feelings

Embracing Grief Rather than Running

by: Lianne Johnson, LPC, CCTP

shutterstock_139543490I shared in my previous blog about my journey from fearing grief to embracing it. To embrace grief at any level requires a response from us, and it changes us. 

When we choose to embrace our grief it changes who we are. 

Brene’ Brown expounds on this point when she says, “Grief requires us to reorient ourselves to every part of our physical, emotional, and social worlds”.

Allowing myself to grieve allows my emotions to function as they were meant to.  Acknowledging a sad day or a hard day (even if I have no idea WHY I feel sad or happy) is healthy and good for me. 

When I think about my process of learning to no longer fear grief, I often think about a book I used to read to my boys called, We’re Going on a Bear Hunt by Michael Rosen.  It is a book about a family out in search of a bear and along the way they run into many obstacles.  Each time they come across an obstacle they say, “We can’t go over it.  We can’t go under it.  Oh no, we’ve got to go through it.” 

This is how I see grief – we can’t get around it no matter how much we would like to, but we must go through it to reach our best chance at emotional healthiness. 

Allowing our grief to exist acknowledges that pain, sadness, and loss are a part of our everyday lives.  Acknowledging these hard and painful emotions normalizes the human condition and experience on this earth.  To live is to have pain.  To live is to have loss.  To live is to hurt.  Therefore we must acknowledge its impact. 

Is Grief Good?

Is Grief Good?

by: Lianne Johnson, LPC

shutterstock_174741554To allow yourself to experience grief, and to choose to engage in the on-going act of grieving, is difficult and takes courage. I believe it is something we must actually choose to learn how to incorporate into our lives. According to Brene’ Brown, who has studied emotion and vulnerability for 15 years, we fear the emotion of grief the most. I agree.

As humans, we tend to run from what we fear. So if we fear the emotion of grief, then it makes good sense to say we will likely run from feeling and experiencing it in our lives to the best of our ability.

Why do we fear grief so much? As I asked myself this question, I realized I believed lies about grief and grieving.

Here are some lies I have either believed myself or have heard from others –

~”If I let myself feel sadness or pain, it will only make it worse.”
~”If I let myself acknowledge my grief, I will never be able to function again. It will engulf me.”
~”I don’t have time to be sad.”
~”I need to think positively and not dwell on the bad (on the pain).”
~”The pain from my grief will be so painful, I will not sustain under it.”
~”If I let myself grieve, I am just having a pity party for myself.”
~”Grief only comes when someone dies, and no one has died, therefore I shouldn’t be in pain.”
~”Something is wrong with me because its been “this much time” and I am still sad about ____.”

There are some deep-rooted misbeliefs exposed in the comments above. The assumptions exposed are that grief is bad, weak, wrong, only “okay” when someone dies, and that it exists on some sort of definable timetable.

I started learning a lot about grief and grieving 5 years ago when the landscape of my life radically changed through my divorce. Wrestling with betrayal, and the loss of our intact family, is something I am still grieving. My days are no longer shadowed by grief, but it still pops up from time to time. Some days it may pop up for a moment, some days it may take up residence for a few hours. It has taken me awhile to learn that I will be “okay” in living a life now sprinkled with grief on a daily basis.

I didn’t start out okay with my grief. For the better part of a year after my life had radically changed, I was angry at the pain of my grief. I tried to numb it, run from it, and mask it into something it wasn’t. I fought it, and I suffered for it.

I had to learn how to not fear grief, but rather how to embrace its presence. I had to learn grief is not containable, it cannot be managed, and it lacks predictability. It can last a moment or remain for the better part of a day. It does not ask for my permission to overshadow a day. I also had to learn that when grief rears its head, it doesn’t mean I am weak.

My journey to no longer fear grief is much like my process of no longer fearing thunderstorms. As a kid, I feared thunderstorms (and if i’m being honest here…my fear lasted into my early adult years). It didn’t matter if a storm came in the day or night. To me, the loud bangs of thunder and sudden flashes of light freaked me out! Now as I sit with my youngest son during a storm to calm his fears, I wonder, “What was I so afraid of? It’s just a thunderstorm!” I believed unfounded lies about storms: “something bad is going to happen,” “what if it never stops,” “I am not okay and I won’t be okay until the storm goes away…” and on and on my thoughts would go. Do you see the similarity between storms and grief? With both, I feared what I didn’t understand.

Allowing ourselves to feel grief, is as important as allowing ourselves to feel joy. When we try to numb only the emotions we dislike, feeling we set in motion the beginnings of living an emotionally handicap life. Over time, we will not only numb the emotions we don’t like, but the emotions we like become numb as well.

