Fearless You

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6 Damaging Beliefs About Grief And What You Can Do

Help yourself through the death of a loved one using REBT.
Alex Lickerman, M.D.
This post is a response to How To Let Go by Alex Lickerman, M.D.

Has someone in your life just passed away? Bereavement is a normal response to a death, and it includes a wide variety of grieving and mourning responses. 

Sometimes, we can make a bad thing worse. Learning to let go is a process, and we can make it easier by first letting go of beliefs that block our healing.

Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy (REBT) was founded by Dr. Albert Ellis in 1955. Still in use internationally, it teaches that how we feel and behave are largely a result of what we think and believe to be true. 

If you are experiencing unhealthy negative emotions in relation to grieving, using ideas from REBT can help. 

What are unhealthy negative emotions? Not all negative emotions are unhealthy. Emotions which, over time, lead to negative outcomes physically, emotionally, behaviorally, or socially are considered unhealthy negative emotions. They include depression, anger/rage, anxiety/panic, embarrassment, guilt, and shame.  

What's a sign that my negative emotions have become unhealthy? One sign is that they've lead to dysfunctional behaviors to alleviate them (such as substance abuse, procrastination, acting-out, self-harm, rage attacks, and more). Complicated bereavement might be curtailed by reducing unhealthy emotions during your mourning.

What causes unhealthy negative emotions? Self-disturbing ideas that you believe and reinforce cause these. As you reinforce these, you trap yourself into the ideas and the patterns they create.  Learning to use REBT can release you from these traps.

Here are 6 idea-traps that some people have about grief and REBT arguments to get you out of these traps.

  1. “I should feel more than I do. I should cry more than I’ve cried.”  An REBT therapist or coach would offer that there is no law of the universe that requires that you feel a specific way at a specific point in time.  Our feelings are the creation of the thoughts we belief.  In addition, there is no law that you must display a particular emotion at a specific point in time.  For some individuals, the loss of their loved one is extremely sad and provokes tears—but this is not true of everyone.  You may initially feel shocked and might not feel sad.  You might experience a period of denial of the loss, which is equally normal in the event that the denial serves you.  You might not feel sadness if you are relieved that the person passed.  For example, if someone suffered greatly for a long time prior to death, you might feel relieved for them.  Sometimes people feel many emotions at once that don’t include sadness, such as annoyance at being abandoned, concerns about the future without their loved one, and regret for things left unsaid. 
  2. “I shouldn’t feel angry at the deceased.” While REBT encourages you to work to convert your anger into irritation or annoyance (by releasing demands or “should” on others and life), the first step is to stop “shoulding” on yourself.  When you hear yourself using a “should” statement, you might want to stop and ask, “Is there any law of the universe or natural law that would prevent me from feeling as I do?”  If the answer is “no”, then you realize that it is possible to feel as you do.  You might prefer to feel differently, and you can work on that, but you are feeling as you do because you are believing as you believe.  If you are feeling angry at the deceased, you are believing that they should or shouldn’t have done something.
  3. “I must carry on as usual, as though nothing has happened.” Again, REBT encourages you to look for the imperatives by which you are disturbing yourself. In addition to noticing that there is no law that you must or mustn’t pause following a death, you might also notice that there is some evidence that people take a break when someone has died. If you are wanting a break and telling yourself that you mustn’t have one, does this stance help you to function better?  If not, then consider that the level of disruption to your life depends upon many factors, and whether or not you resume your routine will depend upon the factors in your life.  Responses to grief are not the same for every person. Not everyone can resume their daily functions instantly. It is not a sign of strength to carry on, nor is it a sign of weakness if you decide to pause, allow yourself time to mourn, connect with family/friends or other support, memorialize the deceased in some fashion, and/or attend to practical issues related to the loss. 
  4. “I feel so guilty!” REBT would remind you that you cannot change the past, but you can do your best to do better in the future.  
  5. “Others should be more understanding and helpful to me than they are.” REBT would ask you to evaluate your expectations upon others in your life. Is it possible that there are a variety of reactions that others may have, some helpful, some neglectful?  How does it help you or hurt you when you believe that others must respond in a particular way? Does it have to follow that because you want others to be more understanding and helpful that they must be?  Considering these questions may help you to just prefer that others act differently without demanding it. In addition, when you only prefer, it is easier to ask for help and support. 
  6. “No one understands.” REBT would probably encourage you to challenge your sweeping overgeneralization.  Take a step back and ask yourself, have I surveyed every person I know? Do I know for a fact that no one understands? Could I prove it in court? Depending upon your answers, you might realize that you don’t have sufficient evidence for your assumption. Also, if you were to go deeper, beneath this assumption, you could remember to look for the imperative (should and musts). In other words, you could examine what you’re requiring from others. For example, as much as you want someone to understand, must they demonstrate this to you? What does holding this requirement do for/against you? How does it help you to live life more peacefully, or detract from your life? Is it helping you to heal from your loss?

REBT encourages you to realize that it is normal to have thoughts and feelings in response to a loss; if you release your imperatives and decrease self-disturbing ideas, a loss that is already very hard doesn’t have to become too hard.  

To learn more about techniques for talking to yourself and learning to shift your mood and behavior, check out The REBT Super Activity Guide and visit http://www.myinnerguide.com for teleseminars on various psychology topics.

photo credit :  Pam Garcy © 2013

Pamela D. Garcy, Ph.D., serves on the faculty of the Texas School of Professional Psychology at AU-Dallas.

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