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When the Going Gets Tough: The Case for Sticking with It

Person on bike with helmet rides uphill against blue cloudy sky“When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” At least, that’s what the old saying claims.

But this adage could be taken two ways. Do these figurative tough people get going on some tough task facing them? Or do they get going by running away?

Even the Wikipedia entry acknowledges this dilemma: “Taken together, the meaning of the phrase is ‘When the situation becomes difficult, the strong will become engaged.’ ” It also notes, “Another interpretation could mean, ‘Those who act tough and proud will vacate a situation when it becomes difficult lest they be proven not as tough as they appear to be.’ ”

Hmm. To engage or vacate?

The purpose of this article is to explore the first option: sticking it out. We’ve all faced difficult situations, some that feel unmanageable. I’m talking about an emotional dilemma in which our inner self feels a sense of dread, stuck-ness, or overwhelm that feels unsolvable. Sometimes it can feel as if our world is collapsing on us and every cell in our body screams to get out!

The job of a psychotherapist is to get people to at least try to look at things in a different way than they otherwise would (or could). In some cases, the situation may at first feel awful. But if you stick with it and keep an open mind, there can be a shift. Something can unfold that’s better than you could have imagined.

Here is where my task becomes difficult: I am, after all, writing about an experiential pattern—something intangible. But I’ve witnessed and experienced it so many times that I think it needs to be explored.

That which feels terrible and unmanageable can often be a portal into a better situation, if we are willing to walk through it. At this point, the spiritually minded among us may be smiling and nodding, whereas others might be saying, “Oh, please!” But I’ll point out there’s a mundane explanation as well, one that springs from mainstream neurobiology and therapy: The psyche has defense mechanisms that sometimes don’t allow us to consider, or even perceive, some potential solutions.

In the language of somatic trauma therapy, there can be an over-coupling sequence in which our reptile brain says, “Okay, this terrible thing happened a long time ago and this new thing feels similar, so this new thing must be terrible and we’d better RUN AWAY NOW!” And it doesn’t leave us any other option, at least until we manage to get ahold of ourselves.

Here are a few real-life examples of what I’m talking about:

Catch yourself making automatic assumptions: “If I do this, then that is going to happen and it’s going to be awful!” Stop and ask yourself: Is that realistic? Is it the only possible outcome?

  • Last June, I broke my wrist in a skating accident. I remember picking myself up off the pavement and doing the familiar post-crash self-check. When I looked down and saw the twisted, swollen mess that was my left wrist, my first thought was, “Oh, no! I’ve broken my wrist! This is terrible! I can’t accept this—I’m supposed to be going to work today.” Then this small, calm thought came in: “Relax. Your body will heal. It’s possible something good can come of this. Just see what happens next.” This was unexpected, but, having little other choice, I went with it. I won’t say the surgery and recovery were easy, but that quiet thought was right. As a result of the accident, I reconnected with an old friend who is an occupational therapist. She saw a post about my injury on social media and got in touch to help. Our thriving friendship has improved the quality of each of our lives. Also, my physical therapist worked with both my wrist and my core, and now my core and back are stronger than ever. In fact, I’ve come to believe the proactive strengthening prevented a more serious back injury down the line. My whole posture is different and I feel a lot better. My wrist (sporting a new scar) is back to about 95% and continuing to improve.
  • Bob (not his real name) was struggling financially. The problem dragged on month after month and affected his self-esteem. Finally, he received a three-day pay-or-vacate notice on his apartment door. His pride was shot, and he had nowhere to go. Suicidal thoughts began to enter his mind. But then, a friend, Jim, a widower, proposed a trade: Bob could move into Jim’s empty guest room, rebuild his finances, and help Jim around the house. It wasn’t an easy transition, as the two men had different lifestyles and worldviews. Six months later, however, both men are doing better. Both are less depressed, the house is in better shape, and Bob’s finances are better off. So are Jim’s, since Bob was able to chip in some rent. Both men also have a larger support network, having befriended each other’s friend groups. They have better communication skills, and each says they feel they have grown from the experience.
  • Patricia goes to therapy for anxiety and depression. In the process, she discovers her childhood wasn’t as great as she’d thought. Working with her felt (body) sense, she uncovers a repressed core of terror from developmental trauma. She’d half buried it, but it had been poking above the surface and causing the mental health issues. Her first impulse was to quit therapy, but she didn’t. It wasn’t easy. She broke up with her partner (who turned out to be not so supportive) and endured a period of sometimes feeling terrible, despite medication support from her psychiatrist. She had internal temperature changes, tremors, mood swings, and other common symptoms of this type of deep re-regulation. Eventually, things began to turn around. When that much charge is held in the autonomic nervous system, it drains a person. Like the proverbial frog whose pot is heated gradually, the person may not realize how much the issue affects them until they face it and begin to release it. In Patricia’s case, people began commenting on how much better she looked. She found she was more present and better able to enjoy life than ever before. Most importantly, she came to know herself deeply, and she developed a deep trust and appreciation for herself that manifested in a quiet confidence.

I can’t say this approach—sticking it out when things get rough—will fit or work for every situation. As Alcoholics Anonymous members sometimes say, we have to live life on life’s terms, not ours, and sometimes life just sucks. Still, I have found the following general guidelines (not therapeutic advice!) to be useful across many situations:

  • Try to keep an open mind. Catch yourself making automatic assumptions: “If I do this, then that is going to happen and it’s going to be awful!” Stop and ask yourself: Is that realistic? Is it the only possible outcome?
  • Allow yourself to sit with the feeling—but without necessarily buying into it. Feel the physical sensations and experience them deeply, but without running the story in your mind. See how your inner experience changes. Do new possibilities open up? (Note: This exercise requires some autonomic stability. As such, it may or may not be safe or possible for those with complex posttraumatic stress, at least without therapeutic support.)
  • Remain (or become) willing to reexamine your beliefs and behavior. What, if anything, are you doing to contribute to the bad aspects of the situation? Conversely, how might you contribute to the good?
  • Let positive thoughts in. Ask yourself: “What good or healing can come of this?” If you don’t know, that’s okay. Be patient with yourself.

Katrina Kenison, who wrote about this very phenomenon, may say it best: “When the going gets tough may I look for a door to step through rather than a wall to hide behind.”


  1. Kenison, K. (2015). When the going gets tough …. Retrieved from https://onbeing.org/blog/when-the-going-gets-tough
  2. When the going gets tough, the tough get going. (2017). Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/When_the_going_gets_tough,_the_tough_get_going

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  • Bill

    May 15th, 2018 at 8:11 AM

    I’ve been running away from my problems all my life. I wish it was easier to “let positive thoughts in.” As you say, sometimes life just sucks. What do you do then?

  • Andrea Bell, LCSW

    May 15th, 2018 at 10:18 AM

    I think that’s an excellent point.
    Peter Levine likes to point out that even in the worst and awfulest of circumstances, there can be found little points of goodness. He has sat with many many survivors of unthinkable circumstances; and this matches my own experience as well. Not that we would have ever wanted the bad thing to have happened. But since it did, we can direct ourselves to look for the good things and focus on those. This breaks up the self fulfilling prophecy in our minds of “Everything is horrible!” It permits some joy or at least pleasantness where there would have been none. Many times we can survive in these “islands” of comfort, and they can even be coaxed to grow. So, it’s about working with perception and expectations. There’s often more good there than we realize; we’re just not trained to really see it.
    Hope this helps! A good therapist can support you with this as well.

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