How I Get Through Hard Times Using Curiosity, Compassion, and Challenge

“Sometimes the worst things that happen in our lives put us on the path to the best things that will ever happen to us.” ~Unknown

Until I was thirty-seven, I thought I’d led a pretty charmed life: I had a supportive family and good friends, I’d done well academically, always got the jobs I’d applied for, and met and married the perfect man for me.

My second child was born at thirty-five weeks gestation. I was then diagnosed with stage 3. At thirty-seven weeks my baby was born. My chemo began ten days later. In a funny way I was relieved; Okay, I thought, I’ve been seriously lucky up until now that no one has been ill in my life, so if I can survive this, then this is as bad as it gets.

Und that was in 2005 Was bad—moving home, caring for a toddler and a newborn, and going through aggressive cancer treatment was horrendous, but I hunkered down, tried not to think too much about it, and survived.

As we were enjoying champagne and celebrating my positive results in December 2014, my husband got a call from New Zealand’s mum. Her mother had recently been diagnosed with an incurable and rare form of cancer. Early in the year, my father was diagnosed with Stage 4 Bowel Cancer. My mother-in-law also died from this disease that same spring.

This was when I began to feel heavy and uneasy. This wasn’t the deal… I’d taken the cancer hit for the team, everyone else was supposed to stay well. It was then that I began to doubt my faith in this world.

Overcontrolling everything around me was a natural instinct that I’ve had from childhood. Fearful of change, I made list after list in an effort to organize my life and make sure I was prepared for everything.

My father, a brave man, endured numerous invasive and brutal treatments. But his health continued to decline. It was impossible to control the events and felt overwhelmed by grief and loss.

My life had to change. So I tried journaling and yoga. Gradually, I noticed a decrease in anxiety and panic attacks that had been gripping my life. When I turned inwardly, I saw familiar emotions and patterns. Then I realized that my responses to certain roles and labels were no longer true.

Although there were very few shifts, with 2 small children, long working hours and a father with declining health, small shifts helped me cope.

In the middle 2015, my husband noticed severe dizziness, headaches, and nausea. His job was very stressful. He decided to take a break from work in 2016 and get his health back. In the spring 2016 however, he was diagnosed as having an irreversible brain tumor. My children were then three years old and five years old.

I was busy with my father’s and husband’s medical visits, as well as the hectic schedule that comes along with having young children. However, I kept my mind open to my spiritual work. My feelings were examined. What was my true feeling? What if I had felt this way in the past? Was it something that helped me then? Is the story I’m telling myself about this true? What is my current need?

My dad, my husband, and my father all died in spring 2018. The UK was also put into lockdown in spring 2020 due to Covid-19.

Every year since 2014 I’ve said to myself, well surely the worst Has happened, this year hasTo be even better. Yet, each year brings something new and profoundly life-altering. Over the past seven years, it has been a relentless journey and I’ve felt overwhelmed at times by my responsibility to care for those who matter most.

People used to hear my story open mouthed and ask, “How do you cope?” I would reply in a way designed to brush them off, remove their focus of attention, and minimize my pain by saying, “Oh well, you know, you just deal with what life throws at you.” I knew that this wasn’t true, but a flippant reply was easier than the truth. This is the honest answer to my inner struggle after years of constant inner work.

For you to increase resilience, heal and ultimately prosper, you must be willing to look beneath the beautiful patchwork quilt you show the world.

Be prepared to examine the worst of the stitches and take the time to remove them. This will allow you to find the knots, tangles, as well as the imperfections. It’s only when you connect with your authentic self that you’re able to respond to your unique needs in times of crisis and learn what you need to do to foster your own resilience.

The way of doing this will be different for everyone, but if I could boil it down to one pithy statement it would be to always keep in awareness the 3 C’s: curiosity, compassion, and challenge.

Here are some ways I’ve applied this in the last seven years to help me, and perhaps these ideas might help you too.

Let your emotions be heard

While it is okay for others to be uncomfortable with this topic, that does not make you a responsible person. It is your responsibility to accept and process emotions, rather than repressing or denying them, and then work with them.

