Updated: Nov 15
We were in the Waffle House Sunday when my teenage son pointed out the song playing. It was Chumbawumba's I get knocked down. The four of us focused on the lyrics amidst the shouting of waitresses' orders and the clink of silverware on dishes. The song gets played all the time, but I'd never once focused on the lyrics. It's a repetition of "I get knocked down but I get up again, never gonna keep me down."
It just so happened I was already thinking about how to help my clients who get knocked down. Many of the burned out healthcare providers I coach reach out because they're in the "knocked down" place of their careers. They've lost a job, started a disappointing grass-wasn't-greener new job, they have an awful manager or boss, or they suffer from burnout.
I hear hopelessness and despair in their voices. First sessions are often spent with clients explaining how they got knocked down and how awful it feels. Many believe they'll stay down and never get back up. They'll never get hired again, they'll never find purpose in their work, they'll never feel valued at their work.
I've been there. When I left internal medicine to move with my new husband to Montana for his graduate school, I couldn't find a job as a Physician Assistant. I was convinced the two years I'd worked in medicine marked the end of my career as a PA. I believed I'd never work as a PA again.
I did find another PA job, and the 6-month stint working at a bakery for minimum wage is a distant memory. Research supports the idea that we will "get back up" so to speak. Humans have evolved to be resilient, but when questioned, we inevitably predict we'll be more unhappy and take much longer to recover than is actually the case. In fact, this was shown to be true even in patients who became paralyzed. Shockingly, even becoming paralyzed isn't enough to keep you from eventually returning to your previous happiness level.
Even if studies show we'll overcome hardship and return to baseline, how does that help when we're crying on the bathroom floor?
Recently I found myself having a "down week" and, awareness of my mental state spiraled me further down. I was convinced things were dire. Six weeks ago I shared with the world how a marriage retreat had worked wonders for us, but last week we had our first argument. We each pulled out our old weapons and hurts. As we volleyed back and forth, I felt myself sink. How could this happen, how could things be so good and now they're so bad. They weren't actually bad, but my brain was telling me, "here we go again" and I quickly felt sad and hopeless. Chase has described similar feelings when his mood starts dipping every winter. Oh no, here we go again, what if...what if it gets bad and stays bad? What if none of my mental health tools works? What if Hope gets sick of me and decides she can't put up with me anymore?
I was listening to a podcast about "good trouble." The narrator, an older man, asked why we act so surprised when hardship hits. Why, when we find thing dipping, don't we recall the times it's happened before? Why can't we reassure ourselves that this, too, shall pass? He reminded listeners of the cyclical pattern of nature, the ebb and flow of life. He mentioned the changing of seasons and asked why we don't yell at Mother Nature. I found myself nodding. It's true. I don't walk outside in December and get all pissed off: "What the bloody hell? How could you kill everything and make it so cold?"
The elderly host mused how life might be different if, instead of feeling defeated when hardship, friction, or failure hit, we accept it's part of life. What if we handled these situations with calm assurance they will pass and we will feel better again? As with the seasons, there's a comfort knowing whatever we face isn't the end of the story. Spring will come again, we'll scrape ourselves off the floor and stand tall again.
For those who follow along with my podcast, you might wonder how I spent the last two podcast episodes preaching about positive psychology and now I'm telling you to expect bad things and be ok with them. Not exactly. Don't expect bad things, but don't be surprised when they come. And, don't let them knock you down and keep you down. As the song repeats over and over, you'll get back up again. And you'll get knocked down and you'll get up again. As long as you're alive this cycle will repeat.
The old man in the podcast referred to this getting knocked down and getting back up as "good trouble." He explained the age-old story of the hero's journey. The idea that we have to go on certain journeys in order to evolve into the person we're meant to be. This journey includes hardships specific to each person. Each challenge is exactly what you need to heal a part of you. The pain you go through works to mend the broken parts. You come out the other side stronger. Like a broken bone, the subsequent healing makes that part of the bone stronger than before. When the hero returns from her journey of challenges, she's a stronger version of herself and can then share the lessons with others.
If you're knocked down, use this as a guide to help you. Maybe you need to be "down" for a bit, or maybe you need a hand to stand again. Only you know which of these will be best for you.
Remind yourself over and over, this isn't the end of the story, you won't feel as bad as you do forever. You will get back up again. Look to the past for proof of your resilience. Write out all the times you've been knocked down. Breakups, bad grades, broken friendships, jobs gone bad. If you're reading this, it means you got back up.
If you're down, show yourself grace and self compassion. Stay down as long as you need to, but when you finally get to the point where you can get back up, get up. Until then, don't beat yourself up.
You're not God and you can't handle everything or fix everyone. In fact, there are probably only a few things you can actually do something about. Brain dump all the stuff knocking you down. Go back and circle the ones you can do something about. Practice letting go of the rest.
Look at the things you circled, which things should you do something about? Just because you can doesn't mean you should. Just because you could turn your boss in for Medicare fraud doesn't mean you should.
Next, check in with your body. Does it feel like you need to get up right now? Honestly, what is your body telling you? The voice in your head can be harsh, especially when you're on the floor. It wants you to get up and get going, but what does your body say? Maybe it's not time yet. Sit for 2 minutes taking slow, deep breaths. Ask yourself what your gut is telling you.
What do you wish you had permission to do or not do? Who says you have to? I wish I could go stay in a hotel, I wish I could have a guy's weekend like my friend. I wish I didn't have to live here. Pissing the night away. Life is a series of choices. Don't wait for permission from anyone to get back up and don't let anyone tell you when it's time to get up.
Once your body says it's time to get up, if may feel hard to know the first step. Try using third person to ask yourself questions: What is Hope afraid will happen? What does Hope need to make her feel safe enough to get up? What does Hope need to do next?
Anticipate a stronger version of you. Just like Retin A to sloughs off the dead skin and toughens the collagen beneath, rough times will result in a better, stronger you.
If you're knocked down, don't give up. I promise this season will end and spring will come again. Reach out if you're down and can't figure out how to get back up.