How to Pull Yourself Together in a Healthy Way
Bert van Baar
There’s a Buddhist saying that man has little capacity for happiness but tremendous capacity for suffering. Can we learn the skills to deal with the most horrendous situations and come out the other end stronger?
Waking from despair
‘Pull yourself together!’ The words echoed in my ears. I had felt devastated, crushed, disappointed, misunderstood, lonely. The reasons why are not the point here. The point is the voice in my head which suddenly told me ‘to pull myself together’. The effect was liberating, healing. I immediately knew it was true and the only thing to do. Nobody else was going to do this for me. The time of analysis and blaming and feeling sorry was more than over, I had to pull myself together. No one else was going to do this for me. The miraculous thing was that the thought alone already seemed to have done half the work. The thought pulled me from my relentless thought cycles that had kept me awake all night. I hadn’t been able to cut them and fall asleep, and now with the light of dawn breaking through the windows and the time for sleeping pretty much over this liberating thought entered my being and gave me a sense of peace that I could build on and go further.
Throughout evolution human beings have become experts in pulling themselves together. Disasters strike again and again: a village raid, the loss of a father or of a child, the house burnt down, a rape, or the crops failing. We can see it on the news: devastation, hunger, cruelty, unfairness, unbearable pain of the innocent, or we experience it in our own lives and the lives of the people around us. It’s the breeding ground of courage, passion, and a fighting spirit that shoots up from lakes of tears and puddles of blood. In the middle of wreckage and despair suddenly there appears this will to live, an indomitable spirit which tells you there’s no other way but to pull yourself together. ‘You have to pull it together!’
Experts and addicts
Some people seem to be experts at pulling themselves together. Their bravery shows in that they seem to need very little time to mourn a loss and quickly move on into a doing mode that sees what needs to be done and then find the energy to start doing it. They become true leaders, leaders of their own lives, leaders of their families and clans, and maybe even leaders of man.
On the other side of the spectrum there are those who seem to have great difficulties at pulling themselves together. Disappointment in life and loss seem to have broken them in a way that’s very hard to heal. Time and again they go for the wrong solutions, the quick fixes, the drink and drugs, the covering up, the wallowing in self-pity and wrong accusations, abusing themselves by going over and over the wrong that’s been done to them. In their minds, it happens again and again and they get hurt over and over, again. Inability to pull oneself together becomes almost a way of life, quite often expressing itself as the life of an addict.
Most of us find ourselves struggling along with mixed feelings somewhere between these extremes.
A precious skill
So, what is this precious skill ‘to pull yourself together’? Can it be learned? Can it be trained? What is ‘pulling yourself together’?
Strength and pitfalls of soldiering on
Many countries and people are trying to catch their spirit by a principle of defiance. We’re all familiar with the famous British mentality of ‘Keep calm and carry on’, and the often flooded province of Zeeland on the Dutch south coast has for example ‘Luctor et Emergo’ (‘I struggle and emerge’) on its weapon shield. One of the most popular ‘pull yourself together’quotes on the Internet is Elisabeth Taylor’s lipstick version. After a setback, we get up and rise again, like a phoenix from the fire. We’re not perturbed, but count our losses and count our blessings. ‘Be grateful for what you got’. ‘It always can get worse’. ‘At least you’re not dead yet’, and so on. This certainly helps and points into the direction.
A danger is that this approach ‘to toughen up’, to ‘take it on the chin’, or to ‘not be a sissy’, can also be very harsh and crush you by denying the pain and the needs. It’s a pitfall that comes with the kind of military approach to perking up. Sooner or later that will have its cost. We can see that in all the soldiers with posttraumatic stress syndrome. They’ve become strangers to themselves. While the traditional ‘man up’ approach (and its female incarnation) might be a good thing to get going and get you out of a rut, afterwards you’ll need to take some time to go back in your mind and process what happened to be able to move on in a healthy way, in a way that your experience doesn’t stab you in the back when you’re at your most vulnerable. Once you’re in a safe place you need to lick your wounds. Take care of them, the emotional ones too. You can’t deny them and say it was nothing, when it clearly was something.
How to pull yourself together in a healthy way
Someone who has pulled him or herself together knows how to function, has a realistic view of the situation, doesn’t keep hanging in the past, is able to let go and adjust to the new situation. These are the basic characteristics of someone who is successful in life. Still, there remains the question, how do you do it?
For me ‘pulling myself together’ is a process of gathering myself. It’s a way of acknowledging all the broken pieces spread around. Letting them be while gathering myself as an invisible force in the centre with the pieces circling in a gravitational field around it. Not holding on to the pieces, the ones that are not useful will fall away while the others gather as lessons learnt and get stored in a determination to make it work this time. Past illusions become the ornaments of future wisdom.
True courage of an inner warrior
Being a warrior and perking yourself up doesn’t have to be an act of will, an extraordinary tour de force, only for the strongest among us. There is also a gentle way of pulling yourself together. Knowing you’re vulnerable, knowing that you can get hurt, that you have failings, that you’re not perfect, and that there are moments you give in to weakness and self-pity doesn’t mean you can’t be a warrior. On the contrary, knowing your weaknesses and pain can make you stronger, more empathic, more compassionate and more human. When you know what it is to be down and out, what it is to feel desperate and little, you’re in touch with something precious. Something that seemingly bolder man might not dare to look at and which they will deny their whole life, missing out one of our deepest and richest sources of strength. This is the power of love for yourself and all living creatures that arises when you feel and see them struggle with the extraordinary challenges of life and their inventiveness to overcome these obstacles.
You only truly know how to pull yourself together if you dare to acknowledge to yourself that you have fallen apart. This is the true courage of a warrior, a spiritual warrior if you like, facing him or herself looking in the mirror of their mind, seeing themselves nakedly in the hour of need.
Healing broken wings
For this one might need to withdraw from the business of life for a moment and turn the mind inwards, back to basics, looking at who is looking. Normally this place would be hidden from sight, but braving all fear you go back to the ground from which your thoughts and intentions arise and you accept whatever comes up in your mind. The practice of being present and non-judgemental to whatever arises in meditation can be a process in which estranged parts of yourself come knocking at the door and bits you’ve grown attached to don’t seem to belong anymore and fly out of the window. That is the moment to let it all be.
Having returned to your home base, you remember what it’s all about, and can find the courage to break out of your entrapment. Out of the naked seeing arises a resolution, a no-choice choice. No longer a stranger to yourself the obvious decision to lift yourself up by pulling yourself together naturally emerges and you’ll be able to spread your mended wings again.
Passing on the wisdom
We have collective knowledge about this ability to pull ourselves together in a healthy way. This knowledge entails one of the key chapters in our book of collective human wisdom. We need to gather this practical wisdom and share with each other how we got up after being beaten down. It’s something precious that we need to pass on to each other and to future generations. Pulling ourselves together is what makes the human spirit come alive again and again and what conquers all setbacks that are a natural part of life.
Maybe you like to share with others what you found out? What does it mean for you to pull yourself together in a healthy way, and how do you do it?
© Bert van Baar - Sky-Heart. All rights reserved.