suffering

What Not to Say to Someone Struggling

by Melinda Seley, PLPC

Sitting with someone else in their pain can be hard.  We don’t know quite what to say. We want to fix it. Make them happy. Change their perspective so it doesn’t seem as bad. Keep them from wallowing in their pain. Or maybe we just don’t want them to bring us down. Feel their pain. Or for something to be required of us due to their struggle.  

This blog is for myself as much as it is anyone else, because sometimes – when someone else is struggling – we say things without even realizing how hurtful or unhelpful they might be.  In hopes of reducing the number of times this happens for all of us, I offer this list of “what not to say to someone who is struggling”:

  • “Just wait until…”

“You’re struggling with being single?  Just wait until you’re married, then life gets hard…”
“You’re struggling with being a new parent? Just wait until you have three kids…”
“You’re stressed out working part-time?  Just wait until you’re working full-time…”

Just wait until.  It can be hard not to compare our struggles to those of others, can’t it?  When someone else expresses a difficulty and we feel that our current position has more challenges, more pain, more stress, it’s difficult to meet that person where they are and offer empathy.  It is easy to diminish the pain of others when we don’t fully know what it is like being in their shoes.  We are all different. We have different strengths and weaknesses; different personalities that make certain things harder for some than others; different support networks; and we’ve had parents and teachers who have equipped us differently to handle life’s challenges.  If we are farther along in a particular life situation (relationships, parenting, working, etc.), it is easy to forget that the first time at something is often the hardest.  There are lessons you learn along the way that lead and guide for future increased responsibility, depth of relationship, etc.  If we had more supportive, loving, present parents than others, we forget that that makes a profound difference in our ability to handle stressors.

If you find yourself saying “just wait until” …what keeps you from being able to step out of the place of comparison, see the other’s struggle where they are, and offer a response of empathy?

  • “At least…”

“You’re struggling with paying your bills on your current income? At least you have a job…”
“You’re struggling with pain your parents caused you? At least your parents are still alive…”
“You’re struggling with being a parent?  At least you were able to have kids… “

At least. I find myself saying this to a friend when I want to point to what is still good or what didn’t happen that could have made their situation even worse.  At times, this can be helpful. Putting situations in perspective and finding things to be grateful for is not bad.  But when I consider my motivation for saying “at least”, it is often because I am afraid of feeling the other’s pain or “giving them permission” to sit in the pain of what is happening.  When I say “at least”, I am indirectly saying – “you can’t be sad/disappointed/angry/etc. about ____, because it could have been worse.”  Instead of validating their emotion in response to a bad situation and being with them in it, I basically said “you just need to be grateful it wasn’t worse.”  

What keeps you from giving the other space to feel their emotions before pushing them into a place of gratitude?  

  • “It’s only/You’re just…”

“You’re struggling with your husband being deployed? It’s only 3 months…”
“You’re in 10th grade and sad you just broke up with your girlfriend?  It was just a high school relationship….”
“You say you’re struggling with depression?  You’re just sad…”

“It’s only” and “you’re just”.  These are the phrases of minimization.  Of invalidation.  Communicating there is no reason to feel what is being felt.  Or at least to the extent that they may be currently felt.  Thinking that if they only had my perspective, they would see it’s not that big of a deal.  And again, while it can often be helpful to frame our experiences within the context of a bigger picture or in light of gratitude, I ask us to consider our motivation when inviting another to do so.  Does it help us avoid having to acknowledge that what they are going through is hard for them? Do we view our suffering as greater and therefore need to make sure others know that what they’re going through isn’t that big of a deal?  Can we be humble enough to consider how they, unique as they are, might be feeling this pain?

What keeps you from validating another’s pain rather than minimizing what they are experiencing?

If you read the responses above and a specific interaction with a friend or acquaintance came to mind, know that you are not alone.  Feeling another’s pain is uncomfortable. Often scary. And awkward. It requires something of us in that we have to see life from the other’s perspective and feel things on behalf of someone else.  

What keeps you from being able to step out of comparison, give someone space to feel their emotions, or validate their pain?

