“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:
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