Nobody's exempt from pain. Not even self-help book authors. In my newest, called The Bounce Back Book, I confess how within one year, so many bad occurrences happened, I kept waiting for a Candid Camera crew to appear from behind the planter in my living room! First, the real estate broker, real estate lawyer, and moving company I hired found sneaky ways to rip me off. Next, a longtime business buddy hired me to package new groovy chocolate bars, then never paid me.
But those were nothing compared to the lowest point: a sexual assault by someone I knew as an acquaintance.
I share all this because, if you're reading this column, and going through a challenging time yourself right now, I want you to know that I fully understand how painful and challenging life can be.
After my sexual assault, I found myself going through many of the same emotions that Elisabeth Kübler-Ross describes in her five stages of accepting the death of a loved one. The only difference is that, with death, you at least get the perk of being brought some yummy casseroles.
Kübler-Ross outlined the five stages of grief as follows:
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."
In her memoir The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion describes that after the sudden death of her husband at the dinner table, she found herself focused 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 preternatural 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 avoids reading John's obituary, believing it a form of betrayal; she tells herself she must keep John's shoes because he would need them when he "comes back"; she wonders if perhaps things would have turned out differently had they been dining in California that night 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 for so long, when my core pain finally did arrive, it was actually a surprise to be greeted by this sense of depression.
During this time, I'd be walking around, feeling just fine, thank you, la-de-da de-da. Then suddenly, like a tidal wave--fawhomp--whoooosh!!--the floodgates would open. Although I dreaded those tears, I found out later they were 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"
Your Bounce Back Assignment:
If you are avoiding your pain and grief (as I admittedly 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. 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, and remember, after you pass through stage 4, that final stage of Acceptance is right around the corner! Whew!
Karen Salmansohn is a best selling author with over 1 million books sold - her most recent being The Bounce Back Book: How To Thrive In The Face Of Adversity, Setbacks And Loss. Salmansohn's personal mission is to share information which leads to our world's transformation - to help this world bounce back from the many tough challenges it's now going through - and to eliminate that pesky word "impossible." For more info: www.notsalmon.com.
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