Over the holidays, my 2-and-a-half-year-old daughter got a bad stomach bug and threw up all night long. She went from having never vomited in her life, to throwing up in every sort of position and location imaginable: lying in her crib, standing in front of the toilet, she even became adept at throwing up into a large cooking pot while lying in bed between my husband and me in the wee hours of the morning.
At one point, I remember resting my face on the cool tile of the bathroom floor, feeling sorry for her, and a little sorry for myself.
At the exact moment I was delving deep into self-pity and picturing how miserable I would feel the next day after no sleep, she did something amazing. After throwing up for the seventh time, she turned to me and said, "Mommy, can I play with your zipper?" She proceeded to start pulling the zipper on my sweatshirt up and down, giggling, as if nothing had happened.
That's when I had an epiphany.
This is what it would be like to be sick with NO STORY.
She wasn't thinking, "Ugh, I'm sick. This sucks. Why me? It's not fair."
Similarly, she had no version of the thoughts in my head: "Could it be food poisoning? Maybe it's from the Mexican food we had for lunch? But no one else got sick from lunch, so maybe it's the flu? Our neighbors did say something was going around, oh no, I hope this isn't a seven day bug."
She wasn't even wondering how long it would last -- unlike me: "Will she be ok tomorrow? What if this is the flu and she's sick all week? I have plans on Thursday and that important meeting."
My daughter simply threw up, then -- because she didn't feel that bad between bouts of vomiting -- she would play. She wanted to read stories, play with my zipper, giggle, and look at things in the bathroom. She thought it was an adventure to be up at night and she was curious about her surroundings, full of wonder and joy.
And then she would stop playing all of a sudden and say, "My tummy hurts." Her brow would furrow for a minute, she would throw up, and afterwards, she would resume her playing. Or, if she was feeling tired, she would simply lie back down. No complaining, no questions, NO STORY. She was completely present to her experience and whatever she was feeling in the moment.
I recently spent a week on a self-compassion retreat with leading self-compassion researcher Kristin Neff and her colleague Chris Germer. During the retreat, I learned this equation that perfectly describes what happened to my daughter compared to what happened to me while she was sick:
Suffering = Pain x Resistance
My daughter had no resistance to being sick. She had no experience with it; she'd never had a stomach bug before. Without that experience there was no story about what was happening or about what should be happening. There was no resistance.
I, on the other hand, wasn't even the one vomiting and yet I had a ton of resistance and plenty of stories. My head was full of thoughts:
• how serious is her illness
• was she hydrated enough
• should I take her to the hospital
• what may have caused it
I was scared and annoyed that I would be exhausted the next day, then immediately felt guilty for thinking about myself in the midst of my daughter's suffering -- "What kind of a narcissistic mother am I?! She's the one who is ill and all I can do is worry about myself." My mind was swirling out of control with so many forms of resistance to my pain.
The purity with which my daughter handled her illness was so inspiring.
It made me stop and wonder, "What if, the next time I'm sick, I don't resist it so much?"
Why should I worry so much about how I got sick (was it the Mexican for lunch or is this the stomach flu?!) because really, who cares? If you're throwing up, you're throwing up.
Instead of worrying, diagnosing, resisting, and getting caught up in story telling; can I accept my suffering and treat it with self-compassion? I have learned that acceptance and self-compassion are the keys to ending suffering.
So, the next time you or your child gets sick, see if you can accept it and practice self-compassion. Think:
• This is hard. This is a moment of suffering.
• Everyone goes through difficult times like this. I'm not alone.
• Can I treat myself kindly in this moment? What do I need?
Let go of the story and take care of yourself instead. Then, perhaps, you too will find yourself giggling on the bathroom floor at 4:00 a.m. Stranger things have happened.
Vanessa Loder is an entrepreneur and former private equity investor whose company, Akoya Power, supports women in leading more purposeful professional lives. She is also the Co-Founder of Mindfulness Based Achievement, the New MBA, a company that provides corporate workshops, retreats, in-person and online educational tools to help high potential women leaders learn how to lean in without burning out.
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Vanessa received her MBA from Stanford University and is certified in neuro-linguistic programming (NLP), executive coaching and past life regression hypnosis. You can read more at Vanessa's blog, Akoya Power or find her on twitter @akoyapower.
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