'I'm totally great!' *takes a swig of wine and cries herself to sleep*
Many of you reading this blog have experienced so much pain and rejection in your history that you don’t allow any part of your life to be at risk, to be spontaneous, or to be open to change. Perhaps you are stiff with fear and need everything to be ‘just so’ in order to feel safe. Maybe new situations fill you with anxiety, and the idea of straying from the beaten track gives you panic attacks. Or possibly, you are the ultimate ‘hot mess’ and your life is totally out of control – you jump from boyfriend to boyfriend, drama to drama, and push yourself to the limits with your time, money, relationships and sexuality.
I’d like to explore the meaning behind these feelings and behaviours. Do you realise that your behaviour is the fruit of a root? I wonder what the ‘root system’ of your life is like. If you drew a picture of a tree (you) and the roots stretching down into the earth, how would you label each root? You could think of all the significant events and relationships in your life. Each of these has brought you pain or joy (or both). Take some time to consider these.
Some of the major painful life events that you may have experienced include the following:
- being separated from your primary caregiver at a young age
- divorce in your family (or in your own life)
- a relationship breakup
- a friendship breakdown
- a family member (or yourself) ‘breaking the family code’ – eg. a sibling or parent coming out as homosexual, walking away from the faith, not entering the family business – or anything perceived by the family system as ‘wrong’ and worthy of being shunned or named as the ‘black sheep’.
- incarceration of a family member
- betrayal (or perceived betrayal)
- major injury or illness in the family (or in your own life)
- major financial hardship
- emotional, psychological, physical or sexual harassment or abuse
- loss of job
- loss of a life-long dream
- immigrating to another country
- loss of a home
- war and deprivation
You might have even experienced an event that no-one knows about, such as the break-down of an illicit relationship, or a miscarriage or even an abortion (when as an unmarried Christian you are not ‘meant’ to be sexually active). These events can be doubly traumatic, as you may experience ‘disenfranchised grief’ – grief that is not recognised and given any credence by your community.
‘Trauma’ is defined as a deeply distressing or disturbing emotional or psychological response to an event or experience, and the key thing to note is that it is based on your perception of the event or experience. Someone else experiencing the exact same thing might not have the same reaction as you. So when you tell someone about the event and the ensuing pain, they might say, ‘Oh that’s no big deal. That happened to me and I was fine.’ This is incredibly hurtful and confusing to hear. But if it was traumatic for you, it was traumatic. If you are a highly sensitive person, in particular, you may find yourself being hurt more easily than others. And that is okay – that is who you are and you just need to acknowledge it and work with it.
Now once you have identified the events or relationships in your life that have caused you deep pain, it’s important to consider whether you have processed the grief of those experiences. Pain doesn’t just disappear. You can’t just ‘get over it’. You really do need to express the feelings and essentially ‘cleanse’ yourself of the pain as much as you can. This is called grieving.
Many cultures have organised rituals for the grieving process. For example, in Jewish culture when a family member dies, the family ‘sit sheva’ for 7 days – this is a structured time of mourning when they sit in their home or the home of the deceased, and receive condolences from family and friends. The bereaved person/s are then obligated to go to the Synagogue each day for a year and to recite the ‘Kaddish’ – a prayer of mourning. At the end of the year, they honour the anniversary of the death (the ‘yarzheit’) by lighting a special candle.
There are heaps of other rituals and styles of mourning expressed by various cultures around the world. In some countries you can even hire professional mourners to do the weeping and wailing for you. But in western Anglo-Saxon culture, we don’t do grief well (or at all). In Australia, when something bad happens to someone, the usual response is: ‘You’ll be right, mate’ or ‘Ah, you’ll get over it’. In England, the response might be: ‘Well, just carry on’ or ‘Ah, yes, tsk tsk, a terrible situation; so how about this rain we’ve been having?’ But these kinds of phrases completely invalidate the depth of pain you are feeling. I think there is a fear that if the pain is recognised, you’ll fall into a sobbing heap and never be normal again, and nobody wants that, do they? It’s messy, inconvenient, time-consuming, expensive and awkward. Well, yes – that’s grief.
I have had plenty of heartbreak in my life, including relationship break-ups, exiting church communities, health problems, and family dysfunction. Did they cause pain? Yes. Did I have to do a lot of grief ‘work’ to process these situations? Yes. Am I still sobbing into my pillow at night about the events? No – because my grieving has been completed. And trust me, it took a lot of work. But unfortunately, if you choose to ignore your pain, and ignore the need to grieve, the pain will eventually pop out somewhere.
If you experience a great trauma, for example, and bottle up the pain inside, it will eventually express itself in one or more of a variety of dysfunctions. Eating disorders, OCD, addictions, mental health problems such as depression and anxiety, character incongruences, ‘dirty little secrets’, or simply a loss of your former ‘free’ self – you may build a hard shell around your heart and not let anybody in.
You may tell yourself, ‘I’m fine; everything’s all good; everyone has a few problems; that’s just life; I’m just going to be tough and carry on.’ This is particularly easy to do when your dysfunction seems to be a positive thing, such as an addiction to exercise, being overly involved in church or ministry, or becoming a workaholic. And if your pain was invalidated by the first one or two people you told, then you might have taken on a feeling of shame and thought you were over-reacting. So now, maybe you never share your deepest fears and joys with anyone. Maybe you rarely give anyone a hug. Maybe you never cry. This is not healthy for any person. We are built for connection, community and shared experience.
If this is resonating with you, I encourage you to dig a little deeper, to identify that moment, event or relationship that has caused you pain, and to work through it to find a place of freedom and wellness. In terms of the particular interest of this blog – helping you get married – it’s extremely difficult for a man to break through the hard shell around your heart if you are closed to emotion. Emotions work like a pendulum. If you force it to stop short at the sad end, it’ll stop short at the happy end, too. You’ll end up with a flat, stagnant experience of life, and inability to be vulnerable, and a lack of joy and appreciation for what a man can give to you. Alternatively, if you are more of a ‘hot mess’ and out of control, it’s very hard for a man to be able to get close enough to ‘wrap’ you in the metaphorical hug that you need. It’s like trying to corrall an eight-legged porcupine on crack.
Working through your pain will help you to find a more centred place of being, out of which you can feel and express both sadness and joy; you can cry and you can laugh; you can have good boundaries and you can also give people hugs. Would you like to start this journey? It’s a bit scary, but it’s worth it, and I believe you can do it!
Head straight to the next post to look at the stages of grief, and how to work through them.
Lots of love. Xo