(This article originally appeared on 8/29/16 on TinyBuddha.com)
In July 2012, a conversation changed my life.
Prior to this, I had been struggling to right myself after a difficult loss. Several months had passed, yet I continued to revisit the same sad, angry place again and again. I believed the presence of these difficult emotions meant I was “doing it all wrong.” I thought, if I could figure out why these feelings were so persistent, I could make them vanish altogether. To assist in the quest, I enlisted the help of a spiritual mentor.
I very carefully explained to him that, despite reading books, exercising, spending time with loved ones, eating good food, working, and indulging my passions and hobbies, the daily waves of sadness were still so strong it seemed as if I would drown in their undertow.
“If I am doing all of the ‘right’ things,” I implored, “why am I still feeling this way?” If I had the answer to this question, surely I could be free of all of this nonsense and get my life back to normal (or something close to that).
With the kindest eyes and gentlest smile, the man explained to me that the problem wasn’t anger, sadness, or loneliness—these were normal, healthy reactions to loss. The real issue was my erroneous belief that pain could be controlled with logic.
What the…what now?
Instinctively, I wanted to resist his rendition of my predicament. First, because my life’s work up until that point had been helping others “make sense” of their suffering. So, if pain could not be controlled, how could I help console those seeking pain relief?
Secondly, my shame filter translated his gentle statement into, “What’s up, control freak?!”
Shame does not allow for kind discourse.
Once my resistance subsided, I realized the guru was right: False ideology was preferable to being with sadness, anger, and loneliness, the end date of which could not be predicted or scheduled. Further, I just plain old didn’t like how I had been humbled by loss.
As the words left my mentor’s lips, something inside of me shifted. I did not feel angry, sad, or scared. A little annoyed, yes—sort of like a child being invited to part with her favorite blankie.
The predominant feeling in that moment was relief.
Once fully felt and accepted, the guru explained, emotional states will naturally dissipate over time. The determination to find out “why” was an unnecessary resistance to a tide that simply needed to ebb and flow on its own course. Thus far, swimming against the current did was doing little more than making my arms tired.
I set a conscious intention that day: to do my best to let the waves of grief carry me wherever I was meant to go. It wasn’t all sunshine, rainbows, and Oprah Winfrey moments after that. In fact, it pretty much sucked for a while. But, after two or three months of swimming with the current, I felt more confident in my ability to survive the tide.
Anyone who has lived or loved has been privy to emotions that seem to come and go without explanation. I believe we cannot control how we feel, but we can control how we choose to respond to these feelings when we have them. Healing resides in how we choose to respond to pain.
Here are some things to keep in mind the next time the waters feel turbulent:
1. Feelings do not have brains.Logic cannot “fix” feelings because feelings are not broken. Sometimes we are lucky enough to see a clear path between our heads and our hearts. For example, when someone says something hurtful, we understand why we may feel angry or hurt.
There will also be times when feelings don’t make sense. They don’t need to. Whether your feelings have a logical explanation or not, recognize them as valid and trust that, when given permission to exist, they will eventually pass. (I promise they will.)
2. The presence of pain is not an indication of failure.There will be times when pain persists, even though we are doing all of the “right things.” This does not mean that you have failed at anything. It just means you may need more time (see #3).
Failure is the voice of shame. Shame simply heaps suffering on top of preexisting pain. No one deserves this, including you, so try to talk to yourself as you would a beloved friend when shame surfaces.
3. There is no timeline for things that cannot be scheduled or controlled.Give yourself time and take as much of it as you need.
4. Instead of fixating on why, ask what and how.Shift your attention away from why and ask yourself what’s happening in the present moment and how you feel about it. Loving acknowledgement is the first step toward acceptance.
More often than not, “why” is a signpost for the inner child who falsely believes pain should not be part of life. Your feelings are a testament to your aliveness. The next time you hear yourself asking “why” you feel the way you do, I invite you to breathe, lean back, and let the tide carry you wherever you were meant to go.
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Dr. Jill Gross is a licensed psychologist, dating coach, and writer whose therapy practice is located in the Phinney - Greenwood area of Seattle, Washington. She has been providing counseling and dating consultation services since 2000.