Is Taking Care of Yourself Important?

Is Taking Care of Yourself Important?

by: Courtney Hollingsworth, LPC, EMDR trained therapist

It seems like our culture has some pretty disturbing contradictions when it comes to the way we interact with ourselves. We certainly live in an age of self-promotion, some would even say selfishness. “You are what matters,” “get yours,” “look out for you,” are common phrases and mentalities in our society and ideologies being taught to our children. If you look at that aspect of our cultural message alone, you might conclude that we are rock stars at self-care. However, we are also living in the age of “push yourself,” and “never settle for less than your best.” It is a badge of honor to be overly busy or thoroughly stressed out. People “top” one another in conversations about how little sleep they get, how little time they have to eat or relax.

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Do you wear out and neglect your most valued possessions? Do you leave your tablet or phone on the floor? Do you keep driving your car for thousands of miles past when it needs an oil change? Would you let your 5 year old play with your wedding ring? Most likely not. So if we truly are valuable, why do we tend not to treat ourselves that way?

The toughest part of taking care of ourselves is believing that we are worth it. This is a difficult battle fraught with deeply rooted negative self-beliefs cemented inside us a long time ago. Fighting this battle often takes time, persistence, a trusted friend or good counselor, and lots of courage.

The next most difficult part of embracing self-care is that it is not black-and-white, nor is it consistent. What to one person is self-care might not be to another, and what is self-care one day may not be the next. There are times when exercise is wonderful self-care, while other times it is a nap. Watching television for an escape from stress or pain, or for relaxation, can be the perfect option; but other times it is just unhealthy avoidance or numbing. An ice cream cone can be a good treat or an over indulgence. A day off can be a perfect respite and rejuvenating, or it can be irresponsible.

So how do you know? Well like I mentioned above, first you have to believe you are worth it. That you are worth being treated like you are valuable…..by yourself. Next you have to question yourself and your motivations, rather than numb your self-awareness away. You need to ask yourself what you need, rather than what you “should” do. Because guess what? You are worth it.

The Healing Process: Not Just for Physical Injuries

The Healing Process: Not Just for Physical Injuries

Heart-and-stethoscopy

Have you ever broken a bone? Or sprained something? It hurts, doesn’t it?! And sometimes even worse is the inconvenience that comes during the healing process for many weeks following – learning to write with a different hand, covering the cast every time you shower, using those crutches that are brutal to your poor armpits(!!), etc. If it seemed optional, we might be tempted to skip past the healing part and just feel the intense pain of the break/fracture/sprain in the moment, but then choose to just ignore that it happened and move on with life. That would sure be a lot less inconvenient and annoying! But what would be the cost of doing so? Perhaps not being able to walk, continual pain, loss of functionality, or, at best, the occasional annoying reminder that things aren’t quite like they used to be.

Though some of us still might resist the process of taking time to heal from physical injuries, I would say that, as a whole, we are relatively inclined to see the value of doing so. The cost-benefit analysis favors that frustrating process of tending to the wound appropriately.

But what happens when we experience an emotional injury? A harsh word is said that hits at your core; you get rejected in a relationship or a job; you lose a loved one; you see or experience something tragic. What do we tend to do in the face of such an emotional injury? We ignore it. We try to “get over it”. We deny it. We shove it down deep to fool ourselves into thinking it’s not there. We feel shame for even being vulnerable to emotional wounds…as if we’re not human. We tell ourselves it wouldn’t be “productive” to do anything but just move on from it. But what are the costs of that approach? Sure, for quite some time we might be fooled into thinking it’s working quite well. But then that pesky anger gets ahold of us again. We develop an addiction. An eating disorder. Workaholism. We avoid anything that might make us susceptible to that horrible wound again, including relationships that we need. Or we put way too much pressure on other people to assure us that we’re okay. And we convince ourselves that this is the best way.

