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Moving Through Grief

 

It has been two years since her husband, Trent, died. But to Amy it feels like yesterday.

“Why am I grieving?” she lamented. “I thought I was over it.”

I answered her simply: “We’re never over love, Amy.”

After his fatal car accident, she told herself she must be strong for the children. So she stuffed her feelings—locked them up in a steel vault deep within. The truth is, such attempts fail miserably. Denied or submerged feelings slowly creep into our everyday consciousness, so eventually we’re forced to face them. This is what happened to Amy, prompting her to seek help.

In our counseling session, I explained that when tragedy strikes, numbness is a natural response—an automatic defense mechanism—that cushions us from experiencing horrendous and often incapacitating pain. But such numbing is a temporary fix—it doesn’t heal the wound. Healing must occur before we can move forward, before we can be intact as a complete person, and before we can engage in our life wholeheartedly again.

On the emotional level, Amy needs to experience and talk about every aspect of the loss associated with Trent’s death, including the loss of his presence, his companionship and the loss of their dreams.

She needs to let herself miss the sound of his voice, his smiling eyes, his laughter, his scent.

He’s no longer there as a father figure for their children. That’s a loss.

Yes, he had flaws and idiosyncrasies. But she’s surprised at how insignificant they all seem now.

“It’s what made him unique,” she said fondly.

I suggested she set aside time to quietly reflect on Trent, letting her heart call forth countless warming memories.

“And if you feel moved to write, don’t resist doing so. Most likely, your instinctive wisdom is nudging you in the direction of healing,” I said.

To keep it simple, some people write down single trigger words associated with special memories.

“Maybe you’re moved to visit certain places, like favorite vacation spots. Go there again,” I insisted.

“Above all,” I said, “let yourself cry.”

I advised her to take her time—to be patient with the process.

Grief can neither be hurried nor directed. At best, we can only surrender to it.

I asked Amy about her childhood, how her parents dealt with negative emotions.

“Emotions weren’t dealt with,” she replied. “They were ignored—never discussed.”

As a result, when Amy’s dog died, or when she wasn’t invited to the prom, or when her best friend moved away, she felt isolated and alone in her suffering.

“So, do you think your children feel alone in their suffering—even two years later?” I asked.

She nodded.

Amy handled her husband’s death in the only way she knew how. And she believed she was doing the right thing for her children—by being strong.

“Your children need for you to be strong in a different way,” I said.

“Strength isn’t demonstrated by being emotionless, but by one’s willingness to face emotions head-on.”

Healthy coping isn’t exemplified by ignoring or hiding unpleasant emotions, but by going through them. It takes courage to grieve, and children benefit when they witness their parents embracing the process and coming out fully intact on the other side.

In contrast, emotional numbing may force a family to pretend the deceased family member never existed. This was true in Amy’s household. After Trent’s death, he wasn’t mentioned at all. Such silence and avoidance is akin to erasing him from every picture in the family album.

“That doubles the grief, Amy.” I said.

Not only did she lose him, she lost the memory of him as well.

“How can he touch your life—yet today—if his memory is eradicated?”

I went on to explain that a cloud of gloom persists because she’s looking at what went wrong instead of what went right. He showed up in her life. He added a strand to the fabric of  her existence that would not have occurred otherwise. He not only enriched her life but he also enriched the lives of his children. That fact should be celebrated.

I suggested she break the silence and get everyone talking about Trent. She should expect tears and laughter. Both are good. They will express and acknowledge Trent’s powerful impact on their lives.

Amy followed my advice, and now that she is bravely sharing her emotions with her children, things should soon be much better in their world.

An emotional wound is finally being allowed to breathe, and I think Amy will be surprised at how much healing can occur when emotions are allowed to see the light of day instead of being buried in a vault of silence.

 

(c) Salee Reese 2018

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Why Didn’t they Put Up a Fight?

 

Larry Nassar sexually assaulted dozens of young female gymnasts under the guise of medical treatment. I’ve read so many critical comments directed at these young women that I felt compelled to respond and offer another perspective.

Why didn’t they object? Why didn’t they just push him away while shouting, “No!”?

At least two very substantive reasons come immediately to mind.

First of all, girls are conditioned to be non-aggressive and to fall in place just below men. This can be easily observed in the youngest of females all the way up through adult women of every age and in every station of life.

