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Eyes on Your Own Path: Dealing with Comparison in Recovery

Eyes on Your Own Path: Dealing with Comparison in Recovery

Recently I’ve been reading Atlas of the Heart by Dr. Brené Brown. In this book, Brené Brown explores words describing human emotions and experiences and shows how these definitions shape our existence and relationships. When I got to her exploration of the word “comparison,” I knew I had to share it in a blog. She says:

Comparison is the crush of conformity from one side and competition from the other–it’s trying to simultaneously fit in and stand out. Comparison says, “Be like everyone else, but better.”

Wow, right?

When I read this mic-drop of a definition, I think about how comparison shows up in eating and body image recovery. It shows up in ways that might seem obvious: comparing your body to other peoples’ bodies, comparing what you’re eating to what everyone else is eating, comparing your workout routine to everyone else’s, and on and on. And then there are the comparisons between your current body and your past body–“before and after” pictures, items of clothing that used to fit differently, etc. Comparison can feel motivating at times (for better or for worse), but for most people, the end result of comparison is a sense of inadequacy and exhaustion.

Comparison can also show up in eating recovery in more covert ways. Like Brené Brown says, comparison might whisper in your ear, “Be like everyone else, but better” when it comes to how sick you are. The eating disorder can turn comparison into competition. Comparison might make you feel worthless or invalidated because you are not “sick enough” compared to others, or even to yourself in recovery at different times of your life. Comparison might cause you to look sideways at others’ recovery journeys instead of being able to focus your eyes ahead on your own path. You might find yourself checking the pace of your recovery against someone else’s, and then wondering what’s wrong with you for not moving at the same speed as them.

However it shows up in your recovery process, comparison can end up creating pain on top of pain–an extra layer of suffering on top of the already intense challenges of recovery. And you might be thinking to yourself, “Yeah, I shouldn’t compare myself to others.” And maybe people in your life are saying the same thing: “Don’t compare yourself to others.” And sure, stopping comparison would be great, but HOW?

Here’s my take (and Brené Brown and her research team can back me up on this–check it out in Atlas of the Heart): Don’t expect to be able to just stop comparing yourself to others. Instead, when you find yourself comparing, bring your focus back to your own path. Comparison is almost for sure going to happen to you, and to all of us, automatically, without you really choosing to compare. It’s a mental reflex that is only human. When you notice yourself comparing, it’s up to you to either choose to stay on the path of comparison, or pick another path.

One of the alternative paths to comparison that Brené Brown suggests is CREATIVITY. In her book The Gifts of Imperfection, Brené says, “Creativity, which is the expression of our originality, helps us stay mindful that what we bring to the world is completely original and cannot be compared.”  You are unique, and what you can create and contribute is entirely your own.

Living life through comparison is like being a measuring stick–rigid, limited, and in a constant state of calculation. Living life through creativity is like being a paintbrush–flexible, unbounded, and in a state of inventiveness. If you find yourself comparing yourself to others to see how you measure up, keep that image in your mind and turn that measuring stick into a paintbrush and create the life you want for yourself.

Another alternative path to comparison: CONNECTION. There are some great thoughts on this alternative in Atlas of the Heart. (Can you tell by now that I want you to go read some Brené Brown?) When you feel the urge to compare or compete with others, think about what it might look like to connect with your own humanity, and the humanity of others. Here are a couple examples that came to my mind when I think of how connection can help you manage comparison:

Comparison says: “She looks so good. I hate my body. I feel disgusting standing next to her.”

Connection says: “She is more than her appearance, and I am more than mine.”

Comparison: “He is so much smarter than me. I’ll never be good enough.”

Connection: “I can appreciate his strengths while honoring and developing my own.”

Comparison: “I am so awkward. Everyone else is so much more confident than me.”

Connection: “It’s human nature to feel self-conscious sometimes. I can be kind to myself when I’m feeling vulnerable.”

