a fresh understanding of what is possible in your life. Here is a process for facing and dealing with your own black dots.
Step 1: Face the Blackness
Write or just think about one major stress in your life right now, something that makes you feel as if your face is pushed right up against a black dot. It might be something new or it may have been dogging you for years. The main thing about it is that you’re stuck; you don’t know what to do about it, how to fix it, how to find your way forward or out. For now, stop trying to figure that out and simply take a few minutes (not more than ten—that’s getting into obsessing!) to describe what it is and what you feel.
Step 2: Three Good Reasons
Write at least three good, sensible, solid, real reasons why it has not been possible to step back. You may feel powerless or fearful in your situation, you may be afraid of hurting someone else or letting them down, you may be tired or overstretched, or you may just think that this is how life is for you. Whatever your personal version is of hopelessness and resignation.
It takes courage to face these things, because they often don’t reflect very well on who you would like to be. This where you get to demonstrate your courage again (you’ve already shown courage enough – you’ve survived this far with your face against the dot), but this time your courage will help you move forward.
Step 3: One Step Back
If you’re stuck, here’s a way you can take a step back. Pretend you’re giving advice to someone else whom you know really well. They’ve just given you several reasons for behaving in self-limiting ways. You can see that they’re stuck, and now they’re realizing it too.
Have compassion for them. Share with them your confidence that there is a way, even if they can’t see it yet.
Now put yourself in their shoes, which is where you’ve actually been from the start. Don’t waste time justifying being stuck; you’ve been doing that for too long and it hasn’t made your situation better. Instead, write down one small but positive action you can take. It may be something as simple as sitting down and staring out the window for 20 minutes or taking a short nap to give your mind a rest. This is not “doing nothing!” Think of it recharging a nearly-dead battery, allowing your mind, heart, and body to recover from too much nonstop drainage. Give yourself permission to step back.
Other small things you might do: go for a short walk and paying attention to the birds, sing a song you love, ask a store clerk how their day is going—whatever it takes to get your mind out of your tiny gerbil cage and into a larger, lighter world.
Step 4: That First Small Action
Now that you know your one small positive action, make it happen. As the saying goes, don’t think, just do it. Remember, the only person whose permission you need is you. And probably, the only person whose permission you don’t have is also you.
Step 5: More Steps Back, More Possibilities
After you’ve completed one small positive action five times in a week, look again at your black dot. Can you see a little more white around it? In other words, are you now able to notice other possibilities, other small things you can do, or perhaps some bigger thing that will help you do more than just cope?
A bigger thing you can do when you’re ready might be to put a sticky note on your mirror with the words, “You Deserve,” or “You’ll Make It,” or some other phrase that empowers you on it; think about something you would like to have done for you and then do that same thing for someone else without them noticing; or create a plan to change something basic about your life to make the black dot smaller.
Step 6: Keep It Going
Remember that you are never alone. Look for a physical or online community of people who help you to think of what you would like to become. Find someone who will listen to you, encourage you, and lovingly challenge you. Stay away from people who will help you to justify not changing, or diminish you for wanting to make your life better.
Be optimistic, and be patient. If you’ve had your nose against the black dot for some time, it will take some time to move away from it. Take every gain and celebrate it in some small way, even if it’s just to lift up your hands and say, “Thank you.”
You’re on your way.
Thank you Wes. I appreciate you writing clearly and offering a practical and concise way for people to tackle whatever it is they are challenged by. Its helped me revisit a work-colleague challenge. Warmly, Johan
Thank you Wes. I do appreciate this. And thank you for sharing with me about your son last night.