• Lana Wildman

Surviving when you can't walk away

You've heard it—the advice out there about avoiding negativity and stress—cutting people out and walking away from situations that have a negative impact on our mental or physical health, our time, or our sense of well-being. Many times we would love to do just that. But the reality we confront regularly is that walking away is just not an option if we are to participate positively in our families, support the financial demands of living, and contribute meaningfully to our communities.

Sometimes the crisis is short-lived and we can take a deep breath, look around and make sure everyone's still OK, and then pick up pieces and go on. And no one should talk themselves into staying in any situation of physical, sexual, or other abuse. I'm talking about ordinary life, when the demands stack one atop another, as though it's the ultimate test of what we can deal with, but doubt remains that there is any prize at the end. If there's even an end.

In a job we really need, where disrespect or egregious demands are unendurable.

In a family, where another has consuming needs we can't just decide not to deal with.

Single parents keeping a thousand small pieces moving or a business owner trying to keep the doors open.

The anger and tunnel vision of those around us on a daily basis, even that of strangers we will never meet, can take its toll.

We feel the stress in clenched teeth and the band of pain around the head, the ache in our bones as we drag ourselves from our beds after another night of inadequate sleep, the creeping needle on the bathroom scale as we plan to cram another fast food stop between obligation A and obligation B.

We feel it mentally, emotionally, spiritually: wrung out, uncared for, used, unrecompensed. It oozes out in crying jags in the bathroom, or in shouts of rage, frustration, and fear between our ears that we dare not let loose. We feel the flood of adrenaline in crisis and then the tingling weariness in ebbing moments.

Yet we know we can't just walk away, for so many reasons.

But how do we do it?

How do we keep functioning for another wearying day?

I found three phrases in the Oxford Online Dictionary's definition of harbor that help me remember how to keep from getting overwhelmed.


1. keep (a thought or feeling, typically a negative one) in one's mind, especially secretly. she started to harbor doubts about the wisdom of their journey

2. give a home or shelter to. woodlands that once harbored a colony of red deer

A thought or feeling, typically negative

Be careful what you dwell on. The more you give space to negative words and images in your mind, the smaller your capacity for seeing the positive, while the worst times are when you most need to be able to see that there is hope and good out there. Consciously turn from following that road into the shadows when you find yourself going there again.

Start a small but manageable habit of a gratitude journal or stones of remembrance jar.


Find someone to talk with. Someone who will let you express all the details of your frustration and resentment and bewilderment, who will not judge you or simply agree with you, who will not tell you to flee or try to fix it for you. If you can bear it, choose someone who can gently show you where you might be seeing things from a limiting perspective and challenge you to choose better.

Make a list of three to five people in your life who are safe to express stuff to. If your list is small and your stress is large, consider seeking counseling for a season. There is no shame to be found in seeking help outside ourselves: no one can ever have all the answers and it can get pretty unbearable out there.

Give home to

Akin to refusing to focus on the negative, give home or shelter to positive things in your life. Establish and protect quiet time or small rituals that help you regain your center: music, meditation, reading certain kinds of books, journaling, prayer, exercise, hobbies.

Build habits of the activities in which you find refuge. Defend a daily escape as vigorously as possible to build up a buffer against the storm.

To practice or advocate just walking away from negativity is to refuse the basic responsibilities of growing up. If all we do is leave the situation, two things happen. First, we forgo a chance to learn something about ourselves, acquire healthy coping skills, and mature as individuals. Also, we remove ourselves from the opportunity to positively impact our sphere of influence and potentially lighten someone else's burden.

Each of these responses to stress is very deliberate and requires self-control, sometimes a great deal of it. But if we can refuse to walk away, determined to respond well, we can survive it without being consumed.

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