I’ve confessed that it was a zig-zagging process of recovery. For a long time I delayed my healing – believing I was being strong – but I was simply avoiding the “core pain truth” of what I was feeling.
Eventually I realized I was going through many of the same emotions that Elisabeth Kübler-Ross describes in her five stages of accepting the death of a loved one.
Stage #1: Denial and isolation: “This is not happening to me.”
Stage #2: Anger: “How dare this happen to me.”
Stage #3: Bargaining: “Just let me get X and I won’t care about Y,” or “If this doesn’t happen, I promise to . . .”
Stage #4: Depression: “I can’t bear to face going through this.”
Stage #5: Acceptance: “I’m ready; I don’t want to struggle anymore.”Meaning? As it turns out, I’m not the only one who loves to lounge around in denial during a tough time – in an attempt to avoid feeling painful emotions. It’s a natural tendency – with its own famous stage name!
In fact Joan Didion confessed being a fan of denial – in her memoir “The Year of Magical Thinking.” She described in great detail how after the sudden death of her husband, she found herself focusing on who she needed to call, what she needed to do, what the hospital needed from her (getting copies of medical summaries, patiently standing in line to fill out forms, etc.).
But what appeared to those around her to be a odd state of calm (“She’s a pretty cool customer!” Didion overheard a hospital social worker say) was in fact a state of total numbness.
Unable to face the reality of her husband’s death, Didion found herself engaging in what she describes as “magical thinking,” a conjuring of a world in which her husband might reappear. She avoided reading John’s obituary, believing it a form of betrayal. She told herself she must keep John’s shoes – because he would need them when he “comes back.” She wondered if perhaps things would have turned out differently – had they been dining in California that night he died, rather than New York.
Eventually, however, Didion discovers what most of us discover:
When it comes to emotional pain, you can run . . . but you can’t hide.
If you’ve been through a personal tragedy, chances are that you too don’t want to accept it and let in all the painful emotions–at least for a while.Psychologist Sharon Wolf believes there is a “core pain” you must be ready to feel during really bad times to fully recover: “If you want to heal rightly from a crisis, be ready to tolerate more pain than you thought you could ever feel,” warns Wolf.
Thankfully, Wolf promises if you learn to sit with, feel, and tolerate this core pain, it will get smaller and smaller, until it ultimately disappears.
Or as I learned from my own travels through these stages:
“Feeling means you’re dealing means you’re healing.”
After numbing myself to the pain and living in denial and isolation, when my core pain finally did arrive, it was in a full-blown stage 4 depression–in the form of a crying jag that lasted for a full 2 weeks.
During this time, I’d be walking around, feeling just fine, thank you, la-de-da de-da. Then suddenly, like atidal wave–fawhomp–whoooosh!!–the floodgates would open and I was drowning. The unbearable sadness I’d been evading finally had caught up with me and grabbed me by the throat so I couldn’t breathe. And though I dreaded those tears and the total loss of control, I found out later this was actually a good and necessary thing.
If you’re going through a challenging time, it’s essential you recognize it’s your choice to
(1) Sit with the pain now
(2) avoid the pain now and feel even greater pain later, thereby delaying the healing.
In the wonderful book “The Buddha and the Terrorist,” Satish Kumar writes…
“Sister, pain is part of life. By accepting it, its intensity is reduced. Do not resist it. Resistance to pain brings tension and anxiety, anxiety leads to fear. Fear of pain is worse than pain itself. This pain will pass.”
If you are avoiding your pain and grief as I tried to do, remind yourself:
1. Fear of pain is often worse than the pain itself. When the pain starts to seep through to your consciousness, let it come. Don’t fight those tears. If possible, give yourself specific times to grieve.
2. You are an unfinished self in progress. Like so many of life’s challenges, experiencing and overcoming pain can reveal emotional depths and perspectives you didn’t know you were capable of having.
3. Do not numb yourself. Because feeling your core pain is scary, you might be tempted to seek comfort by numbing yourself–with alcohol, sleeping pills, or other addictive substances. Be strong. Resist and persist in allowing your true pain to surface.
4. Keep a journal. Track your healing process through the five stages (you may skip some stages and also regress or cycle back), but a journal will show you that progress is being made. (Check out my newest book, INSTANT HAPPY JOURNAL if you’re looking for a good journal to empower you! )
If you’ve been through emotional trauma, which stages of recovery did you find yourself stuck most in? What finally empowered you to heal and move on? Share below…
Hi I’m Karen Salmansohn, founder of NotSalmon. My mission is to offer you easy-to-understand insights and tools to empower you to bloom into your happiest, highest potential self. I use playful analogies, feisty humor, and stylish graphics to distill big ideas – going as far back as ancient wisdom from Aristotle, Buddhism and Darwin to the latest research studies from Cognitive Therapy, Neuro Linquistic Programming, Neuroscience, Positive Psychology, Quantum Physics, Nutritional Studies – and then some.
Think happier. Subscribe for free tools!
Live your happiest life. Get my research-based happiness newsletter delivered conveniently to your inbox.