If you resonate with that, I wonder what it would look like for you to do it differently? To give yourself space to acknowledge that something has been hurt, to figure out how you have been wounded, to assess what is needed to heal, and to be inconvenienced by the process of tending to the injury. If this process is new to you or it’s difficult to see the value in it, here are more some thoughts on how to enter into it:

  • Give space to acknowledge that something has been hurt. Is it hard for you to admit that you have emotions? Or to feel comfortable allowing them to have any influence on you? Or to acknowledge that you can be hurt? Whether you like it or not, you are human and with that means you can be wounded emotionally by circumstances, others, or the consequences of your own actions. If there is shame around that vulnerability, explore it. Feeling the pain of living in this world is no assessment of your strength, character, ability, competence, or resolve. It is part of being a whole human. Give yourself room to accept that (or work on understanding why you can’t).
  • Figure out how you have been wounded. Some emotional injuries are easier to diagnose than others. Some require outside assistance to explore what has been hurt (I’m talking about a friend or therapist, not WebMD 😉 while others can be assessed with some intentional, mindful time alone. I would encourage you to pursue whichever is needed (or both).
  • Assess what is needed to heal. The prognosis is different for each diagnosis, but most all prognoses include honesty, introspection, reflection, grief, and time spent intentionally. Again, if you need help determining how to heal, seek help. And remember that healing doesn’t always mean that there won’t be a scar. Scars don’t come from our body ignoring wounds or passively leaving them as they are; scars come from our body’s incredible battle to heal what was broken.
  • Be inconvenienced by the process of tending to the injury. Just as you might have to cease participating in sports while your broken leg heals or you recover from the flu, you might have to step out of a few obligations for some time in order to give yourself space to heal. This is okay. And it might very well be the best investment you have ever made in others.

We do not tend to our own emotional injuries merely for the sake of finding someone to blame or to wallow in the hurt. We tend to our emotional injuries so that we can heal and move forward as a whole person, able to connect fully with ourselves and with others who are going through something similar.

I know – tending to emotional injuries takes time. It takes energy. And it’s rather inconvenient. But I would argue that it is essential to living as a whole human.

by: Melinda Seley, PLPC

Emotional Reflexes, Bees, and the Artillery of the Soul

Emotional Reflexes, Bees, and the Artillery of the Soul

As children, we build ideas about how the world and relationships work. After an injury when I was small, I was getting stitches in the emergency room. My parents tell the story that while the medical team worked on me, I was happily explaining to them about how nurses grow up to be doctors. That was how I thought the world worked. Someone eventually informed me that doctors and nurses are not developmentally related, and what I understood about doctors and nurses shifted.

A lot of times, we develop beliefs about relationship based on how relationships happen around and to us. As young children when we got into trouble, Mom or Dad might have said, “What were you thinking!? What’s wrong with you?” Being children, we don’t have the ability to challenge the notion that there might be something wrong with us. To a child, Adults define what “Normal” is. So we begin to believe that when we make a mistake, it is because we are defective somehow. If we were “normal”, we would have known better.

Fast-forward to adulthood. If nobody ever explains this scenario to us, if no one ever reshapes that belief or tells us otherwise, chances are that we still believe it on some level. We likely operate as though what we do is a direct indication of who we are. If I lie, then I must be a liar. If I fall for a trick, I must be a fool. If you don’t like me, it’s because I’ve caused you to dislike me. If you hit me, I did something to deserve it.

These defaults operate consistently and automatically. When I was small, I got stung twice in the eyelid by a yellow-jacket. It was very painful, and my eye was swelled shut by the next morning. I have never liked anything with wings and a stinger ever since. I still have a powerful physical reflex when I hear a buzz near my ear. I learned that bees are dangerous.
As an adult, I know that bee stings are not as painful as my emotional reflex tells me, but I do know that they can still hurt pretty bad. What I know, however, does not matter when I hear that buzzing sound, especially when it’s close to my head. I still have a tendency to run away while swatting at whatever was making that noise.

These defaults are powerful things. We don’t choose them, we just live by them. The trouble is that sometimes, these defaults are simply not true. They are real, and they are potent, but they are often based on faulty information. The fact is that the mom or dad mentioned above was wrong: making a mistake or doing something foolish was not matter of something being wrong with me. It was a matter of being a child and not knowing how the world works. They reacted and spoke as though the child should have had the knowledge and foresight of an adult.

When I was in the military, I was assigned to an artillery unit. My first night on a live-fire mission was pretty awful. Every time the crews fired the cannons, I nearly jumped out of my skin. After a while, I could anticipate the commands that led up to the pull of the trigger, but try as I might, I just couldn’t get my body to quit jerking around when the shot went off. My body was reflexing to the concussion as if to say, “Something is coming for you, kid. You are gonna die.” It took a while of rehearsing and experiencing the concussion and the jumping, but eventually the jump reflex passed. My body had to learn that this sudden noise and the accompanying shockwave were not actually a threat to me.

Unlearning our emotional reflexes can follow a similar pattern. We can come to understand and truly believe that mom or dad was wrong, but the emotional reflex is still there, and it is still powerful. The feeling will still kick in, and sometimes we have a hard time remembering that it is real but not true.