Second, Nassar’s position as a doctor, along with their trust in him, won their obedience. From the onset, those girls were indoctrinated with the idea that their doctors and coaches were the best in their field and fully vested in helping them succeed. Their parents believed that . . . everybody believed that. So any discomfort or pain they felt while receiving Nassar’s “treatment”—physically and psychologically—was immediately dismissed. Their distress was in direct conflict with their programmed brains.

If you’re a woman, I’m sure you can think of a time in the not so distant past when your behavior was directly impacted by one of these factors. You may tolerate more aggressive behavior from your male boss than you would if he were female. You may bite your tongue when your doctor dismisses your concerns. Consider the wage differential between males and females working in equivalent positions.

And of course self-diminishing programming isn’t limited to the female population.

Over the years, I’ve counseled both women and men who were sexually abused as children. In every case they felt powerless. Their perpetrators were older, bigger and often in a position of authority. To a child, a babysitter qualifies. Camp counselors, parents, grandparents, siblings, cousins and pastors qualify as well.

When I’ve asked my clients why they didn’t resist, I get similar answers, such as:

“I was afraid of what he/she might do.”

“I didn’t think I had that option.”

It’s important to recall what it was like being a child among giants. One does not rile a giant—it isn’t safe. Vulnerability squelches any boldness we might have. Our survival instincts instruct us to just go along.

Criticism and judgment is not what the victims of perpetrators need. They need to be given the respect of being understood. They need caring regard for what they went through, for not putting up a fight and for keeping it a secret.

They need empathy.

Such a response would appear impossible for those who never experienced sexual abuse. But it isn’t. Have you ever been exploited, tricked, overpowered or violated? If so, you understand. Did anyone ever betray your trust? If so, you understand. Were you ever beaten by a parent and too embarrassed to talk about it at school? If so, you understand.

(c) Salee Reese 2018

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Courage to Feel Deeply

 

In some households, tears are taboo.

Jill is one of six children. An adult now, she recalls her father being a harsh disciplinarian “who frequently beat us.” When the beatings produced wails and tears, he shamed and belittled them, demanding that they stop. Having to endure horrid, abusive treatment was bad enough, but then they were forbidden and chastised for expressing the very pain his abusive hand produced.

Sadly, Jill and her siblings were shamed for something that is as natural as breathing—shedding tears. Emotional repression—being restricted from crying—isn’t all that unusual. Children are frequently told things like: “Stop being a baby,” “Get over it,” “Tough it out.”

The effects of having our emotions hushed are far-reaching. For example, when parents disapprove of their children’s tears or sad feelings, it’s easy for the children to assume that their emotions are wrong. Even worse, children can form a negative opinion about themselves. They can begin to believe that something is bad or unacceptable about them at their very core. Why is that? Because our emotions are part of who we are. We quite naturally conclude:

“If my emotions aren’t acceptable, then neither am I.”

This early programming has a way of clinging to us into our adult years. And so today, Jill has difficulty shedding tears. The shaming and belittling continues, but now it takes place in her own head.

Jill is not alone. When Ken was a child and cried, his mother would say, “You’re just feeling sorry for yourself!” Instead of receiving comfort, he was criticized.

Neither Jill nor Ken were consoled for the emotional pain they suffered. As children, it wasn’t okay to talk about their pain. In fact, it wasn’t okay to have pain. The irony is that we feel emotion of some kind every second of every day.

Children who conclude that their feelings are not acceptable grow up to be adults who are unfamiliar with their own emotions, and therefore ill-equipped to handle them or the emotions of others.

Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence, says people who weren’t raised to know, appreciate, and acknowledge their own emotions have a hard time reading and accepting emotions in others. Consequently, he points out, they lack the ability to respond with foresight and sensitivity. This deficiency frequently results in bungled relationships, whether in the home, the workplace, or among various social acquaintances.

Buried or unexpressed pain doesn’t go anywhere. It just sits there and festers, producing a silent poison that attacks our joy and well-being. Many symptoms of stifled emotions include depression, sleeping difficulties, a constant knot in the stomach, or sudden angry outbursts.

Crying is nature’s technique for nurturing internal wounds and disappointments, both past and present.

Tears aid in the healing process, allowing us to move on. And far from indicating weakness, tears are a sign of maturity and strength. Think about it:

It takes toughness and courage to feel deeply, to hurt deeply, to grieve deeply. Only the courageous among us dare to do that. Tears are for the very gutsy, not the fainthearted.

So I asked Ken, “Is feeling sorry for yourself really all that bad? Who started that nasty rumor anyway?”

