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The California Drought and “Internal Droughts”: What to Do While You’re Waiting for Rain.

The California drought is probably on your mind if you’re a resident of this state. The news is hyping it and your friends are posting articles about the upcoming catastrophe. You’re doing your part: shorter showers, letting the yellow mellow, watching your yard go brown or pulling the whole thing out. Regardless, there you sit, possibly anxious, maybe panicky, waiting for the rain. Ultimately, though, nothing that you do, nothing that you worry about, can make the damn rain fall. You wait and hope for El Niño.

The drought conditions we are experiencing in California serve as a great metaphor for the internal droughts we sometimes (or often) experience. You’ve made big changes and small changes in your relationships, your work, your health, and every other part of your life where you want to see something different. Yet, despite all your best efforts, despite all of the goals and to do lists, and despite any and everything else you’ve done to move forward with your life, things feel completely stuck. Those inspirational Instagram posts, celebrity life coach tweets, and “5 easy steps to get more ____” articles start to sound stale and vaguely mocking.

Negative thoughts start creeping in: “this isn’t working,” “I should have stayed in my old job,” “ I’ll never find a partner.” The list goes on and on. And then there are the emotions. The joy and exhilaration you felt two days ago at the prospect of a new life has been replaced by a sense of disappointment, and perhaps even dread or hopelessness.

This is OK. This internal drought is part of growth.

I’m writing about this because it is a very familiar personal experience for me, and my clients often bring it into our sessions together. A client unpacks and explores their relationship history. They gain insights into what was preventing them from having the kind of relationship they want. They formulate goals for change and identify behaviors that will help them have a different experience. They try out new behaviors based on these insights and … nothing.

When we don’t see immediate change, when we feel stuck and in a drought, that doesn’t mean we should stop doing what we’re doing, that we should stop the new behaviors and movement in a new direction. But perhaps we need to learn to live with the long, boring stretches of time that often occur before we see something new and good.

What to do during this internal drought? Certainly keep reading those inspirational blogs and tweets. Send out your good intentions, find support from friends and let them know where you’re trying to go. Go for a walk. There is nothing wrong with any of this, but some days, none of this will be enough.

So what can you do?

Change your experience of the drought. I see this happening in two ways:

  1. Really, truly, fully experience the drought.

There’s a lot of to be said for actually experiencing a feeling and thinking a thought with no expectations. Pema Chödrön, in her book Taking the Leap: Freeing Ourselves from Old Habits and Fears, writes:

The next time you lose heart and you can’t bear to experience what you’re feeling, you might recall this instruction: change the way you see it and lean in. Instead of blaming our discomfort on outer circumstances or on our own weakness, we can choose to stay present and awake to our experience, not rejecting it, not grasping it, not buying the stories that we relentlessly tell ourselves. 

Try being curious and really experiencing this drought, rather that running away from it, reverting to old behaviors, or numbing it with food, booze, sex, shopping, or whatever your tendency might be. Sitting with all of the pain can be revelatory, and you may just notice shifts begin to happen.

  1. Consider yourself as something greater and bigger than the experience of drought, that drought, like every other experience in life, is a passing phenomenon.

There’s a wonderful metaphor about the sky that helps us understand this. Lots of stuff happens in the sky: clouds come and go, rain comes down, birds and planes fly by.  And yet, even if a hurricane or a blizzard happens, you know that the sky is not harmed and does not change. Eventually all of these things pass and the sky remains.

the sky = you

clouds, rain, storms, birds, planes = your thoughts, urges, memories, and feelings

This is a helpful metaphor if we experience something uncomfortable or hard to tolerate. The experience of drought, that feeling of dread and hopelessness, is not you. If you can allow this to sink in a bit you may feel a bit of relief. You aren’t the dread, the sadness, or the hopelessness. You can actually transcend this experience and see yourself as separate from it. If this sounds unattainable, it isn’t, although it may take a little practice to consider this view of our selves.

So, how do you do this? Well, practicing some mindfulness and meditation helps. So does working with a therapist to really get in touch with the experience. But you don’t need to be in therapy, nor do you need years of sitting on a cushion to create a different relationship to this drought experience.

And then what?

I can’t give you a timeline but eventually the drought passes. At some point you start noticing some movement again. You keep at the new behaviors you’ve incorporated and you start seeing something different. Perhaps you find yourself meeting someone and having a real, honest, authentic experience with them. Maybe you discover yourself going to the gym and feeling a bit more healthy. The key is that the drought is part of the journey and finding a willingness to experience the drought can mean a whole different experience.

Perhaps as we muddle through this interminable time waiting for rain and conserving the water we have, we can remember that we all struggle with droughts both inside and outside. Next time you (don’t) flush the toilet, try remembering that making positive change (or even rain) happen in our lives requires a willingness to sit with the long, dry spells as well.

Greg Bodin

Greg Bodin

Greg Bodin is a psychotherapist in San Francisco and focuses on helping his clients gain momentum toward the life they want.

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