“It isn’t what happens to us that causes us to suffer; it’s what we say to ourselves about what happens.” ~Pema Chodron
This is the second part of a two part blog post on relational endings and working through
How frustrating is it to hear that to heal from pain, we have to sit in it? If you’re anything like most people, the prospect of “working through” feels as comforting as chewing on aluminum foil. Who wants to knowingly call up all of the emotions that have been shoved into a deep compartment labeled “do not enter under penalty of emotional meltdown”? Perhaps you are the type who never put the emotion aside and you are riding an endless wave of feeling overload that you call grief. Or maybe you find the one emotion you are most comfortable with and you filter your entire grieving process through that one feeling and call it good. Some of us want to treat grief like ordering a meal at a restaurant “OK, I’ll start with a small plate of denial, I’ll take my anger rare, with a side of bargaining, and I’m too full for depression so I’ll finish up with a cup of acceptance.” Check please! Done and done! These may be tongue in cheek analogies, and the truth of the matter is that most of us don’t even understand what it means to work through complex emotion or grief.
This is where we can get stuck. We may fail to validate the depth of our pain or we may get swallowed by it. We may fixate on our role or refuse to take any ownership at all. We can’t dismiss the importance of working through the pain before we can get past it. Dismissing the process discounts our experience leaving little room for accountability and self compassion. There is no one recipe for relief, and every path is different. To find the road that’s best for you it is often helpful to get curious. Spend some time journaling and reflecting. If you are thinking about the relationship specifically, what did it offer you? What did you learn? What was challenging? How did it make you feel? When was it good and when did you struggle? What did YOU bring to the table? Every relationship provides us with an opportunity to reflect on the gifts we offer to those we are in connection with as well as revealing our opportunities for growth and change. No experience is wasted if we are able to stop and reflect, honestly.
Consider using mindfulness and self compassion as you contemplate what it means to work through. Mindfulness is when we purposefully pay attention, in the present moment, without judgement. Why mindfulness works hand in hand with self compassion is that we often struggle with that last piece… "without judgement". Self compassion requires that we recognize our own suffering. Often times we opt for self judgement over compassion because we feel internal and external pressure to be strong, move past, and tough it out! In the process we shame ourselves for feeling the pain instead of acknowledging our suffering as real. When we can mindfully explore our relationships, our experiences, and our suffering, we can learn a great deal from our reflections. If we don’t assess what’s going on inside of us, we can repress or project our suffering instead of owning it. We may find ourselves back on the same hamster wheel recreating the same pattern in the next relationship.
Beyond reflection, we need to consider what it means to let something go. While an overused and often misunderstood concept, when it comes to emotional health, letting go is critical to our ability to work through and move forward. It isn’t about denying the situation or the impact, but radical acceptance of the experience in its entirety; pain and all. Jon Kabat-Zinn, the author of Wherever you go, there you are: Mindfulness meditation in everyday life describes it this way “To let go means to give up coercing, resisting, or struggling, in exchange for something more powerful and wholesome which comes out of allowing things to be as they are without getting caught up in your attraction to or rejection of them. We hold on with our minds. We catch ourselves, get stuck ourselves, by holding, often desperately, to narrow views, to self serving hopes and wishes.” Pema Chodron, an American Buddhist nun talks about letting go of our suffering with a simple analogy of being knocked down by a wave. We can lie there, not get up, and eventually drown, or we can get up and keep moving forward. We fail better. We will get knocked down again, but the more we get up, the smaller the waves become if we keep moving forward. Chodron says “We think that the point is to pass the test or overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don't really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It's just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.”
The confusion about what it means to work through our emotional experience has shrouded the concept in mystery. It’s as if there is a code to decipher and a secret set of instructions we didn’t get. When we are able to work through, it isn’t a realm of enlightenment where we no longer encounter adversity, we simply begin to understand that when we do suffer, the pain creates fertile soil to grow instead of stagnate. If you find yourself journeying through a breakup and it feels like trudging through quicksand, know that you aren’t alone! We all walk through places of pain and loss that leave us confused, hurting, and lonely. Our tendency may be to isolate in an attempt to prevent this kind of hurt from happening again, but this is the place we need to recognize the commonness of our connection. The literal meaning of compassion is “to suffer WITH” (Neff, 2011). The “with” guides us to understanding that these are the experiences that most connect us to other people because of the commonality of suffering. Instead of focusing on feeling isolated, alone, and inadequate, know that we all suffer, we all experience pain. Be courageous, compassionate, and boldly break the cycle to create something different! If you need a kick start or feel as if you can’t get “un-stuck” on your own, it may be helpful to speak with a professional, someone who is trained in emotion and relationships to walk with you through this process.
Gina Waltmire, LMFT
Gina is a licensed marriage and family therapist practicing in Overland Park, KS
Chödrön, P. (2000). When things fall apart: Heart advice for difficult times. Boston: Shambhala.