If you find yourself struggling with comparison, please remember that it’s nothing to be ashamed of. We’re all bound to compare ourselves to others sometimes. Especially in recovery, comparison will happen. Remember this: you can choose the direction you want to turn when comparison tries to pull you off course. That direction might guide you toward creativity, connection, self-compassion, or some other value you hold close to your heart. When comparison tries to pull your focus sideways towards others’ journeys, turn your eyes forward to look at your own path. That path is where you will find your unique self, the healing you personally need, and the singular, beautiful contributions you can make to the world. 

Cupid’s Corner

Cupid’s Corner

Happy Valentine’s, Galentine’s, or I-Stayed-Home-and-moped-about-tines! Whatever you did, I hope you had a good day and felt loved by those you love, including yourself! Life’s too short for self-hatred and self-pity. That I know from personal experience. 

With love in the air I wanted to share some personal thoughts I’ve had on love recently. Though to be honest, they’re not my thoughts. You see, I recently got engaged and with that happy day has come lots and lots of advice. Some good, some questionable, and others just plain funny. 

While you may have been married for years, recently divorced, or never in a romantic relationship, I hope you can see the principles in each piece of advice. While the advice may not perfectly fit your situation, the principle can probably be applied to most relationships in your life. Whether it’s your spouse, boss, neighbor, gal-pal, bro, or your dog, the key to basically every relationship is mutual appreciation and good communication. I hope you’ll find something useful in the advice I’ve been given. 

E-R = C

I’m going to start with some math here, but don’t worry it’s pretty simple. The above equation stands for Expectations – Reality = Conflict or Celebration. The essence of this concept is that we all need to check our expectations about the other person in our relationship. If we expect the other person in a relationship to understand us perfectly, never get upset with us, or never disagree with our point of view, then we will receive a swift and harsh reality check. On the other hand, if we expect to be with someone that is flawed, unique, and ever-evolving, and remember that we are subject to all the same imperfections, we’ll find happiness in the process of growing and becoming better together. 

Go to bed angry

Growing up I heard the common adage, “never go to bed angry,” meaning that if you and your spouse are upset with each other or in some sort of argument, you should work it out before you go to sleep and start another day. In concept this makes sense, why end one day and start the next one mad? But in reality, at least so I’m told, this is less realistic. In the words of a friend of mine, “there are few things a nap and a cookie won’t fix.” Turns out that a good night’s sleep, some time to reflect on the issue, and the opportunity of a fresh day can do a lot to put out the passionate fires of an argument and help us see what really matters. So many things don’t have to be an issue if we just give it some time to let the anger and other emotions fade out of the discussion. While emotions are great, it seems that most of us make foolish decisions under their influence, so just be aware, eat a cookie, and go get some rest. You can sort things out in the morning.

What you see is what you get

Now this may seem obvious, and I’m not here to insult your intelligence, but a lot of people forget this very important truth. This ties in well with point one, about expectations. Let’s talk some psychology to help explain this one. First, there are two things we need to understand: The Golem Effect and The Pygmalion Effect. These two effects are more or less the same, just describing different results from a change in behavior. “The Golem effect describes the process where superiors (such as teachers or managers) anticipate low performance from a subordinate, causing the very behavior they predict” The Pygmalion effect is just the opposite, “a superior’s raised expectations of subordinates actually improve performance.”

While your romantic relationship definitely shouldn’t have a superior and inferior member (unless you want to be really unhappy), I think you can see how important your belief in your partner is. What you see is indeed what you will get. If you believe your person is ugly, lazy, dishonest, and a bad kisser, that’s what they’re going to become. On the other hand, if you believe they’re hard working, attractive, honest, and a fantastic kisser, then whether or not that’s the case, that’s what they will actually become. If you water the proverbial flower and put it in good soil, it will grow, but if you don’t, it’s going to die. 

Now there may seem to be a slight disconnect between this last point and the first point I made. I can hear you now, “but Jackson I thought you said that having high expectations was bad.” That’s not what this advice is about. It’s true, if you expect perfection and shun reality, you’re going to be unhappy. What this last point is saying is if you believe in someone’s goodness, despite knowing that they’re not perfect, they will believe too, and that will help them achieve and become more. 