The Healing Power of Tears

 

by Melinda Seley, PLPC

 

Tears have a complicated place in our society. Have you ever had a good cry, and felt (strangely) a little bit better afterwards?  Well, there is a scientific reason why that is the case.

In 2010, photographer Rose-Lynn Fisher worked on an amazing photography project called Topography of Tears. In this multi-year long project, she collected and examined more than 100 human tears under a microscope.  Among others, she studied tears shed while laughing, grieving, and responding to change, as well as basal tears (those meant to keep the eye lubricated) and reflex tears (those that respond to an irritant in the eye).

Fascinatingly, Fisher found that the appearance of tears is different based on what elicits them; and not only is their appearance different, but the physical composition also varies – most notably, emotional tears contain the neurotransmitter leucine encephalin, a natural painkiller that is released when the body is under stress to help improve one’s mood.

 

Our physical bodies are so intricately connected to our emotions that a chemical is released to help heal us emotionally when we cry!

 

So this remarkable discovery makes me wonder – when we view crying as weakness, what are we really doing? Why do we have a tendency in our culture, as well as other cultures, to view crying as something to be squelched, and prohibit our bodies from naturally responding to distress? What kind of healing are we missing out on?  It seems that we are rejecting the very thing that can actually physically aid in our healing!  If this is you, what does it look like to let those tears flow? What do you need or to believe in order to do that?

{A Smithsonian article describing Fisher’s project in more detail can be found here – I encourage you to read the whole thing!}

 

Is Grief Good?

Is Grief Good?

by: Lianne Johnson, LPC

shutterstock_174741554To allow yourself to experience grief, and to choose to engage in the on-going act of grieving, is difficult and takes courage. I believe it is something we must actually choose to learn how to incorporate into our lives. According to Brene’ Brown, who has studied emotion and vulnerability for 15 years, we fear the emotion of grief the most. I agree.

As humans, we tend to run from what we fear. So if we fear the emotion of grief, then it makes good sense to say we will likely run from feeling and experiencing it in our lives to the best of our ability.

Why do we fear grief so much? As I asked myself this question, I realized I believed lies about grief and grieving.

Here are some lies I have either believed myself or have heard from others –

~”If I let myself feel sadness or pain, it will only make it worse.”
~”If I let myself acknowledge my grief, I will never be able to function again. It will engulf me.”
~”I don’t have time to be sad.”
~”I need to think positively and not dwell on the bad (on the pain).”
~”The pain from my grief will be so painful, I will not sustain under it.”
~”If I let myself grieve, I am just having a pity party for myself.”
~”Grief only comes when someone dies, and no one has died, therefore I shouldn’t be in pain.”
~”Something is wrong with me because its been “this much time” and I am still sad about ____.”

There are some deep-rooted misbeliefs exposed in the comments above. The assumptions exposed are that grief is bad, weak, wrong, only “okay” when someone dies, and that it exists on some sort of definable timetable.

I started learning a lot about grief and grieving 5 years ago when the landscape of my life radically changed through my divorce. Wrestling with betrayal, and the loss of our intact family, is something I am still grieving. My days are no longer shadowed by grief, but it still pops up from time to time. Some days it may pop up for a moment, some days it may take up residence for a few hours. It has taken me awhile to learn that I will be “okay” in living a life now sprinkled with grief on a daily basis.

I didn’t start out okay with my grief. For the better part of a year after my life had radically changed, I was angry at the pain of my grief. I tried to numb it, run from it, and mask it into something it wasn’t. I fought it, and I suffered for it.

I had to learn how to not fear grief, but rather how to embrace its presence. I had to learn grief is not containable, it cannot be managed, and it lacks predictability. It can last a moment or remain for the better part of a day. It does not ask for my permission to overshadow a day. I also had to learn that when grief rears its head, it doesn’t mean I am weak.

My journey to no longer fear grief is much like my process of no longer fearing thunderstorms. As a kid, I feared thunderstorms (and if i’m being honest here…my fear lasted into my early adult years). It didn’t matter if a storm came in the day or night. To me, the loud bangs of thunder and sudden flashes of light freaked me out! Now as I sit with my youngest son during a storm to calm his fears, I wonder, “What was I so afraid of? It’s just a thunderstorm!” I believed unfounded lies about storms: “something bad is going to happen,” “what if it never stops,” “I am not okay and I won’t be okay until the storm goes away…” and on and on my thoughts would go. Do you see the similarity between storms and grief? With both, I feared what I didn’t understand.