Sometimes compassion is forthcoming only from ourselves. And who’s better suited for the job? Who’s more understanding of our distresses? I would much rather see tears than self-belittling and unforgiveness toward oneself.

Here’s the advice I gave Jill:  “Overcome the mark your dad left on your spirit by treating yourself better than he treated you. Cry as often as possible. It’s the loving thing to do for yourself!”

Good advice for all of us. 🙂

 

Names are changed to honor client confidentiality..

(c) Salee Reese 2018

 

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The Universe Loves You

 

Even when you don’t.

Plagued with guilt and self-loathing, many of us are solidly convinced that as human beings we are fundamentally unworthy and unlovable.

It’s just not true. Our essence is pure. How is it possible to despise purity?

Maybe what we consider unlovable is our tainted opinion of ourselves—something we grew to believe about ourselves.

At birth we were given a name and later on, due to many early influences, we acquired a self-image. But neither comes close to defining who we really are.

 

Even though you’re convinced you’re undeserving of love

the universe disagrees with you.

Despite your low self-opinion, something’s loving you all the time, 

and that energy is enveloping you at this very moment!

 

 

(c) Salee Reese 2017

 

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Latest Wow: Goodbye to Insane Guilt

I remember when Vanessa wowed me with this one:

“I’ve spent 30 years hating myself, and I’m tired of it. I need to learn how to love myself.”

Self-loathing wasn’t something Vanessa was born with.  It was learned.

When we were babies, we had no innate sense of disgust with ourselves. If our rattle fell to the ground, we didn’t berate or despise ourselves. We didn’t suffer shame over it—shame isn’t even a reality to babies. So the incident didn’t become an indictment against our character and we weren’t left with the sense of being a bad baby . . . or bad person.

Clearly, we have a lot to learn from babies! 

Yet as adults, many of us lug around a truck-load of accumulated guilt and shame—the irrational kind. It’s overkill. Yes, self-scrutiny can be a good thing, and sometimes guilt is warranted, like the guilt for being nasty to a store clerk, or breaking something we borrowed. But we shouldn’t agonize over those things.

Guilt’s function is to awaken us so that we do some healthy soul-searching, correct our behavior and make amends. But guilt shouldn’t be a weapon we use against ourselves.

When I began working with Vanessa, shaming herself was a constant occurrence. The house was never clean enough, she didn’t exercise or diet enough, she wasn’t a good enough wife, and she didn’t give Carson—her baby—enough of her time.

To make matters worse, her “internal shamer” followed her wherever she went. After hanging out with friends, heckling thoughts like,  Maybe I wasn’t nice enough, or Maybe I talked too much, would torment her for hours.

Vanessa was convinced she was bad to the core. But I believed otherwise. In one of our sessions, she showed me a photo she had taken of Carson gazing at her with loving, happy eyes. That told me volumes. I couldn’t resist commenting, “Well, you’re certainly doing something right!”

Bad to the core? Hmmm. Vanessa’s negative self-appraisal just wasn’t adding up. She was just too warm-hearted, too caring, too sensitive to be a member of that club. She clearly didn’t meet the criteria.

So where did the self-loathing and irrational guilt originate? Her childhood. A steady diet of severe punishments, along with a constant barrage of critical and condemning messages took a toll. Feeling guilty and bad about herself became her normal.

In therapy, Vanessa came to see that she had been needlessly suffering all those years due to a burdensome, oppressive mental habit.

That realization is the crucial first step to freedom!

Motivation is another important factor, and Vanessa had plenty of that because of Carson. Her strong desire to raise him to feel good about himself was what nudged her into therapy in the first place.

The crux of Vanessa’s problem was her conditioning—and buying into it.  She bought into a lie. The good news: if she could buy into a lie, she could buy into the truth.

The truth was found by removing the obstacles that blocked her from loving herself and by disbelieving the internal shamer.

Vanessa got there and in the process she realized that Carson’s perception of her was the simple, beautiful truth!

Love and irrational guilt cannot coexist. One cancels out the other. When we’re in a space of loving ourselves, such guilt cannot get a foothold.

 

 

Names are changed to honor client confidentiality.

(c) 2017 Salee Reese

 

 

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The Unhappy Chameleon

chameleon2

Doug wowed me with this in one of our sessions:

“I always wanted to blend in . . . like a chameleon.” Then looking away reflectively, he added, “You know, it takes a hell of a lot of energy to change my colors.”