The unlearning happens through practice. We can eventually grow to recognize the lie and speak the truth to it: (my identity is not actually based on my performance). We will still have the reflex, and after a while, we learn that this feeling does not actually have the power to define me. I can make mistakes. I can even look like a fool, and I will still be OK. All of our efforts to avoid the feeling actually prolong it. I *have* to feel the concussion over and over again in order to learn that it doesn’t actually have the power to harm me.

I’ll say it plainly: this process sucks. It almost never happens as quickly as we want it to, and it is almost never linear in healing. We go back and forth. We continually recognize new areas where this same old thing is in play. We have to keep fighting with this painful feeling, and we often feel like the fact that we have to fight this hard with it means that we are somehow defective. Then we realize we’re doing it again.

But eventually, with work, with awareness, and with the help of trustworthy friends and lovers, we come to believe the truth, and the reflex fades in potency. We experience a freedom and confidence that we never imagined, and eventually that freedom becomes our new “Normal”.

By Jonathan Hart, LPC

We Hate to Feel

We hate to feel, don’t we?  There seems to be a generalized belief among the living that to feel any emotion for too long or too intensely means something is wrong with who we are.  Why is this?

 

We believe we have somehow malfunctioned if we cannot keep our emotions in-check, socially acceptable, and controlled.  And we believe that we must…and I mean must maintain homeostasis in how we feel.  By any chance does this sound like you?

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Why do we hate to feel?  Why do we fear our emotions?

Here are some thoughts on why we fear to feel:

We Fear we will loose our controlled composure – Any emotions we experience intensely can cause us to feel out of control.  It doesn’t mean we are out of control, but this is how we feel.   Mentally we want to stop crying or feeling sad, but no matter how hard we will ourselves to stop these unwelcomed emotions they do not go away.  They must run their course.  And simply put – this feels uncomfortable to us.

We Fear social isolation –  “What if I’m too much for my family and friends and they all walk away from me?” It is such a horrible thought to have of oneself as “being too much” for others, isn’t it?  This fear alone can grip us so tightly that we choose to stuff down our feelings in an effort to never burden someone again.  In all honesty, if someone who claims to love you walks away from your relationship with them because they claim you are too much, then I would question if they truly loved you in the first place.

“What if they think I’m crazy?” – Another aspect to our fear of social isolation is the fear that says something like, “If I let people see my ‘raw’ emotions, or if I am sad too long or cry too much, they are going to think I am crazy.”  Basically, we hate to feel because we fear what our feelings say about us to others.

We Fear being consumed –  Our fear informs us that if we allow ourselves to feel our feelings, they will consume us.  Once consumed, we will no longer be able to function.

Our fears can hold a very powerful role in our lives, but they don’t have to.  How can we start to think differently?  How can we respond differently to our fears?  Next week I will seek to answer these questions.  Until then, perhaps just take some time to think about which of the fears listed above ring true in your life.  Think about if you are willing to imagine a new way of living.  A way of living that doesn’t magically make your fears disappear, but a way of living that isn’t bound by them any longer.

-Lianne Johnson, LPC

 

3 Essential Questions to Ask Yourself When Big Feelings Happen

3 Essential Questions to Ask Yourself When Big Feelings Happen

(#3 is the real kicker!)

If you’re looking for a way to keep from losing your mind when big feelings happen, I’m going to suggest these 3 essential questions to ask yourself.

First let’s define “Big Feelings”. These are feelings that swell up and burst in a nanosecond. It happens as quickly as a reflex (because they usually *are* reflexes, not choices!).   A sudden, very intense feeling of anger, offense, rejection, hurt, or other similar powerful emotions.   Often you may be able to recognize that the intensity you are feeling seems out of proportion to the thing that seems to have caused it.

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The Big Feeling is generally accompanied by a strong reaction of some kind: you erupt in anger, you run and hide, or maybe you shut down and withdraw. Whatever you do, it seems automatic.

So the three questions are a tool you can use to get underneath the reflex and understand what is pushing you around. The end goal is to gain enough understanding and distance from the feeling that you can intelligently choose what you are going to do next, rather than letting the feeling dictate your actions.

Question #1: What is the feeling? This seems simple at first: “I’m ANGRY, you idiot!! Isn’t that obvious?!”   Not so fast. Usually with an emotion like anger or offense, there is a softer feeling that comes first. Think of a parent that sees their child playing in the street. They react in anger: “What have I told you about playing in the street??” But the first feeling is fear: “I’m afraid you are going to get hurt or killed!!”