Allowing ourselves to feel grief, is as important as allowing ourselves to feel joy. When we try to numb only the emotions we dislike, feeling we set in motion the beginnings of living an emotionally handicap life. Over time, we will not only numb the emotions we don’t like, but the emotions we like become numb as well.

Accepting Depression

Accepting Depression? “Are you kidding!? Why would anyone want to accept it!?”

slide2Depression can be brutal. You have no energy, no passion. You feel like crap pretty much all the time. It’s the hardest work of the day to find the juice to get out of bed, but you spend so much time in bed, you hate being there. You’re sick and tired of being sick and tired.

But wait there’s more! In addition to having zero energy to do 40% of the necessary things in life (like “eating”, or “bathing”, or “walking”), there’s all the guilt that comes from not having the energy to do them. You feel like you’re dropping the ball, doing life wrong. The voice in the back of your head keeps saying, “You should be able to handle this, but you can’t. If you were a stronger person, you’d be able to get past this more easily. Don’t be such a complainer!” It seems like the very fact that you’re depressed means that you’ve screwed something up.

This is the double-whammy of depression. Not only is the experience awful, but the fact that you’re having it in the first place means you failed somehow.

I have just emerged from a 3-month-long tunnel of depression. One might think that Mental Health Professionals should have their shit together well enough to not get depressed, or at least to know how to handle it when they do. I know I kept coming back to that particular refrain. Therapists make lousy patients I guess, because that philosophy is a load of crap.

The hard work of “handling” depression is learning that there is no such thing as “handling” depression. It exists, it’s real, and it’s not something anyone in their right mind would choose. It happens. I’ll go out on a limb and suggest that depression is a state that 10 out of 10 people will experience in their lifetime, whether they would call it “depression” or not. It is something that is utterly common to humans.

Therefore, the internal accusation that “I’m doing it wrong” is utterly false. It is work to grasp this when you’re in the thick of it. It’s hard to believe that being depressed is not wrong because it sucks so much. Being depressed is a normal human experience.

We spend vast resources on not being depressed. What if we could accept that depression is a common thing for humans, and that even when we’re depressed, we’re OK? Don’t get me wrong, depression sucks, and it is perfectly appropriate to hate both depression and being depressed; but don’t hate yourself at the same time.

Of course, circumstantial depression and clinical depression are different animals. I do not suggest that anti-depressants are bad, or that there is no need for them. If your depression lasts longer than a couple of months, it’s time to think about getting medical help. There are real biological causes and effects of depression that Pharmaceuticals can alleviate.

I do believe that we can learn to live with and accept Depression as a common experience. I do believe that especially circumstantial depression can be prolonged and deepened by the self-attack trap that we commonly fall into when we’re depressed. We don’t necessarily need “fixing”. It doesn’t make us feel better, but accepting depression can help us not feel any worse than we already do. And for anyone who is depressed, the freedom to be depressed without the extra guilt or shame might just feel …”better”. – by Jonathan E. Hart, LPC

Some Thoughts About Grief

After several years of learning about grief, and being reminded of its power recently through a painful experiences, I thought I would share some thoughts about grief with you that I have had.

Avenues Counseling

 

Here are some things I have learned about grief –

1.  It is powerful.  More powerful then you so don’t fight it.

2.  It must run its course.  You can’t make the pain stop and you can’t circumvent it.  You must go through it.

3.  The duration of grief is undefinable.  At first it will remain present for days or a week – a non-stop presence.  But then it may get a bit tricky because it will come and go as it pleases.

4.  It is exhausting.  You will likely have a headache, your chest will ache from the crying, your body will feel like you just ran a marathon.  You will walk slower, talk slower, think slower, BE slower because you are so tired from the grief.

5.  You won’t think clearly.  Your brain will feel foggy.  You may catch yourself staring at a wall for an unknown amount of time.  Its okay.  You’re okay.  Grieving won’t last forever even though it feels like it will when you’re in the midst of it.