In Closing

As I write this blog, I’m grateful for the opportunity to reflect on the many pieces of advice I’ve been given lately. As I hope is clear, I’m no expert on relationships. I’m just sharing things that have been shared with me and that I see some worth in. I’m sure my soon-to-be wife and I will have our rocky times, just as all couples do, but I trust that as we employ some of the great advice we’ve been given, communicate, and love each other, everything will work out. I hope you too can find some worth in the advice as you consider your most important relationships.

References

https://www.brescia.edu/2017/12/golem-effect-vs-pygmalion-effect/

https://www.brescia.edu/2017/12/golem-effect-vs-pygmalion-effect/

Connecting During the Holiday Season

Connecting During the Holiday Season

The holiday season can be a time of togetherness and loneliness. Maybe you’re like me, with family spread across the US. It can feel lonely to be apart from loved ones, but we’ve found ways to connect. I’ve got three recommendations for connecting with loved ones this holiday season. 

#1 Connect in creative ways

Find ways to connect with your people. Every year Hallmark gifts us with more Christmas movies than we know what to do with. I love reviewing the movie list with my sister and mom, judging the movies based solely on titles. Some of our categories include best movie, worst movie, cheesiest movie, cleverest plot, and the movie you turn off before it’s finished. Even if you’re far away from family, you can choose a cheesy Hallmark Christmas movie to watch and then discuss your review via video chat. Hallmark movies may not be your thing, but how can you connect with those you love in creative ways? 

#2 Make connection simple

The holiday season is a crazy time of year and if you’re not careful it can become stressful. Find simple ways to connect that prioritize time together (even via technology) over elaborate plans. Check out these ideas: 

Try a new recipe a week and report back to your people how it went

Work on the same craft and discuss what is going well and what challenges you are facing

Join or start a book club where you can discuss a shared read

Learn a new dance and try to do it together– virtually or in person

Go on a walk “together.” This can be walking side by side, or you can plan a time to both be walking, wherever you may be, and chat on the phone

Try to draw something new and send pictures of the final product

Order dinner at the same time and jump on a call while you eat

#3 Connect in your community

There are limitless options to connect with others. Find what works for you. Now, maybe you have a hard time finding your people to connect with. Check out these ideas for finding your people: 

Connect with neighbors

Volunteer for an organization that interests you

Attend a church congregation

Sign up for a class in your community

Serve someone/Accept service from someone

Get a pen pal

Invite people over for dessert and games (someone has to be the inviter)

I hope you feel loved and connected this holiday season. 

 

A Tale of Three Thanksgivings

A Tale of Three Thanksgivings

​​Thanksgiving is right around the corner. I have some really excellent memories of cozy family dinners around the table, taking turns saying one thing we’re grateful for while my mom gets sappy and sentimental. However, I know that Thanksgiving often spurs on a variety of emotions for most people, especially if you are going through recovery. Do you look forward to the large meal, gathered around with friends and family? Do you dread eating in front of so many people? Are you concerned about diet talk? Do you worry Thanksgiving dinner will feel like an open invitation for others to comment on your food choices? Are you excited to celebrate all the people, places, and experiences that you’re most grateful for? Are you anxious about spending so much time with family or in-laws? My guess is your feelings are probably a mixture of a few of these. Even for me, Thanksgiving can be both an exciting and stressful time and I try to tactfully manage family, food, and celebration.

To give some more context around Thanksgiving and recovery, I would like to present three totally made-up vignettes. As you read through these vignettes, I want you to guess which person has a peaceful and intuitive relationship with food. Sound okay? Great. Let’s get started.

Callie spends Thanksgiving at her grandmother’s house. Her grandma is aging and doesn’t have very much energy these days. Callie’s grandma makes the most amazing pumpkin pie and although she was tired, was able to make these pies for the family dinner. Callie enjoys her meal, going back for seconds to get a little more of her favorite items. By the time dessert rolls around, Callie is noticing that she is feeling a little overly full but decides to have a piece of pumpkin pie and chat with her grandma about the way she makes it and all of the secret ingredients. Callie is left feeling overly full but continues to have a good time with her family. She eats breakfast the next day and looks forward to leftovers for lunch.

