This article was first published in Maria Shriver’s Sunday Paper.
A friend of mine recently experienced something I call a “life wallop.” You’ve probably had a few wallops in your own life: a relative you funded through rehab calls, high as a kite, asking you for bail money; an elderly parent, lost in dementia, snaps something brutally cruel; you see your ex on a date with your next door neighbor.
“I feel like a truck hit me,” said my friend. “It’s so stupid—I know I should just shrug it off, but I can barely get out of bed. I’ve been working so hard to evolve into a stronger person, and now I feel like I’m right back to zero.”
This is awful… and also pretty typical. After a life wallop, most of us think we should pull ourselves together and soldier on. But we’re so dazed and bewildered we can’t find that mode—and even if we could, we’d be building our future on foundations that have been hit by a wrecking ball. There’s another way to approach life after a wallop. We can turn toward these dreadful experiences, even embrace the fact that they’ve happened, in ways that ultimately transform them into profoundly positive experiences.
Life Wallops and Personal Evolution
It really struck me that my friend saw her wallop as a setback in her efforts to “evolve.” It got me thinking about how evolution works. There are two theories about this. One, called gradualism, holds that living things evolve slowly and subtly, making many tiny changes over time. The other theory is known as punctuated equilibrium. The idea here is that creatures remain quite stable until something radical happens in their environment. Then, in order to survive, they evolve very rapidly. Once they’ve adapted to their environment, their stability returns.
In other words, sometimes it takes a wallop to effect some serious personal evolution.
We evolve in both these ways, which, after all, aren’t mutually exclusive. Like my friend, we may continuously move toward being happier, stronger, better people—one small step at a time. Then, WHAM! A life wallop hits us so hard we can barely keep breathing. In these moments, we have two choices: rapid evolution or extinction.
If you’ve got a few life wallops in your history, you may still be trying to go on as though they never happened. The bad news is that this won’t work. The good news is that it’s never too late to deal with a life wallop in a way that will make you rocket forward in your personal evolution.
How to Handle a Life Wallop
Step One: Stop Everything and Pay Attention to Your Feelings
I decided to learn karate when I was already middle-aged. My teacher used to look out for moments when one of us students had been hit so hard we were literally punch-drunk, staggering around with our ears ringing and the room spinning. “Stop!” my teacher would say. “Go sit down and feel what you’re feeling right now. It sucks, but you can handle it. If you run from this sensation, you’ll always be afraid. If you sit with it until it passes, you’ll be calmer and braver the next time you have to fight.”
When we try to pretend a life wallop hasn’t leveled us, we never have a chance to evolve more confidence and courage. My friend’s impulse to stay in bed and let herself feel awful was perfectly adaptive: her body and brain knew that what she needed was to absorb the blow. She wasn’t acting like a victim, getting lost in self-pity. She was just feeling the full extent of her experience. Minimizing the pain of a wallop, or trying to ignore it, actually weaken us. Stillness and attention are the first steps toward rapid evolution.
Step Two: Talk About It with Safe People
Often, life wallops carry with them a massive load of shame. We don’t want to admit that something or someone has really gotten to us, that we’re hurt and weakened. Shame leads to keeping our suffering secret. We may lie about how we’re really feeling to avoid exposing our tender, wounded emotional underbellies.
This is completely understandable, and it’s true that we shouldn’t turn for help to insensitive or malicious people who could damage us further. But the antidote for shame—the only antidote for shame—is openness. The only way to care for a crippling wound is to let someone else see it.
Devastated as she was, my friend’s instincts were functioning perfectly to help her survive and evolve. By telling me about the life wallop and how awful it felt—even telling me about how embarrassed she was to be hurt by it—she was disinfecting her wounds. Openly expressing our pain to safe people is an emotional antiseptic. It doesn’t take away all the pain (often, it stings to admit our feelings) but it sets us on a path to healing.
By “safe people” I mean anyone who can listen compassionately and respond with empathy. If you’re from a dysfunctional family where no one fits this profile, call a friend. If your friends don’t fill the bill, get a therapist. Or call a hotline. Or go online and find a group of people who’ve been through similar life wallops—I promise, they’re out there. The pain of a life wallop will send you instinctively looking for a place to open up. And it’s the process of opening to compassionate others that can turn an obliterating event into something that catalyzes positive transformation.
Step Three: Trust Your Own Evolution
If we can’t tolerate the sensation of a life wallop, or if we hide it, we s become emotionally fragile, less able to connect with others, prone to drowning our suffering with mood-altering substances or behaviors. But if we can sit with our pain and then share it honestly, the magic of evolution begins changing us—rapidly—into stronger, more flexible, more confident beings.
This is not a change we have to design or manage. Once we’ve fully acknowledged our pain to ourselves and others, it happens by itself. The stress of a life wallop catalyzes a rapid burst of adaptation. All we have to do is wait and trust.
In fact, we can’t possibly know what we are becoming in the aftermath of a wallop. We can only watch and wonder as our whole intricate, miraculous nature does what it’s designed to do: evolve. This is the magic of a bone growing tougher and more resilient where it’s been broken. It’s the body correcting its own balance as it learns to walk, run, ride a bicycle. New strengths and skills emerge fluidly from the experience of tolerating a blow. All we have to do is let ourselves feel, and let ourselves share.
It will be a few weeks before my friend’s ears stop ringing, before the room stops spinning, before she wakes up one morning feeling bright-eyed and enthused. Right now she’s still evolving, still adapting to the circumstances of her wallop. But because she’s honest and open, her gradual evolution has been revved up, not slowed down, by her experience. If you handle your own life wallops this way, you too will enter a period of rapid change and growth. You too will be stronger in the broken places. You too will learn that you can trust your own evolution to work its magic.
The more demolished and discouraged you feel, the more powerful and beautiful a creature you are becoming.