6.  Your motivation will diminish.  Since you are so tired and worn out from your grief, doing normal mundane tasks will likely feel like someone just told you to go climb mount everest.  The laundry will stack-up, the dishes will sit in the sink, showering may happen less often.

7.  Reengaging in “normal” life will take time.

Be nice to yourself and don’t pressure yourself by saying silly things like, “I should be done grieving now.  I should really be over this loss by now.  I have got to stop being sad.”

By:  Lianne Johnson, LPC

 

Relational Trauma

By: Andy Gear, PLPC

I recently read a book entitled Your Sexually Addicted Spouse that I found very illuminating, and I wanted to pass on what I learned to you. In it Barbara Steffens specifically seeks to help partners of sexual addicts “survive, recover, and thrive.” But her ideas can be helpful for anyone dealing with pain from damaging relationships.

One of the most helpful ideas she brings up is the concept of relational trauma. When many of us think of trauma, we think about physical wounds. But she points out that victims of betrayal have also experienced very real trauma. This relational trauma is often just as painful and life altering as physical trauma. Many people even experience symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress as a result of being betrayed or emotionally victimized. The pain is increased when done by someone we should have been able to trust.

I have found this concept extremely helpful, because I have noticed that many people who have experienced consistent relational trauma tend to minimize what they have been through. People often believe that because they cannot locate one definitive trauma in their life, then they have no reason to feel hurt or traumatized. But Steffens helps us realize the lasting impact of chronic relational trauma.

The rest of the book proceeds to explain what it looks like to begin the journey of healing. If your life has been impacted by a damaging or hurtful relationship then I would encourage you not to ignore its impact. Please take the time to begin the journey of healing, because relational trauma is significant and your pain is real.

 

 

 

What’s so great about grief?

by: Andy Gear, PLPC
                  

I remember those first moments after the accident as if everything was happening in slow motion. They are frozen in my memory with terrible vividness. After recovering my breath, I turned to survey the damage. The scene was chaotic. I remember the look of terror on the faces of my children and the feeling of horror that swept over me when I saw the unconscious and broken bodies of Lynda, my four-year-old daughter Diane Jane, and my mother. I remember getting Catherine (then eight), David (seven), and John (two) out of the van through my door, the only one that would open. I remember taking pulses, doing mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, trying to save the dying and calm the living. I remember the feeling of panic that struck my soul as I watched Lynda, my mother, and Diana Jane all die before my eyes. I remember the pandemonium that followed—people gawking, lights flashing from emergency vehicles, a helicopter whirring overhead, cars lining up, medical experts doing what they could to help. And I remember the realization sweeping over me that I would soon plunge into a darkness from which I might never again emerge as a sane, normal, believing man.

–Jerry Sittser, A Grace Disguised

I remember a time when I experienced loss. As I walked home that evening, I remember telling myself this isn’t going to ruin me. I made a vow that I wouldn’t let it affect me. I wouldn’t be weak. I wouldn’t feel. I would forget; pretend it never happened. And then it wouldn’t hurt me. Then it wouldn’t touch me. I would ignore the wound; pretend it wasn’t there. Then it would go away.

But it didn’t go away. Neither did my memories. I started watching more TV to try to divert my attention. I had trouble concentrating on work, my mind wandering back to that event. To that pain. I had to distract myself, numb myself. I mustn’t think about it ever again. It was too painful. If I thought about it, something bad would happen . . . I had to avoid it at all costs.
None of us want to suffer. But none of us can truly avoid it.

We all have reason to grieve at some point in our life: loss, mistreatment, rejection. In the end it affects us all. But how we approach it influences how it forms us. As I see it, there are two basic options: we can ignore it or we can grieve it. And the path we choose determines how we come out on the other end.

On the surface, ignoring it sounds like the safer option. Just ignore it, don’t let it affect you. But it doesn’t work that way. When we ignore it, it continues to grow inside us. We waste away from the inside out.

It affects the way we approach life; we shut down parts of our selves. We shut down part of our mind. We shut down part of our heart. We become less than a whole person. Our relationships become shallow and stilted. There are parts of us that are shut away, irretrievable, unreachable to the closest people in our lives. We find ways to distract ourselves: TV, hobbies, work, porn, busyness. They may seem harmless enough. But they begin to own us. We live with eyes half open. We live with our heart half closed.

