There are times in life when things fall apart, when we lose someone or something deeply important that made us feel connected, grounded, or safe. Sometimes many things fall apart at the same time, and it feels like all of our safety nets have been cut, and we are bereft of our foundation.
A friend of mine recently went through a divorce. The end of her marriage came, as many do, with great misunderstanding and pain. The worst part was that she felt like her best friend, her ex-husband, had turned into someone she didn’t know, one who seemed to hate her. Naturally, this led to great sorrow and a feeling of helplessness.
She was now a 50-something single woman with the sense that nothing in life could be counted on. If this rupture could happen when her intentions had been good, with someone whom she had loved so deeply and been so honest with, then the world was surely an unsafe place. She felt entirely untethered and terrified—as if she were floating in a space capsule that had lost touch with its earthly command center.
And she had no idea how to move forward.
What my friend did next is what many of us do when we are suffering: She switched into action mode. She started making plans to meet the next man. She joined meetup groups, registered with dating sites, and called everyone she knew to see if they could set her up with someone. She purchased subscriptions to magazines that listed social activities in her city, signed up for new classes, and got “out there” in every way.
How my friend reacted to her sadness and fear is very normal and very human. When we dive into fierce action as a response to suffering, we are really just trying to make the bad feelings go away and to take care of ourselves. We want to feel better, so we set out to figure out how to make that happen. We feel powerless, so we empower ourselves with action steps. In fact, there is nothing wrong with doing things to make ourselves feel better when we are suffering.
And yet, my friend’s very normal action approach missed one crucial ingredient: It did not allow her actual feelings to be included in the experience. When we feverishly and impulsively set out to change our tough situation, our true feelings can easily get pushed down and ignored.
Embracing the Unknown
When we experience great loss or emotional trauma, we usually don’t know what to do or how to make it better—what the path to better will look like, and how it will come about.
In addition to allowing ourselves to feel the sadness, helplessness, and fear that loss brings, it is also profoundly important to allow ourselves to feel what it’s like to have no answers—to not know how we are going to make the situation change and remedy our pain.
We can remind ourselves that the situation and the feelings will change, as everything always does. But right now, in this moment, we can give ourselves permission to not know what to do.
For us Type A’s, and even Type B’s and C’s, the feeling of not knowing can be scary. And yet, giving ourselves permission to not know is a profound gift to ourselves and an act of deep self-care. Sometimes this alone can ease the suffering and take care of our pain, without us having to do anything else.
Suffering, as awful as it feels to walk through, is our teacher. But it can only teach us if we allow it to be felt. Sadness, fear, not knowing—all the difficult emotions, when experienced, change who we are. Ironically, this is what we are trying to accomplish when we run around frantically trying to fix our painful feelings.
When we allow our real feelings to be there, as they are, we offer ourselves a warm embrace and the kindness of our own compassionate presence. We agree to be with ourselves, and keep ourselves company in our true experience.
It is contrary to how we are conditioned to respond to suffering in modern culture, but this simple act of emotional honesty is the most helpful in healing and generating change.
Allowing ourselves to be sad soothes sadness. Allowing ourselves to be afraid calms our fear. Allowing ourselves to not know how to fix our pain soothes the anxiety of having to fix it. Allowing ourselves to be who we are, as we are, allows us to feel deeply loved, welcome in our own life, and not alone.
When we allow ourselves to feel how we feel, we find the company of our own presence, which will always ease our suffering.
Nancy Colier is a psychotherapist, an interfaith minister, and the author of the book “The Power of Off: The Mindful Way to Stay Sane in a Virtual World.” For more information, visit her website NancyColier.com