He’s right. So why do we do it? It’s all about making sure we’re liked and loved. If we don’t make ourselves acceptable, we fear rejection. And rejection is a very lonely place.

We all do our share of adapting and approval-seeking. It only becomes problematic when we lose sight of our true selves. In the book, The Dance of Anger, Harriet Lerner describes that condition as being “submerged” or “de-selfed.”

Here’s one of Doug’s examples: In the midst of ordering chicken from a menu, his wife interrupted, “You don’t like chicken—you like roast beef!”

He remembers his meek, defeated response at the time: “I guess you’re right. I don’t like chicken.”

Sadly, Doug didn’t really know what he liked. He was used to being defined by the outside world.

When I first met Doug, he described himself as unhappy most the time. That makes sense because de-selfed people can’t be happy. They live a compromised existence which includes spending endless amounts of energy pleasing and accommodating others. The end result is often depression, a depleted interest in life, and hidden anger forever percolating just below the surface.

Adrian was a card-carrying member of the de-selfed club when I started seeing her. Her comments echoed Doug’s:

“I’ve spent most of my life adapting to others,” she said, “disguising and burying myself to get approval. I’ve done it so well for so long, I now have difficulty grasping who I really am.”

“Who is the real me?”

“I’m a chameleon and I don’t know my real color.”

Adrian started submerging her true self at an early age. “My mom’s love would turn off if I didn’t say and do what she wanted,” she said. “I wasn’t allowed to have a self.”

Adrian’s habit of self-denying followed her directly into her marriage … beginning, actually, on her wedding day. Her father handed the newlyweds $500 with special instructions. “He insisted we use the money for having a good time on our honeymoon—and nothing else,” she said.

“Well . . . that didn’t happen,” Adrian said with a defeated sigh.

That incident was a snapshot of things to come. Adrian listed off a series of comparable incidents that took place throughout the 23 years of their marriage. She then lowered her head solemnly and said, “I think my mantra has always been: ‘Yes dear, anything you say.'”

Adrian so needs to speak up in this relationship. She needs to share the person she really is with her husband—not just with me. How else can she relieve her depression and resurrect her actual self? And how else can the relationship possibly change if she doesn’t change?

When Adrian first started therapy, she thought her problem narrowed down to two people, her mother and her husband. Her thinking: If only they would change. But she has moved beyond that and is realizing it’s not what others have done to her, but what she’s been allowing. Until she realized that, she was powerless to change things for the better.

Something very interesting happens when we communicate directly from the depth of our natural being. Our total person comes forward. Call it our true self.

 

Names are changed to honor client confidentiality.

(c) 2016 Salee Reese

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Listen to Your Grumpy Self

grumpy-bird

“I was grumpy when I got up and then I took it out on my kids,” Lori said. “I was just lazy and didn’t want to get up.”

Lori had a good reason for wanting to stay in bed a little bit longer. She had worked late the night before. She needed the rest.

But something tells Lori she “ought to” spring out of bed full of sunshine and butterflies every morning, regardless of what else might be happening in her life.

Sacrificing herself for others is a common theme for Lori in every arena of her life. Saying no—or saying yes to herself—seems selfish to her.  “I can’t let people down,” she says. That mindset leads to exhaustion, and exhaustion is a recipe for guess what? Grumpiness.

Guilt’s the enemy here. It’s the driving force behind Lori’s failure to set boundaries and it’s the basis for her exhaustion and eventual grumpiness. She’s caught in a vicious cycle. Her grumpiness leads to guilt, which leads to overextending herself, which leads to exhaustion, which leads to grumpiness.

Lori needs to learn the language of grumpiness and kick guilt out of the driver’s seat.

Rather than being critical with herself, she needs to listen to what her body is telling her. It’s an unparalleled tool for communicating what we need. Young children don’t seem to have a problem with this. When they’re tired, they take a nap. When they need to play, they play. When they need time by themselves, they take it.

And interestingly, when they’re grumpy, they don’t judge themselves. That comes later . . . after the programming phase of their life is launched. That’s when they’re trained on how they “should” be and what they “should” feel guilty about.

Yes . . . we should be responsive to the needs of others, and oftentimes sacrifice is called for. But wisdom should be the driving force—not guilt. With wisdom at the helm, we take into account the whole picture including what’s best for our well-being. Balance is the key.

I think this quote from the Buddha sums it up perfectly:

“If your compassion does not include yourself, it is incomplete.”

 

Names are changed to honor client confidentiality.

(c) Salee Reese 2016

 

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