But we choose to ignore it because we feel overwhelmed and powerless. We want some sort of relief, any relief to get us through the days and nights. We keep ourselves busy to avoid our tortured thoughts. We numb ourselves to avoid the unbearable pain.

When we notice the pain less, we think we are out of the woods. We have survived the grief unscathed. But we have merely pushed it below the surface. And it will pop up again: in anger, in addictions, in unhealthy relationships. We have not saved ourselves pain; we have merely stretched it out, separated it from its source, and allowed it to dictate who we become. The irony is that in trying to escape the pain, we have given it the keys to our heart and allowed it to blindly drive us—as we simply pretend it isn’t there.

So what about the second option? The scarier option: facing our pain head on. Admitting the hurt. Acknowledging the loss. Processing the damage. Mourning what once was and will never be again.

This is the way of healing. We can choose to face it squarely. To meet it head on. To enter it honestly with our eyes wide open. It is a long and painful journey, but it can be a journey of growth not destruction.

But this requires facing reality for what it is. We cannot ignore it and hope that it goes away. A wound will not heal with lack of care; a bone will not mend without being set. We cannot heal by denying that something has been broken. We are made to share our stories, to experience our pain, to feel deeply, to mourn fully.

We must allow ourselves to grieve. This is not something that happens overnight; it takes time and community. It is not easy. It takes sharing our hurt, expressing our pain, acknowledging the damage done. Grieving does not make us weak; it makes us courageous. It is facing life as it is, not as you wish it were. There is hope in authentic suffering, but only false-hope in denial and distraction. Loss does not have to ruin us. In fact, if we face it honestly, it can grow us. 

Why can’t I handle it on my own?

By: Andy Gear

When I think about life before the Fall, I don’t think of people going around lonely. But that thought comforted me because I realized loneliness in my own life doesn’t mean I am a complete screwup, rather God made me this way. You always picture the perfect human being as somebody who doesn’t need anybody, like a guy on a horse in Colorado or whatever. But here is Adam, the only perfect guy in the world, and he is going around wanting to be with somebody else, needing another person to fulfill a certain emptiness in his life . . . I wondered at how beautiful it is that you and I were created to need each other. The romantic need is just the beginning, because we need our families and we need our friends. In this way, we are made in God’s image. Certainly God does not need people in the way you and I do, but He feels a joy at being loved, and He feels a joy at delivering love. It is a striking thought to realize that, in paradise, a human is incomplete without a host of other people. We are relational indeed
Searching for God Knows What by Donald Miller
I often feel like I should be able to handle all my problems on my own. Images of John Wayne and Bruce Willis float through my mind as I suck up my pain and try unsuccessfully to pull myself back up by my bootstraps. If only I just relied on God more, all my loneliness would just melt away. But as I read the first chapters of Genesis, I begin to question this assumption. Adam walked in the garden in perfect fellowship with God, and even then God said that Adam needed other people. He didn’t create us to be lone wolves. He created us to need each other, and He doesn’t call this weakness. He calls it being made in the image of God. We are relational, like our Father.

Growth in maturity doesn’t mean learning to solve all our problems on our own. Seeking caring, empathetic, and authentic relationship is not a concession for the weak. It is the wisdom that comes from realizing who we were made to be. We were not made to ‘stick it out’ on our own. In the Old Testament God called a family and a nation. In the New Testament He called His church to do life as a community of brothers and sisters. He wanted us to understand our need for help in this journey. Why can’t I handle it on my own? It’s not because there is something wrong with me. I was never meant to do it alone.  