Kabat-Zinn, J. (1994). Wherever you go, there you are: Mindfulness meditation in everyday life. New York: Hyperion.
Neff, K. (2011). Self -Compassion: The proven power of being kind to yourself. New York: HarperCollins.
Other helpful resources and links:
I spend a lot of time with clients who are bravely walking through change. The goal of our work is always to promote healing; individually and relationally. Some relationships can be strengthened and improved, while others must end before healing can begin.
Endings, goodbyes, transitions. How many of us think of these words and are filled with eager anticipation and excitement? Easy answer, right? Not many of us would say that our first thought is “Awesome! I can’t wait to plunge headlong into my next farewell!” It’s human nature to have a sense of foreboding when it comes to any ending, whether planned or unexpected. Despite the understanding that the only certainty we have in this life is change, many of us would rather not step into it willingly. We may find that we cling to the familiar, be it in jobs, people, or places because “sameness” provides a sense of predictable security. So what do we do when change is forced upon us or necessary for our individual or collective well being?
One of the most painful changes we will experience is the end of a relationship. When death is not the cause of the ending, we all wrestle with the implication of one word, choice. Choice adds a layer of complexity when contemplating the fate of a relationship. Even if the decision to part ways is mutual, the emotional and logistical implications seldom look like a Hollywood movie ending. We are flooded with questions of whether or not the ending is permanent or temporary. "Should I hold out hope or move on?" Choice creates uncertainty about finality. Our work is about finding a place of acceptance in what today holds, regardless of the pull of the past or the anticipation of the future.
An important consideration for all caring human beings is that endings are painful, no matter what side you find yourself on. People are often surprised that suffering is not rank ordered; the end of a romantic relationship is not necessarily more painful than the end of a close friendship, nor is a cutoff between siblings less painful than the estrangement between a parent and child. Confusion is a common theme we wrestle with. We may bury ourselves in second guessing, rumination, endless questions of “why”, what if, and lots of hurt. We look for a place to put our pain so we can make sense of it in our head when our heart feels such sorrow. We are desperate to cling to anything that helps us eradicate the source of our suffering.
Which Side of the Fence am I on?
Let’s first consider the person who does not choose to end the relationship. When the choice is made for us we can feel rejected, abandoned and not good enough. There are usually layers of feelings, and just when we think we’ve processed through one set of emotions, new ones come knocking. We can vacillate between anger, sadness, betrayal, loneliness, isolation, etc. Our self worth can take a nose dive as we assess our role in the split and imply a direct connection to our personal value. We may want to blame - either ourselves or the person who ended it. We may feel like a victim, fixating on what was done to us. We may question the relationship in its entirety when it feels as if all we are left with is the hurt. There is no way around the fact that it is just plain hard when someone chooses to leave us.
Then there is the person who initiates the break. If we are trapped in resentment or anger, we may find it’s all about blame. Our focus can get stuck and all we see are the actions or behaviors of the other person, "They gave me no choice - I had to leave". On the other hand, if we take full ownership of our decision to step away from a relationship we can feel like the villain. We may find ourselves mired in guilt, remorse, and uncertainty. It can feel as if making a break suddenly means that we are no longer compassionate and we fear being seen as uncaring and unkind. We may save the most hurtful descriptions for ourselves because we struggle to see the rationale beyond the pain induced by the breakup itself. We fail to embrace the grief because we would rather hold the guilt. As the initiator, we withhold permission to experience the impact of the loss since we chose the path. We refuse to let ourselves off the hook, and we can’t properly move on until we acknowledge where we’ve been.
Relationships are an investment; emotionally and mentally. The book Necessary Endings by Dr. Henry Cloud describes the investment as the energy we pour into the relationship. In order to move on, we must take energy out of the relationship, and to do that we must grieve. We must feel the feelings we are experiencing and acknowledge the reality of the ending (Cloud, 2010). Most of us want to skip this process; we want to force fit a fix, offload our hurt externally, or we want to downplay the significance of the situation, swallow the emotions and jump forward past the grief. Unfortunately we can't bypass this process and we will find that unprocessed grief can weigh us down for weeks, months, or years.
This is where we can advocate for our own healing with intentionality and compassion. This is where we have choice to create something different for ourselves, our current relationships and our future. Not an easy prospect when choosing the healing path requires that we look at our pain and hold the reality of our circumstance in the present moment. It is the most authentic response we can choose as it helps us to honor our emotion and our experience with honesty and integrity.
Check back soon for part 2 of this post as we explore the process of grieving and working through.
Henry Cloud. (2011). Necessary Endings: The Employees, Businesses, and Relationships That All of Us Have to Give Up in Order to Move Forward. HarperCollins.
NOTE: This post is not intended to provide the reader with advice about how to handle their specific situation. If a relationship contains any elements of coercion or violence, personal safety should always be the foremost concern. If you or someone you love is in an abusive relationship, talk to someone who can provide help and guidance: http://www.thehotline.org To find a local domestic violence agency near you call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233).
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