Growth and Transformation

This article originally appeared on the Support4Change website, and is reposted here.

What can you do to gain the most from your experience of loss? Here are several ideas.

Dried Physalis alkekengi.jpg
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
By GozitanoOwn work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link

Change from the attitude that you are a victim.

Years ago I attended an “est” seminar. While I wouldn’t recommend the program to anyone if it were still around today, there were a few lessons I found valuable. One of them came from a talk about being either the cause of your life or operating as though you have no choice other than being the effect of what others do to you. Without expanding that idea into a New Age “you-create-everything-in-life and you’re-responsible-for-all-your-pain” philosophy, you do hold the power to make a choice of how you respond to the situation in which you find yourself.

Guilt-free helplessness does not empower people when it puts them into the victim position. Healthy guilt, with awareness of the power you hold in a relationship and the effect you have on other people, is a formidable source of strength. With such an attitude, almost ANY kind of movement will get you out from under the burden of concentrating on your loss.

Notice the narrative you tell

One of the ways you can facilitate that change in attitude is through telling your story. Increasingly people use the technique of a narrative to reshape the way they view their situation. Writing their story, an excellent technique, and telling it into a tape recorder can take some of the “charge” off the event as you write and listen over and over again. And when you are talking with others about what has happened, notice if you focus only on how you have been injured and not on what role you may have played in setting up the situation. (However, as I indicated earlier, there sometimes are real victims, such as the survivors of a bomb blast. Nevertheless, even they will benefit from telling their story.)

Recognize that what may appear to be tragedy from one perspective is an opportunity from another.

It is only in retrospect that you can know what opportunity for growth you have been given. However, simply realizing pain is transformational can open your heart to listen for the lesson you’ve been given. Even in the midst of trauma you can ask yourself several important questions:

  • How this can help me reorder my priorities?
  • What is something positive that can come out of this experience?
  • Am I better off or worse than others have been in a similar situation?
  • Could things be worse?
  • What about this is fortunate?

Change habitual thinking.

Even if you decide that now you will live differently and be a better person without that which you have lost, your old habits, cravings, and behaviors can’t just be wished away. They can, however, be changed by replacing an old habit with a new one and then reinforcing the new one.

Make the most of what comes and the least of what goes.

The amount of attention we give to old ideas determines how solid they become. However, if you make the most of what you’ve got, you may be surprised at what you will get.

Play

If you are struggling with a serious loss in your life and want an anti-depressive, even though my license doesn’t allow me to dispense drugs, I will gladly write you a prescription. It would simply say: “Take four hugs a day and play.” And I’m sure if we could measure serum fun levels, you would see that yours would rise AND that they would affect your transformation process, to say nothing of preventing you from getting sick, which is a frequent side-effect from the stress of loss. Unfortunately, when people are struggling with loss, they often feel guilty about playing. “How can I possibly play when I’m in such pain?” they ask.

Frank Pittman, MD, wrote in an article for therapists called “Turning Tragedy Into Comedy” in the Nov./Dec. edition of The Family Therapy Networker:

Until your patients can laugh at their tragedies, they have not completely processed the experience. Until they can cry at other people’s tragedies, they have not joined the human race. Any fool can laugh at the funny stuff happening to other people or cry over his or her own pain, but in every experience there is more to be felt. . . .

T. S. Eliot has told us that ‘human kind cannot bear very much reality.’ But we can bear far more in comedy than in tragedy, because in comedy we don’t have to be perfect, we are not alone in our suffering and we get to change in time to not die from our hopeless emotional position. If we are fully embedded in our comic perspective then we can bear all the reality life has to offer.

So if you already feel a bit crazy from dealing with your loss, why not go “crazy” creatively? Imagine all the things that you would ordinarily consider a little bit crazy, a little bit madcap and frivolous. Everyone has their own idea of what that might be. You could read a positive horoscope for a astrological sign that isn’t yours and see whether you can make those predictions come true. Or how about playing tourist in your town, with or without a friend, and do all the touristy things you can think of? Then there are coloring books to color, puddles to splash in, swings to swing on, and cookies to bake with a funny frosting face.

Choose Friends Who Don’t Water the Weeds.

Recently scientists proved what many have long suspected: The very presence of a solicitous spouse can be a pain. A study in Germany involving twenty couples in which one partner suffered from severe chronic back pain, involved deliberately giving the patient painful electric shocks to their aching backs and studying the brain’s responses. What they found was that a husband or wife who was most solicitous, who clucked most lovingly over the spouse’s discomfort, seemed to trigger the pain. The more the husbands or wives dwelled on their partner’s pain, the worse it felt.

However, those spouses who responded to complaints by changing the subject, by suggesting helpful but distracting activity or by not dwelling too long on the pain did not elevate the neural responses. This doesn’t mean that people should ignore their partners’, or friends’, suffering. Rather, it seems to indicate that having people around who focus on the pain of your loss can exacerbate your distress. They are like those who would go around and water the weeds, ignoring all the other flowers in a garden that need attending.

Having truly supportive friends is great. Keep them around. But if you have friends who appear to feed on your grief and encourage you to pour out all the messy details long after the time when talking about your loss helps, tell them you’ll get back to them after things are better.

Develop a Deeper Relationship With Yourself

In the end, what you will eventually discover is that in all change, even in the painful loss of a relationship, the only permanent relationship you have is with yourself.

I know, of course, that the loss of a spouse or significant friend to divorce or death can feel as though a part of you is missing. And in a way it is. When you were in a relationship with that person, you allowed a part of yourself to be expressed. It may have been positive, cheerful, and creative. With a relationship that wasn’t so great, the part of you that got expressed was probably not something of which you are proud, or something you want to repeat with another relationship. So don’t forget that the good parts of you are still good and you can always turn the less-than-sterling characteristics into something much better. So be kind to yourself.

In reflecting on the relationship of loss and transformation, don’t forget the power of love, which is the acceptance of all things. It is not the absence of feeling a loss, but the acceptance of that loss. After all, if that which you lost wasn’t important enough in the first place for you to give it any attention, its absence now couldn’t cause you any pain — and you wouldn’t gain much from the experience.

Finally, take a moment right now and recall a loss you’ve suffered in the past and notice what personal growth grew out of that experience. Recognizing that your life was “eventually” (there’s that word we talked about in the beginning of the article) enriched from that loss can give you faith that once again you can transform loss into a better way of being in the world.

© Copyright 1993, Revised 2012, Arlene F Harder, MA, MFT

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