When Life is Too Heavy…

By: Courtney Hollingsworth, PLPC
The following excerpt is from one of my favorite books, The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom. It is the true account of a Christian woman who was imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp during the Holocaust for hiding Jews. It is a beautifully told story about the light of hope and grace in the midst of terrible darkness, unspeakable horror, and despair.
Often times I would use the trip home to bring up things that were troubling me, since anything I asked at home was promptly answered by the aunts. Once, I must have been 10 or 11, I asked father about a poem we had read at school the winter before. One line had described “a young men whose face was not shadowed by sexsin.” I had been far too shy to ask the teacher what it meant, and mama had blushed scarlet when I consulted her. In those days just after the turn of the century sex was never discussed, even at home.  So the line had stuck in my head. “Sex,” I was pretty sure, meant whether you were a boy or a girl, and “sin” made Tante (Aunt) Jans very angry, but what the two together meant I could not imagine. And so, seated next to Father in the train compartment, I suddenly asked, “Father, what is sexsin?”
He turned to look at me, as he always did when answering a question, but to my surprise he said nothing.  At last he stood up, lifted his traveling case from the rack over our heads, and set it on the floor.
“Will you carry it off the train, Corrie?” he said. I stood up and tugged at it. It was crammed with the watches and spare parts he had purchased that morning.
“It’s too heavy,” I said.
“Yes,” he said. “And it would be a pretty poor father who would ask his little daughter to carry such a load.  It’s the same way, Corrie, with knowledge. Some knowledge is too heavy for children. When you are older and stronger you can bear it. For now you must trust me to carry it for you.”
And I was satisfied.  More than satisfied, wonderfully at peace. There were answers to this and all my hard questions, for now I was content to leave them in my father’s keeping.
This memory from early in her life was one that she kept with her in the face of witnessing and experiencing horrors beyond imagination during her time in a concentration camp. After seeing something torturous, she had these thoughts: “It was father’s train case once again. Such cruelty was too much to grasp, too much to bear. Heavenly Father Carry it for me!”
We all experience suffering, pain, and trauma in life. Often the weight of the world can feel too heavy a burden to carry. As life unfolds around us and brings loss and suffering, we can become lost in a sea of “why?” questions. We feel alone. Abandoned. Confused. Lost. In these moments of despair, we need to trust what is true of our Heavenly Father over our feelings. He never leaves or forsakes us. He has unending love for us. He is sovereign over all our suffering and joy. He will always carry what is too heavy for us.

Thankfulness with a Twist

By: Courtney Hollingsworth, PLPC
“I mistake my happiness for blessing.” – Caedmon’s Call
I don’t want to write this blog today. Seeing as it was timely given the recent holiday, I had decided awhile ago that I would write about thankfulness. Reflecting upon this topic, I pondered how we tend to only give thankful attention to our joys and happiness. Of course, just like you, I very am thankful for those aspects of my life in which I delight and enjoy. However, when I expand my view of my life’s story and path, I can see from this perspective that I am also thankful for the pain, the sadness, the grief, the hardship, and the trials by which I came to be where I am and who I am. There is more to blessing, and more to thankfulness, than the absence of a negative, than merely happiness. I find Jars of Clay lyrics echoing within me as I contemplate the stumbling, the wounding, the mistakes, and the tears I would have never chosen:
“We knew it as a wrong turn
We couldn’t know the things we’d gain
When we reach the other border
We look out way down past the road we came from

We’re looking for redemption
It was hidden in the landscape
Of loss and love and fire and rain
Never would have come this way
Looking for redemption”
                                    -Redemption, Jars of Clay

While in the midst of the fire and rain, I only view my happiness, my joy, my pleasure, my plenty as blessing. I tend to miss the blessing in the landscape of loss and pain. The weight of sorrow rarely, if ever, moves me to thanksgiving as it threatens to crush me. When standing at two paths diverging, the road of suffering does not enchant me.
Expand. Hindsight. Perspective. Process. Reflection. These are necessary for a shift from pain to thankfulness. I am not feeling very thankful for my pain and sorrow today. I do not want to write this blog today, because I am currently feeling the pinching of brokenness. I am filled with the urge to flee, not reflect and give thanks. And I think that is normal. What I can do in the midst of this sorrow, is to remember how many of my blessings have been made up of happiness and pain. I can reflect on the evidence of God’s unending faithfulness in both the Bible and in my own life story. Though I may not be in a thankful place with this present pain, I can recall that once I am no longer in the midst of it, I will likely be grateful for the ways it has changed and grown me, the grace I experienced, and the truth that given the choice I would leave God’s plan for my life unchanged.