When suffering knocks at your door and you say there is no seat for him, he tells you not to worry because he has brought his own stool. - China Achebe
It has been six months since the end of my 11-year marriage and I wanted to share my personal experience of getting through the past six months, and how working with my emotions has made all the difference.
I have room for it all
I learned that I could feel deep sadness about the end of this chapter, this identity, this relationship - AND ALSO excitement, gratitude, anxiety, doubt and regret all at once. In the past I would have denied some of these emotions as not being ‘real’ because I thought they couldn’t co-exist. And yet they can, and even more: They always do when we are honest with ourselves.
I learned that I had room for all of these emotions, that I didn’t need to reduce my emotional experience to ‘just’ grieving. That it was OK to feel whatever I was feeling - that I could hold them all at the same time.
It ain’t linear
One of the most important experiences I had was realizing just how un-linear emotions are. One minute I would be feeling OK, and then BAM - a painful pang of remembering would show up. Or just when I thought I was reaching the end of it, I would have to deal with something new and this brought on a whole new stage of grieving. Wash. Rinse. Repeat.
It all felt more like waves than a linear progression of feeling better. Again, being OK with that, even expecting it, made all the difference.
I have not cried or grieved as much in my life as I have in the past months. And yet, there has also been a sense of peacefulness because I was not fighting my emotions. I was neither trying to repress them nor allowing them to explode all over the place. As much as possible, I was simply allowing them to be, to hang out.
Inner peace is not about not having emotions or difficulties in life and being permanently zen. That isn’t realistic. It isn't real life. Instead, it is about bringing an OK-ness with whatever we are experiencing in all its messiness.
This experience really brought to life in a completely new way that every emotion has a right to be showing up and a reason to be there because each emotion has a role or job in our internal village.
For example, the role sadness plays is as the street sweeper of the village - signalling that something is over and needs to be let go of. Doesn’t it make sense that it would be showing up at a time like this?
After all, it is only by sweeping the streets clean that we can let go of what no longer works and make room for the new.
I also viewed this sadness as a signal that I cared, that the last 15 years had meant something to me.
I realised it wouldn’t be normal for sadness NOT to be showing up.
So I started to speak to my sadness as if we were old friends - because frankly, we were becoming well acquainted!
I would say: Oh hello there again sadness, my old friend. It totally makes sense that you would be showing up. You can hang out as long as you need.
And you know what? Most of the time, sadness didn’t need to hang out for too long. It showed up, and we hung out for a bit, and then it moved on, and I was able to feel something else.
When we are not fighting emotions and listen to them instead, emotions deliver their message and then they move on. I see it as their having better things to do with their time.
So. Much. Anger.
I felt a lot more anger than usual during this phase. Not in the yelling at people form, but simply in the form of noticing annoyance or frustration. This is a gentler form of anger before we allow it to fester and explode.
And again, this made sense to me. Anger is about healthy boundaries - it is the gatekeeper of the internal village, and its role is to signal how it is OK and not OK for others to treat us.
I was feeling more sensitive than usual, and I used frustration as a signal that I needed better boundaries to allow me to turn within - which most of the time meant more self-care and alone time.
It is almost as if anger was telling me to put up a temporary brick wall and isolate my village a little to help in this reconstruction, mourning phase.
I respected this as much as I could, reducing my social contact to people who I felt really supported me and avoiding certain relationships that felt too draining during this time. I also didn’t force myself to go out and enjoy single life until I felt ready.
Eek. So many ‘what ifs?’
Anxiety is another emotion that has shown up a lot in the past few months.
Anxiety for me was filled with WHAT IFs. It sounded like:
What if I can't get by on my own financially?
What if I never meet anyone again?
How will I deal with x / y / z?
The job description of anxiety is being the risk manager or planner of the village. Anxiety wants to help us plan for the future as much as possible.
Again, I realised how normal it was for anxiety to be showing up, with all the newness, uncertainty and unknown elements of this new phase of life.
I worked with the messages of anxiety by acting on the stuff that I could do something about:
I hired someone to help me with admin stuff, with my taxes, and accounting.
I gave myself permission not to do things I was doing for the first time perfectly.
And I allowed myself to take not have to do everything at once like moving all my stuff, and to focus on just one thing at a time.
I tried opening up to the uncertainty of what was out of my control as much as possible, letting go of the (futile) need to control things that were out of my control.
Again, I didn’t fight anxiety. I allowed it to do its thing and used it to help me plan for the future to the extent that this felt realistic and kind.
Staying with the discomfort
When I first moved out, I felt more pain than I have ever felt in my life. I had been in this relationship for almost 15 years and it felt like a piece of my body had been torn off and that this part of me was raw and exposed.
I felt I would never feel better.
I felt an overwhelming sense of emptiness, like a great, gaping void had opened up and would engulf me.
And I know that in the past, my way of dealing with discomfort has been to overbook my time or eat emotionally.
I knew this, and so I made an effort to really stay with what was showing up, instead of trying to avoid it or numb it or push it away. I brought curiosity to it. I tried staying with how it felt in my body, with the images that came up. I tried to explore it, to get really curious about this.
I realized that when I stayed with the emptiness, it didn't feel so threatening. That I didn't want to have this feeling but that didn't mean it was my enemy, either. It started to feel like a vast space opening up, where yes, there was a lot of uncertainty AND where anything could happen. Instead of calling it emptiness, I started calling it a space of possibility.
The perks of vulnerability
As I wrote in this article, this was also a time where I made some incredible connections.
I made some encounters that I can say have already been life-changing.
I discovered a strength in myself I only hoped I had but hadn’t actually tested.
I learned to be OK with being in my own company. I realized there is so much more I can give myself that I thought - that we can all give ourselves.
I also learned just how much I can get from others, and how beautiful it can be to ask for help as well.
I learned that friends will be there when you need a reality check or to just to go out and have fun.
I learned that family will be there and offer support even when they don’t agree or understand what you are doing.
I learned that being vulnerable and keeping an open heart also meant I was more touched by the goodness of people. That it was even OK to cry in session with a client because what she said touched me so much.
That there is a tenderness, a rawness, an openness that comes from being in this space. That this space can be beautiful too. It broke me open, it moved me past fears and limitations, it revealed to me a strength I didn’t know I had.
Above all, it allowed me to live with my emotions in a way that feels harmonious despite the turmoil.
And I can honestly say that I would not have dealt with these past six months in this way without the skills I have gained through the work of Karla McLaren and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). This experience allowed me to put into practise in a much deeper way these approaches and I will forever be grateful to them.