Tara spends Thanksgiving with her in-laws. She doesn’t get along with them very well but is grateful to see her little nieces and nephews. When Thanksgiving dinner rolls around she doesn’t feel very hungry, maybe because she feels anxious about what her mother-in-law thinks about their most recent car purchase. Tara eats a few items at dinner but realizes she doesn’t like ham and turkey much anyway. After dinner, she talks with her partner about the anxiety she has been feeling. They process it together and Tara makes her way back to the kitchen to have a post-dinner snack, since she didn’t eat much during the formal family meal and is noticing she isn’t feeling totally satisfied. She eats until she feels full and enjoys the apple crisp her husband made for dessert later that evening.

Sophia spends Thanksgiving with her roommate’s family. Her roommate’s family culture is very different from what she’s used to. However, Sophia feels comfortable with the family and excited to spend time with them. When dinner rolls around (which they do around lunch time in this family), the family eats enthusiastically. The mom encourages Sophia to eat more and more. Sophia, already recognizing that she’s feeling really satisfied, politely indicates to the family that she is full. In this family, they have dessert with the meal, and Sophia decides she doesn’t want a piece of pie. Later, while playing games with the family, Sophia recognizes she’s feeling hungry again and eats a slice of pie with extra whipped cream.

So, could you spot the person that has a peaceful relationship with food? Surprise! They ALL have a very healthy and peaceful relationships with food! I use these little vignettes as good examples of the variety of ways that intuitive eating could show up over the holidays. Being an intuitive eater does NOT mean eating perfectly. Being an intuitive eater is more about the process of honoring your body, which can mean trusting your body when you eat past fullness and honoring your hunger even if you have eaten recently.

Having a peaceful relationship with food goes far beyond simply eating when you’re hungry and stopping when you’re full. Food can serve many purposes. When stuck in disordered eating and diet culture patterns, food is often a means to an end. However, when you are able to break out of that diet mentality, the purpose of food shifts dramatically. Sometimes the purpose of food for me is energy, like that midday snack or eating a nice breakfast before taking a test. Sometimes the purpose of food for me is creativity, like when I experiment with new recipes or perfectly plate a meal. Sometimes the purpose of food is connection, like sharing a holiday meal together or making an old family recipe (like Callie).

Diet culture tells you that food serves one purpose: to give you control over what your body looks like. To start, this isn’t accurate, but it also keeps you from experiencing the joy that connecting to your bodies through your enjoyment of food can have. That’s something I am not willing to miss out on. The freedom that comes from putting in the hard work of challenging disordered thoughts about food is absolutely worth it! 

So, as the holidays approach, remember that there are many good ways to be an intuitive eater. Lean into trusting your body to process the food you eat and remember it deserves to be fed and nourished, no matter if you ate a holiday meal the night before. Find various purposes of food and remember that it might go beyond “fuel” or “energy.” Happy Thanksgiving! I’m so grateful for my body and for the chance to be a witness of the healing and growth of recovery. I hope this Thanksgiving can be a peaceful one for you as you remember the things you’re grateful for.

Recovery: A Family Affair

Recovery: A Family Affair

So, you’re doing the hard and vulnerable work of recovering from an eating disorder, disordered eating patterns, or body image difficulties. You have challenged the food rules, you can actually define (and freely use) the phrases “intuitive eating” and “joyful movement.” You and your body are finally making amends after years of battle. You’ve got a handy-dandy list of coping mechanisms and distress tolerance skills that actually work (and you’ve probably tried some out that definitely do NOT work as well). You may be feeling more like yourself, more present in your relationships, more in touch with your primary emotions, and probably a little tired (recovery can be exhausting!)