The key to mastering Question #1 is volume: wrap *a lot* of words around the feeling. Go into as much detail as you can. What does it physically feel like? Where do I feel it in my body? Is there motion to it? Does it rise or fall? Move forward or retreat? Burst or crush? It’s probably more than just one feeling, so what else is there? How many synonyms or clarifying words can you come up with to describe this feeling? These are just some examples, but hopefully it’s enough to get started.

Question #2: Why is it there? This question moves from what’s happening inside you to your immediate surroundings. What just happened to trigger this feeling?   Again, it seems obvious at first. “I’m pissed because you’re a jerk.” This part may be true, but let’s go a bit deeper, shall we? Get into the layer of meaning. What is it about that word, that action, that tone of voice that makes it so intense? Does it tell you they think you’re worthless? That they don’t respect you? That they’re not going to hear anything you have to say no matter what? Again, get into as much detail as you can.

Question #3: Where does it come from? We’re still dealing with the feeling that you named in question #1. Answering this question can be extremely informative, as well as kind of scary. The goal of this question is to discover where in your story, as far back as you can remember, have you felt this feeling before? Often, as you think about the physical sensation of the feeling, the answer comes quickly. It may be a specific story or event. A moment that, though it happened 10 years ago or 30 years ago, is crystallized in your mind so clearly you can remember what you were wearing.

It may not be a specific moment, but rather a type of moment. The feeling might be connected to something that happened often enough that specific moments are lost in the sheer number of them. What remains is the impression of “always”. “We always had to… He always said… It was always like this… Whenever I saw/heard/felt this, I knew…”.

Discovering your answer to Question #3 can sometimes be like a bomb going off in your mind and heart. All of a sudden you realize that you are connecting two different stories together, and that the old story is what you’re really angry at (or afraid of). Maybe the two stories are similar enough that they feel the same, and it’s the kind of story you never want to be a part of ever again.

Gaining this understanding is absolutely essential to developing the capacity to thoughtfully respond to the triggering situation rather than reacting out of the power of your emotions. Please don’t misunderstand: I’m not suggesting you ignore what you feel, but that you seek to understand what you feel clearly so that you can deal with it intelligently.

Big Feelings are tough to handle. They always will be. But you don’t have to blow up or disappear when they happen. The Three Questions are intended to help you be able to stand up, speak your peace, and seek resolution in a healthier way. Rather than getting lost in the fog of confusion, fear, or anger, you can engage with openness, clarity, and self-control.

-by Jonathan Hart, LPC

The Power of And

The power of and: Bonnie and Clyde.  Chocolate and peanut butter.  Bert and Ernie.  They just go together, right?  The “and” works because we know (or have at least learned from others) that they fit together.  You can have one without the other but most would say neither would be quite as good or complete.

 

“And” is good.  “And” is how it should be.

But sometimes in life, we encounter circumstances that simultaneously press on both joy and sadness, hope and fear, relief and great grief.  Emotions that don’t feel like they should go together.

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You just had a baby; you are excited to be a mom and also really sad to lose the independence and freedom you used to have. You have a workaholic dad who doesn’t always have time for you; you love and respect him and have also been really hurt by him.  Your spouse just lost a long battle with cancer; you are devastated by the loss and also relieved that you are no longer overwhelmed by being the 24/7 caregiver.

Emotions that don’t feel like they should go together.  And in the midst of trying to make sense of them, we hear those voices in our head (or perhaps very audibly from those around us) that only one side of that “and” is the acceptable response or proper set of emotions to feel given the circumstance you are walking through. The way you “should” feel.  So the other, very real side of the “and” gets stuffed down inside with a sufficient dose of shame heaped on top.  It’s not allowed to be felt or talked about or acknowledged with anyone.  What would they think if they knew? How can both of these seemingly conflicting feelings be real?

For those of you who resonate with this, what would it look like for you to allow yourself to sit in the tension between your “and”? To be honest with yourself to see that you are feeling both the “acceptable” response to your circumstance as well as the “unacceptable” or less acknowledged response.  And to give yourself room to feel both sides of your “and”.  To grieve where there is sadness and identify what has been lost.  To rejoice where there is goodness or something gained. And to realize that giving way to one emotion does not negate the very real experience of or reality of the other.

And when you encounter a friend experiencing an emotion that “shouldn’t” be felt, I encourage you to sit and listen. To take a moment to put yourself in their shoes…really in their shoes.  And consider whether you might also be feeling a similar seemingly conflict of emotions. And then give them room to experience both sides of their “and”.

The power of “and” is freedom – freedom from shame, freedom to be honest, and freedom to be whole.

 

By Melinda Seley, PLPC