This idea of distracting myself or numbing my brain has been a part of my daily life in many forms. Another is the urge to look at my phone instead of feeling restless, bored, or uncertain. Sometimes I find myself opening my fridge or cupboard, not because I’m hungry, but because I’m anxious or agitated.

Recently, I’ve needed to work on sitting with my feelings when I say “no” to someone and worry there will be painful repercussions if I don’t keep other people happy.

These are all hugely uncomfortable realizations, but offer an opportunity to spot patterns—do I always reach for food after a specific event, do I always reach for my phone when I feel a certain way in my body?

Once I’ve shown a curiosity about my choices, I can have understanding and compassion for why and challenge myself to do something else. Can I try some breathing exercises instead of eating? What about simple yoga postures? Can I pause before saying “yes” to something I know won’t serve me and think of the times I’ve said “no” and there haven’t been negative repercussions?

The key questions are: What am I truly in need of? And what am I afraid about? How can I calm my fear system right now before I react to it?

Prioritize your needs.

As a father to two young children, my dad and husband died, I realized that no matter what I did, I would still be needed. a lotIt was important to me that I started the day with the knowledge that I would make it to my daily needs.

Some days it meant getting up at 5am to get a hot cup of tea in quiet, others it was spending time outside in nature. Because swimming is something that I feel very supportive of my mental health and fitness, I signed up for a gym with access to the pool. I also joined an online yoga website because I didn’t have time to travel to class.

Always embrace routine and ritual.

Decision fatigue can make me feel overwhelmed. My routines help my family feel secure and provide me with more energy to handle the unpredictable things life throws at us.

It includes the following:

  • Planning my week ahead on a Sunday—I have a simple document with columns for appointments, reminders, to-do list, and well-being
  • Dressing up in school uniforms and making sandwiches the night before
  • A weekly grocery delivery for the same time and day each week
  • Planning menus and prepping simple meals for busy nights or late hours of the week is something I do.

Make a Well-being Toolkit.

Explore ideas and suggestions that you might find supportive, but don’t feel beholden to it. You don’t need to use all of the tools all of the time. It is possible to learn how to pay attention to your needs and give yourself permission to take action. It is truly empowering.

My well-being toolkit includes…

  • Exercises in breathing
  • Journaling
  • Yoga
  • Reading
  • Running
  • Tea with friends
  • Experimenting with new recipes
  • Sitting still—either meditating, focusing on my breath, or just letting my mind wander

You can build a support team and understand each other’s strengths.

One person cannot do it all. Be realistic about the benefits each valued person will bring to you and decide who to contact for more information.

Challenge the narratives, expectations, and labels in your life (my 3 C’s).

They still feel right to you, or do they serve you well; where are they from? What do you have to do if you want them gone?

These labels were based on how I saw myself. With curiosity and compassion, I challenged the labels by turning the quilt over and looking at each of the stiches.

For example, am I really “standoffish,” or is that just my defense against crippling social anxiety? Am I really “bossy,” or am I just frightened of how unsafe the world will feel if I lose control? Am I really “capable” or just terrified of asking for help and being rejected?

This is not a quick process. It is difficult to even begin to realize the challenges that lie ahead. There are no black-and-white answers, so it’s important to become accepting of living in the grey area.

At the end of it all, I think that every day and every emotion should be approached with curiosity. This will allow us to challenge our underlying fears and old narratives that can keep us stuck and down.

The possibility for the true self can be achieved by allowing ourselves to look beyond labels and roles.

It is still a work-in-progress.YouAm a work in process, and will always be.

Sometimes I feel overwhelmed by sadness and loss. Other days, however, I wake up feeling grateful and joyful. Every day, however, I wake up prepared to be curious and interested, to approach all interactions with myself and others with compassion, and to do what I can to challenge thoughts and beliefs that I don’t want to take into my future. It is clear that the next year will bring me more joy.

Catherine Nabbs

Catherine works as a private counsellor in the UK. She sees clients by zooming in and visiting her Kent consultancy. Her passion is connecting with people via Instagram and Facebook. Register here to receive 7 days worth of complimentary wellness tips and help you create your emotional well-being toolkit. More blog posts and information on her work can be found at

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Tiny Buddha published the post How I get through hard times using curiosity, compassion, and challenge.

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