If you’re like many of my clients, one question that is probably coming up for you now is: how do I maintain recovery if friends and family are still entrenched in diet-culture, actively pursuing weight-loss, continuing to make comments about other’s bodies, or may not be supportive of my recovery process? Eating recovery can be so liberating and bring a new sense of peace, however, this is sometimes accompanied by the wonders of how to navigate a world that may not be recovery-minded.

If you are in this space, know that you are not alone. Learning to navigate family is a common and vital part of recovery. As a marriage and family therapist, I believe that our family systems are hugely influential (positively and negatively) in our development and healing. Here are some quick reminders of ways to navigate a challenging family system.

1. Educate

Here’s the thing: I don’t think your family members intend to sound eerily similar to your eating disorder, however, their well meaning or misguided intentions do not necessarily lessen their impact. Your family members may just lack information. They may even be in a similar headspace as you were when you began your recovery journey. This is when education can be your best friend. Helping your family members understand the dangers of diet culture, the physical and psychological risks of restriction, and most importantly your pain as you navigate recovery allows them to be more understanding, sensitive, and supportive. I often talk about some of the concepts of recovery such as intuitive eating, body neutrality, and understanding emotional needs as “uncovering buried treasure”. Not everyone has learned the things that you have learned as you’ve gone through recovery. Perhaps letting your family members in on your new knowledge will allow them to think differently, or in the very least, be more aware of how the things they do and say may impact you. This can be done on your own, or with your treatment team (I absolutely love bringing family members into session!)

2. Set Strong Boundaries

Boundaries are important for any relationship. Although they can feel very difficult to set, boundaries actually foster closeness in relationships. Our queen, Brené Brown, says that “Daring to set boundaries is about having the courage to love ourselves, even when we risk disappointing others.” Brené goes on to talk about setting boundaries as actually one of the most compassionate things you can do, both for yourself and those in your life. Setting   boundaries means communicating your needs to those you love so that they can help support you. If you are struggling with feeling supported by family members through eating recovery, setting and keeping clear boundaries will help save your relationship   from causing unintentional pain on their part and pent-up resentment on your part. Setting a boundary may sound like, “It’s important to me that we don’t talk about other people’s bodies or comment on weight, even if it’s a ‘compliment.’” It might also sound like, “When you talk about your diet in front of me the story I tell myself is that my recovery doesn’t matter. Can you limit talking about your diet with me so I can maintain my progress in recovery and be open with you about my experiences?”, “I won’t be participating in the family weight loss change (aside: why does everyone like to do family weight-loss challenges??),” or even a simple “No.” You may not feel able or willing to vulnerably share what your boundaries are with every member of your family, however, setting healthy boundaries with those in your family that you trust will benefit your relationship with that person and aid in your recovery. We are not islands; we are deeply connected to others. Setting boundaries is a bid for help and support in your recovery process and invites those closest to you to be a part of your healing while keeping your recovery safe.

3. Garner Additional Support

As a marriage and family therapist I believe in the deep healing that can come from families as they show up and support one another. I also believe it is absolutely vital that we have strong networks of support apart from our families. Especially if your family is having a hard time understanding your recovery work, a supportive network of friends, mentors, extended family, dietitians, group therapy members, doctors, therapists, etc. will be absolutely essential. Find “your people” and keep them close during recovery.

4. Remember Recovery is YOURS

Finally (and let’s be real, most importantly), although there is so much value in family and social support, at the end of the day your recovery is ultimately your responsibility. I yearn for my client’s families to rally around them and buoy them up, as the load of recovery can be heavy and draining. That being said, it is up to you to navigate your own recovery, even when your family may be intentionally or unintentionally unsupportive. Finding support and compassion within yourself will be an important aspect of your recovery journey. I believe your family will be greatly influenced for the better as you heal and recover AND I also believe that at the end of the day it is your life and your peace that you are working for. Although you may be experiencing heartache as you navigate eating recovery without direct family support, remember to show up for yourself and your recovery despite challenges you may be facing in other relationships. Do not forget the most important relationship you have: your relationship with yourself.

