My favorite movie of all time is The Princess Bride. I first saw it in junior high school and it’s a rare 80s movie that still feels watchable today. I’m drawn to the adventure, the romance as an impressionable teen, the offbeat humor, and the utterly quotable lines.
In the movie, our hero, the Man in Black is trapped, tortured, and ultimately killed in the Pit of Despair while his true love is about to be wed to another.
We’ve all been in the Pit of Despair sometime in our lives. The Pit of Despair is the feeling of utter darkness, shame, and hopelessness with zero possibility or potential of a way out. It’s a fatalistic giving up of agency or any path forward. I was introduced to this topic in a coaching session this week when I was stuck in the pit. My coach introduced the concept of a place called Realm.
I want to make a distinction between experiencing bad things and this state of despair. We’ve all encountered pain, disappointment and grief in our lives. They can vary from experiences such as having a break-up, being fired from a job, or declaring bankruptcy to dealing with chronic illnesses and the death of loved ones. When experiencing these “bad things,” we move through different states of grief. At times there is a resignation and knowledge that there may be a gift and positive side to this event. At other times, there is anger or the need to create an action plan to get through the coming weeks. In some times, there is complete apathy and hopelessness. This last description is the Pit of Despair or the state of Realm that I’m referring to.
I’ve had one moment in my mid-20s where I half-seriously contemplated killing myself. There were some related events— I was in a state of shame and despair over mistakes I’d made in my relationship at the time, we were on month 6 of an adventurous-but-grueling low budget trip around the world, and my mother had recently been diagnosed with breast cancer. I was sitting on the cliffs above the Yangtze River somewhere in China. I’d been there for hours looking down into the roiling water and feeling the waves of negativity and hopelessness flow through me. There was the incredible appeal of jumping into the water, to surrender and be able to float away so that all my troubles and shittiness would disappear. It scared me to realize that I could contemplate ending it all. That fear jolted me into action and motivated me to get up and get moving to continue my day. That day, I never seriously considered jumping, yet even today, close to 20 years later, I can still remember the feeling of fatalistic despair that led to those thoughts.
My coach this week talked about Realm. It’s a state of being that feels black and stuck. It’s completely fatalistic with no hope or way out. It’s not a state that I’m at all comfortable with. She brought up an interesting point about Realm:
Realms are naturally releasing. You cannot force or skill your way out of it.
As a go-go-go active problem solver, this statement made me angry and frustrated. Of course, I can fix anything. I can plan, think and maneuver my way forward through ALL situations. How can there be no way out by actively doing something?
Yet at the same time, there was something comforting and familiar about Realm. It felt like depression, an old friend, and a place where I know I will eventually emerge from. It’s a sense of surrender to the ease and flow of letting the emotions carry me for a period of time. There’s also a relief to the knowing that I will be released when it’s time, so there’s no need to do anything right now. This too shall pass.
Three things help me when I’m in this place of waiting it out.
There’s a certain rhythm to a daily routine. It’s driven by the scheduled meetings on my work calendar. There’s a comfort in the regularity of weekly team meetings, weekly check-ins, biweekly client calls, and monthly gatherings.
There’s also a comfort in living with 12 and 9 year old girls. I have them 50% of the time and when they’re with me there is routine in their distanced learning schedules, distanced soccer practice, and our planned excursions.
Part of getting through the pit of despair is getting up each day. Keep following your existing routines, and go through the day one hour at at time. Eat, shower, move from room to room. And keep going. Tomorrow may be different.
2. Intentional Distractions
Look for the activities that have sparked some joy in the past. These can serve as intentional distractions to get through the times until things feel better. The distractions that work for me are:
- Reading, especially children’s books where the language is simple, the character’s dilemmas are interesting, and you’re guaranteed a mostly happy ending
- Surfing always gets me out of my head and into the body. Being out in nature reminds me that there’s so much more than me out there.
- My two cats have an instagram and their carefully curated friends are other cats, with the occasional dog or bearded dragon. Nothing gives me more pleasure than browsing their feed.
3. Experience the Emotion
We are often afraid of experiencing a difficult emotion whether it’s fear, anger, shame, grief or many others. We’re conditioned to tap down the emotion and bandaid over it with happy thoughts. Yet suppressing the emotion is a temporary coping strategy and when you’re in a pervasive pit of despair, may not be possible.
One of my ways to experience the emotion is through this RAIN meditation which brings a focus and compassion to difficult emotions through a process of:
Recognize what is happening
Allow life to be just as it is
Investigate with gentle attention
I always find a shift in emotion and a sense of peace after doing the guided 20 minute meditation
I am intimately familiar with my problem-solving, get-shit-done self, yet increasingly am learning that there is a different path. This different path is the way of ease and flow. When I’m in the pit of despair, the way out is not through fighting harder but through surrendering to the experience.
Hello! I’m your host, Tutti Taygerly. I’ve spent 20+ years in product design & technology, leading teams at startups, design agencies, and large tech companies. I left Facebook in summer 2019 to focus on leadership coaching full-time. I write weekly about topics related to design & coaching. If you’re curious about coaching and how it could unblock your life, come learn more.