All of us are unequivocally affected by emotional pain. This can come about in the form of death of a loved one, the loss of a dream – knowing it will never come to fruition, divorce, loss of a job, the break-up of a friendship. These things affect us deeply because we were emotionally connected to them. We experienced joy in these things and anticipated continued joy from them. When the ‘thing’ disappears, it causes immense suffering. Why does this happen? Why are we unable to ‘move on’ , to ‘come to terms with the loss’? And is there a way we can better deal with them?
We feel worse when we hear people say ‘move on, life is short, let go‘. These things are rationally accurate. Life is indeed short. We must move on. We have to learn to let go. And yet the reality is that we are not able to – at least not in the moment. The fact remains that we were so fully emotionally involved in that person, thing or that dream, that it had become a part of our self. And when a part of us dissolves, we experience a mini-death. We experience a great sense of loss. In a sense, the external loss, mirrors our internal loss. We don’t just lose that person or that thing or that dream, we have lost ourselves in the process. This is why, just after a breakup, or the loss of a job, we feel so empty. We feel directionless. We feel a sense of purposelessness. And no amount of logical talk can help us heal, because the pain is emotional and not rational to begin with.
What can we do when we are faced with such emotional pain? I, personally have tried (and am still trying) these steps. They have helped me stay afloat.
Step 1: Give space to yourself to grieve
Grieving for the lost relationship, the lost dream or that job is crucial to heal. It is very important to not distract yourself during this period. Most of us travel, get into another relationship, hang out with friends, drink, over-work and even resort to drugs to distract and numb the feeling of emptiness. But these may not be the appropriate way of coping with the pain.
Storr puts it poignantly:
In rural Greece, bereaved women mourn for a period of five years. During this time, the bereaved woman wears black, visits the grave of the deceased daily, and begins by conducting conversations with the departed. Often, the grave is personified: rather than talk of visiting or tending the grave, a woman will speak of visiting her husband or daughter. The rituals demanded have the effect of emphasizing the reality of the loss.Storr, Anthony. Solitude (Flamingo) (p. 30). HarperCollins Publishers. Kindle Edition.
Several cultures across the world, emphasize the need to grieve. As Storr says, the process of grieving has the effect of emphasizing the reality of the loss. We have indeed lost something precious. And instead of running away from it, we face it and come to terms with it. This process can be long and painful. But it must be done. The process of grieving is not to reinforce the feelings of loss but to feel so fully and completely that we develop the inner strength to overcome it. He goes on to say this:
Many Greek villagers subscribe to what can be called an indigenous theory of catharsis. They recognize that in spite of the desirability of immersing oneself fully in the emotions of pain, grief, and sorrow, the ultimate goal of a woman in mourning is to rid herself of these emotions through their repeated expression.Storr, Anthony. Solitude (Flamingo) (p. 30). HarperCollins Publishers. Kindle Edition.
Grieving is a form of catharsis. And its repeated expression helps one overcome it. It helps the mourner to overcome the loss and come to terms with it fully and completely. What happens, if we avoid this feeling? That is to say, we run away from it by subsuming ourselves with work, with distractions and depressants like alcohol?
There is general agreement that loss in the present may awaken feelings of loss in the past. This is especially so if the emotions aroused by the original loss have not been completely ‘worked through’Storr, Anthony. Solitude (Flamingo) (p. 127). HarperCollins Publishers. Kindle Edition.
When faced with similar situations in the future, the unresolved feelings of loss, will resurface. We did not spend time to deal with them effectively at that time and therefore the emotions can be particularly strong. We have seen this with people close to us – haven’t we? A small mention of something that reminds them of that loss and they completely breakdown, get angry or become avoidant (run away).
Therefore, step 1 is to spend time to grieve, with the aim that this period of mourning is essential to build our character so that we may come out stronger and mentally healthier.
Step 2: Get engaged in creative expression
The power of creative pursuits is that it helps us channelize our energies into a physical form. This is again very catharatative. It gives form to the pain. It helps the mind come to terms with the loss. Note, that this is not distraction. You play an instrument from the feeling. You sing with the pain. You write something not so as to escape from the pain, but to better assimilate and integrate it within you – to express it by recognizing it.
The creatively gifted who suffer bereavement, or who experience severe depression for other reasons, can [..] begin to use their talents in what can be described as a process of repair or re-creation. This process is an effort to come to terms with loss in which pain is accepted, rather than an attempt to deny loss or to escape from it.Storr, Anthony. Solitude (Flamingo) (pp. 128-129). HarperCollins Publishers. Kindle Edition.
Creativity is so powerful because it is connected to the deepest part of who we are. It is connected to our uniqueness. It serves as a vehicle to express ourselves. To find meaning in our own expression. To connect to our ‘souls’. It is this and only this that can help us find ourselves once again. Remember, that the emotional pain in the first place came about because we identify ourselves with that external thing so much, that we lost our identity. Through the act of creation, we once again find who we are and come to realize that we are unique and capable of expressing ourselves. We realize that we are alive, that we are okay, despite the loss of that thing we valued so much.
I have heard many people say that ‘Man is an Island’ that we must not allow ourselves to identify with anybody or anything. It is best to remain detached and not have any expectations from people or things. This is true, identification creates pain. But what is the effect of a lack of identification?
In my view, a person who does not identify emotionally with a person, a thing, a cause or a dream leads a very poor life. This is a life very close to that of a horse or a cow. It is utilitarian. You do your work 100%, but it lacks that emotional depth and variety, which only comes by being vulnerable. In fact, all great work on this planet has happened only because people emotionally identified with what they were doing. Imagine if Martin Luther King said , “I have a dream, but I don’t want to associate myself emotionally to it”, or if Gandhi did not believe wholeheartedly in India’s independence. What if Steve Jobs did not believe that he could invent electronic products that were aesthetically designed?
All great things in life require strong emotional involvement. This is a fact. And sometimes (perhaps often) things will disappoint us. We will face pain. This is a normal human condition. But we also need to use these times to grow spiritually, emotionally. Then, we learn the skill of bringing ourselves to anything 100% and also have the capacity to accept defeat and loss. Only then, I believe, we become complete.
Therefore, accept your pain. And know you also have the strength to move on by tapping into your creative potential.