Moving Toward Belonging

Moving Toward Belonging

I recently made a move to a new home. Although it is only 35 minutes away from where I previously lived, it has felt like a whole new world. I have only lived in two cities in my entire life. Moving away from where I’ve made a life for nearly the past decade was difficult and slightly disorienting. Although I was absolutely thrilled to be embarking on a new experience, there was also a lot of grief involved.

At first, I thought my grief centered around familiar places and things. I would miss our favorite acai spot and our go-to local burger joint. I’d miss the beautiful spring blooms in our neighborhood. This town and I had a long history together and I felt such a deep sadness leaving. I didn’t quite understand it, after all, I’d be back to visit friends and it was close enough to even go to dinner there once in a while.

We had lived in our house for about two days before I started feeling sad that we hadn’t made any friends yet. My husband laughed and helped me remember that making friends takes time. The first time we went to the grocery store, I was sad I didn’t see any friends I knew. As I reflected on why I was feeling such a loss, I recognized that it wasn’t the place I was missing. I could find new favorite restaurants, make new friends, and re-establish a sense of normalcy. What I was missing wasn’t the grocery store itself, it was the sense of belonging I felt as I saw friends and navigated the store with ease. It wasn’t the restaurants I missed; it was the way I recognized the people behind the counter and the sense of connection I felt with them. I wouldn’t miss the shorter commute (okay, well maybe I would), but mostly I would miss the sense of familiarity the drive is, the way I felt like I knew exactly where I was and how I fit into the world around me.

A change in scenery threw me. It made me feel less sure of myself and how I fit. I don’t know my neighbors; I have to use maps every time I try to go anywhere. I sometimes feel like my friends will forget me now that I don’t live down the road. 

However, through this process I began to reflect on what I know of belonging. Belonging goes beyond “fitting in.” Although I can be highly compassionate with myself and the grief, sadness, and feeling of disorientation and lack of belonging that comes with moving away from a home in which I felt so comfortable and as though I had a place–that was not belonging. To understand truly what I was seeking for, I looked to Brené Brown, who says:

“Belonging is the innate human desire to be part of something larger than us. Because this yearning is so primal, we often try to acquire it by fitting in and by seeking approval, which are not only hollow substitutes for belonging, but often barriers to it. Because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance…True belonging is the spiritual practice of believing in and belonging to yourself so deeply that you can share your most authentic self with the world and find sacredness in both being a part of something and standing alone in the wilderness. True belonging doesn’t require you to change who you are; it requires you to be who you are. – Brené Brown”

 So what did I need to do when I was feeling disconnected and afraid of not quite belonging?

  1. Understand the innate need
  2. Belong to myself
  3. Share myself

 My charge as I sought belonging in a new community was not as much about establishing new routines, new “favorite spots,” or even new connections. My charge was to dive more fully into understanding why this was important to me, to be compassionate with myself, understanding that I felt this way because it was a need! 

My next charge was to work on myself. I needed to invest more time into appreciating and seeing my true, authentic self. I needed to find a permanent home, full of safety and belonging, within myself. 

Finally, I needed to be very careful not to work to fit in, but to work to share my true self with others. My true self who is full of flaws, full of works-in-progress, and full of gifts to give and things to contribute. This can always be intimidating in a new place and in a new experience, however, it is absolutely vital to muster up the courage to share our authentic selves. This belonging, this sense of deep connection, is only found in showing up as ourselves.

I’ve seen this pay off in my own life. I think part of the reason moving has been difficult is because I have shown up authentically and created a true sense of belonging and community. I just need to remember that that community and belonging is not location-specific and stays with me wherever I go. I’ve learned that the risks and vulnerability needed to create deep belonging are always worth it.

How do you see the search for belonging in your own life? How do you dig in and show up with your authentic self? When have you seen this pay off in your life? Do you need to focus more on compassion for this as a deep need? Do you need to work on belonging to yourself? Or do you need to work on (like I do), showing up and sharing yourself with others more fully?

 

Learning that Grief is Normal

Learning that Grief is Normal

Grief is very natural- it’s been said that grief is the form love takes once our loved one is no longer present with us. Grief is the psychological pain response to losing a close family member or friend. When we look at it through the lens of attachment theory, we gain greater understanding into what the normative process of grief looks like.

