Years back, a client was telling me about what it was like to be in counseling with me.
She said that colors actually looked brighter to her. She could see what was happening around her, and respond.
Everything she said painted a real picture of what it had been like for her before.
I remarked, “It sounds like waking up from a nightmare.”
She said, “It’s exactly like that!”
When we talked more about it, it came clear how very vivid and real the nightmare had felt to her. That nightmare state had become her life.
She couldn’t hear or take in people’s caring.
Her self-talk had turned against her.
Hope was frightening because it felt like a mere set-up for disappointment.
She felt unlovable, worthless. And trusting others felt out of the question — How could they love her if she was as worthless as she felt convinced she was? And even if she hadn’t felt so convinced of her worthlessness, she had been let down so many times. She had felt like it would be foolish to trust anyone else.
What a bind.
A month into our work, her feelings were so different. That didn’t mean those old feelings never emerged. We still had lots of work to do. But she could recognize the nightmare as a nightmare, and she had ways to wake up.
And that’s one of the huge things that I want you to know, if you’re feeling alone, unlovable, panicked, hateful or hated, or in the grip of old memories or guilt or shame. It’s like you’re in a nightmare. Or a trance. And when you get stuck in one of those places, it’s a bit like listening to a scratched record that plays the same little segment over and over again. You lose track of the overall music, the flow…..You lose track of the fact that there’s so much more than this little tidbit that keeps playing over and over again.
Your thoughts seem to lose meaning as you get stuck on just one feeling or thought or theme.
Moving forward feels impossible.
Over and over again, clients discover that these loops inside are based on misunderstandings. Their worst feelings about themselves are based in lies. What they think of as life is more like a nightmare, and they just are so lost in it that they don’t realize that they can wake up.
So how do you awake from a nightmare of feeling lost, hopeless, helpless, alone?
First off, recognize the nightmarish quality to your feelings. Very often, I see people whose nightmare is perpetuated by trying to pretend that it doesn’t hurt inside, that they’re not feeling stuck. They keep trying to smile or cheer themselves up, and it’s an interesting paradox: Until you acknolwedge how stuck you feel, it’s difficult to get unstuck.
-Recognize that, when you feel bad, your brain tends to select memories that reinforce the feeling. Ever noticed that, when you feel sad, it tends to bring up memories of other times you’ve felt sad? Knowing this can help you to realize that your brain is doing what brains do and associating this time with other times that felt similar. That doesn’t mean there haven’t been good times or times you felt lovable, competent, and like you belonged. Those times are just not so easy to access from here.
Sometimes I describe this is working something like a file cabinet in your mind. You get sad, and it opens up your “sadness” file. And from that file, the whole world feels sad.
It’s not. But that’s the way it feels.
-Acknowledge how you’re feeling, but try a few differences in how you say it to yourself. Instead of saying, “Nothing works out for me,” say to yourself, “It’s feeling right now like nothing works,” or “A part of me is feeling like nothing works.”
-Get help. Some nightmares are too big to face all alone. Talk to a friend, or a counselor, or someone who can help.
-Focus on your sensations instead of the story. Notice the sensations that go alone with “hopeless” or whatever the feeling is. Is there a sinking in your stomach? Does your heart race?
-Now that you’ve connected with your sensations, connect to your environment. Let yourself look around and notice where you are. A weird thing I’ve learned about these nightmare kinds of states: They can produce a kind of tunnel vision. You may be so oriented to the thoughts that you’re not noticing where you are. So it’s a simple technique, but it can be a powerful one, to acknowledge, “I’m feeling very sad, and I’m also looking around, and I notice my bookshelf, and my stuffed bear, and…..”
Try it and see if it does something to shift your state of mind!
One thing I want you to know:
Nightmares can feel so very real when you’re in the middle of them. But they’re not real. If you’ve ever comforted a small child who has just waken from a nightmare, you know that sometimes it takes lots of repetition and comfort to help that child to reorient to reality.
You deserve help to come back to reality as well, to wake up from what feels like you’ll later realize was much like a bad dream or a nightmare.