What another person decides to say or do it is not personal, it is not about us. We want to think the target is personal but it is not. It is about them. In the moment of abuse, violence or conflict it is difficult to understand this. I heard of another mass shooting at a school, and again I was brought to tears. My heart hurt for the students, the families and the community. And then there is the perpetual question. Why?
We may not see that the problem lies within the perpetrator’s inability to deal with their shame, fear, loss, or their lack of control over their lives and their emotional responses. The more disconnected people become, the more they either isolate or lash out. It comes back around to, “Hurt People, Hurt People.” Some will focus on perpetually hurting themselves. Others will focus on hurting others. Regardless the foundation and formation of the pain, it resides within the us, and we each has a choice on how to react to that pain. The people that inflict harm on other people don’t know or understand how to deal with their pain in healthy ways. They don’t know where to turn to or how to ask for help, often feeling victimized by another person or a community. An extreme form of this is the individual who carries out a mass murder. These people share the common inability to deal with hurt, loss, anger, frustration, and alienation in healthy ways. Most of them are men who struggle with some form of mental illness along with feelings of disconnection. Many end up killing themselves spurred on by a fear of being broken or rejected and feelings of shame. As long as we are a culture and society who labels vulnerability as a weakness, these forms of destructive and violent acting out will continue in those with serious mood and cognitive disorders. Easy access to semi-automatic weapons are part of the problem, as is access to opiates. Better control of the distribution of guns and drugs will help. But, attempting to cut off access to them all together leads to class based persecution, as I detailed when discussing prohibition of drugs and alcohol. People always find a way, it is part of their nature. Attempting to eliminate that desire does not work well. We must find healthy ways to embrace pain. We cannot medicate it forever, and cannot blast it away by hurting others. The problem lies within us.
There seems to be a strong conundrum toward being able to embrace pain. The idea that the pain is all encompassing and does not allow for other feelings and emotions to coexist at the same time is not true. I started this chapter off with a question. Can you have problems and be happy at the same time? The same discernment applies here.
Can you experience pain and contentment at the same time?
Can you feel pain and not judge those feelings or experience them negatively?
Can you have pain and not be a victim of that pain?
I have experienced pain and contentment simultaneously. I have also felt overwhelming pain that came over me like waves crashing on the shore. It was so overwhelming at times that I could not feel or think about anything else. I eventually learned to notice that there was space between the waves, and I became mindful of that space. I was able to notice the an ebb in the waves of pain, eventually I felt a resolve. This experience fostered a belief, over time, that I would be okay, even content. I started believing that my experience of pain was a natural motion of processing personal loss, grief, or trauma.
This is my experience in the practice of self love. Do I love myself enough to allow myself to feel any and all feelings? This does not mean that I react to whatever feelings are coming up in the moment. I have learned to compartmentalize so that I can explore the feelings and the stories behind them when appropriate. I have learned that I can manage my emotions and my responses in a myriad of ways. I can place them in a container for safe keeping until I choose to address them, or I can explore them at a later time, or I can feel them in the present, allowing myself to become vulnerable in my current environment.
I want to give you an example of the latter. I facilitate family groups for clients and their families at the treatment centers where I work. I often teach a group on the grief process, exploring the different stages of grief and loss according to the Elisabeth Kübler-Ross model. I do my own personal version of the grief process, using her five stages: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Grief/Loss/Depression, and Acceptance. Understand these stages are not linear, but are instead markers for personal emotional expression. To show how this is done, I share a personal story of the grief process with my experience of my father’s death, which I did not initially acknowledge had any real impact on my life. He died when I was three years old, and I created a series of defense mechanisms to deflect any real feelings of loss and grief. I explained how I spent decades using well honed defenses like deflection and bargaining skills to avoid processing the loss and abandonment that were underlying my narrative about not having a father. It was not until at the age of 37, and with the help of a skilled counselor, that I began to explore this issue. I discovered how my limiting beliefs, blind spots, and bargaining mechanisms perpetuated a story that there was nothing to grieve. I had taken ownership of the idea that my father’s death had had no real effect on me. This, of course, was far from the truth, but a narrative that was created to protect me from the natural and healthy process of grief and loss. I had evaded doing my personal grief and abandonment work out of fear I would end up feeling more isolated and alone. I had grown up under the distorted belief that showing grief or sadness was a sign of weakness, which was a great disservice to myself and my family. When I tell this story, I do become emotional, experiencing feelings of sadness and loss. Sometimes these feelings are triggered by the idea that I did not having a father in my life, and at other times I may feel sad for creating such skillful bargaining prowess that I avoided being honest with myself for many decades.
When being vulnerable and sharing my feelings of loss, I also had the experience of being exposed. There were times when I was very uncomfortable allowing people to see those wounds beneath my veneer. I was concerned that I needed to appear as a whole contained person, without the too much dark goo spilling out. But today, I see this as an act of strength and humility. I have colleagues that are unsure of how being vulnerable in these moments affects the therapeutic dynamic with clients and their families. I believe that this open and honest expression builds bridges and alliances, but must be tempered with empathy. It is a cornerstone of human expression to share the vulnerability of grief, loss, and abandonment, and process those emotions in a healthy way. Learning to do so is vital to personal healing and living a wholehearted life.