We tend to have a handful of people in life who we have a psychological attachment to- these are people we have close relationships with, people who are invested in us and help us regulate our emotions and physical well being. We turn to them when we need help, comfort, or distraction. We experience a longing for them when we are separated. With attachment comes a disposition towards caregiving. Those we are attached to are who we are naturally driven to care for and most willing to accept care from. Research into attachment theory shows a very biological drive towards these bonds- they are essential to our survival and we are programmed to stay close to our attachment figures!

When we experience loss of one of our key attachment figures, we ache for them.  But beyond that deep emotional pain, we may experience sensations of being displaced or unmotivated, maybe even a loss of our sense of competence and ability to function. Looked at through a lens of attachment, these reactions seem expected. Our predictable system is disrupted, and we are reacting to that difficult disruption.

As our grief progresses, there are typically some changes in our emotions and behaviors over time. When you think of visiting a friend who was widowed a few days ago, imagine what you might expect to find- a bit of chaos in the home environment, weepiness, perhaps a lack of motivation to accomplish much. 

Now, imagine visiting that friend five years down the road- do your expectations differ? You might expect to find the friend still sad over losing a spouse, and certainly still missing that person- but in many ways, living life with more predictability and emotional steadiness. Over time, we never stop missing or loving our lost loved one, but the way we experience grief and even the nature and intensity of our emotions will typically change over time. 

This very normative process results in what we call “integrated grief”. Integrated grief differs from the first year following loss, when we are in a period of “acute grief”. While integrated grief can still have peaks and valleys, it doesn’t interfere with our day to day living the way acute grief does.  

How do we transition from acute to integrated grief? The task before us is to solve the problem of accepting something that is the exact opposite of what we wanted.

As we come to accept the reality of our loss, we oscillate back and forth between paying attention to the painful emotions and reminders of loss and setting them aside momentarily to pay attention to the basic tasks of life. This “Two Pillar Theory” in grief research explains how we bounce back and forth between these two realities at first- it’s impossible to do it all at once in acute grief. Gradually, we become more adept at merging those two pillars, and the reality that our day to day living and future are without our loved one sets in. We find a way to accept something that is the exact opposite of what we wanted.  And in that acceptance, life continues forward.  

Of course, there are times when this normative grief process is interrupted by some “derailer”- complicating life factors may act to sidetrack the normative path grief takes. In the absence of these derailing factors, we can expect our grief to progress to a place of integration.  

Why does this research matter? For starters, we can place so much undue pressure on ourselves and others to speed the process up. In paying attention to our outward appearances rather than our grief work, we can sacrifice the long term integration for short term “having it all together” points. We might begin to avoid grief reminders, important things we need to spend time integrating during our acute grief in order to get those societal gold stars. This pressure can actually act to prolong and complicate our grieving. When we have realistic expectations for ourselves and others in grief, we allow the processes to occur naturally and real integration can happen.  

As with so much of life- what we try so hard to avoid can end up being what eventually sinks our ship. In the short term, it may feel reasonable to run from pain. In the long run, avoidance leads to a continued inability to cope with distress (the darn distress isn’t going to catch a hint and cooperate with our scheme to ignore it!) 

I hope this knowledge empowers you to step towards your grief, to sit with it a bit today and get to know it. Remarkably, I’ve learned that it’s not present to torture you, but to guide you and teach you.  

 

Emotion Through the Lens of the Body

Emotion Through the Lens of the Body

When you stop to think about it, you can probably identify physical manifestations of your emotions. It’s not uncommon to hear people describe the state of being excited as “light” or a “butterflies in my stomach” feeling. When we are sad, we may identify as feeling sluggish or tired. Grief is similar- when we experience profound loss, there are physical symptoms that accompany the intense, dysregulating emotion. Commonly described physical manifestations of grief are things like headaches, stomach pain, back pain, chest heaviness, weakness or tightness in muscles, and changes in breathing and sleep.  (more…)