We Can Break Without Shattering
How to reach beneath the surface of anxiety and depression and heal at the core.
Posted Aug 06, 2017
How many times can I break till I shatter?
Over the line, can't define what I'm after
I always turn the car around
Give me a break, let me make my own pattern
All that it takes is some time
But I'm shattered
I always turn the car around
—Of A Revolution [O.A.R.], 2008
It’s a story we all might recognize in some part of ourselves. In their single “Shattered," O.A.R. describes the pain of a man trying to leave a relationship. The lyrical man feels hurt and torn. Those feelings are intolerable to him, and so he turns around and goes right back, in an effort to make the hurt stop. He gets stuck in a cycle of leaving, feeling shattered, and returning, only to feel more fraying of his heart.
This may feel familiar to many of us, this aversion to feeling heartbreak, loss, and inner pain. What we often do not realize is that by avoiding those feelings, we may open ourselves up to developing anxiety, depression, or illness in our bodies. It’s something I see playing out in my office over and over again each day. Claire, for instance, is a highly intelligent student who sits on my couch, leg bouncing up and down, arms folded tightly across her chest. "I'm anxious all the time and I don't know why!" She looks at me and her eyes betray barely concealed panic. She describes racing thoughts. Sleeplessness. She asks for coping skills, for therapy that can take away the intense feelings. Jake, an accountant in his first year of marriage, clenches his jaw and says he feels numb. That nothing he used to do works anymore. He gambles at his desktop computer, but it doesn't create the adrenaline spike that it used to. He feels awful when he goes too far, and quickly finds a way to block out the regret, to replace it with substances and indifference.
Those clients who come in with depression, anxiety, and panic; there are pieces of them in all of us. In our modern culture, we have been conditioned to avoid feeling hurt, regret, betrayal and heartbreak. We've been taught to seek pleasure and happiness, and those are the goals around which we often construct our lives. And so when painful things happen, as they will inevitably in everyone's life, we may not feel strong enough to face the experience. We may block it out by maintaining a running litany of unrelated worries, or by anesthetizing ourselves to feeling anything at all.
I ask Claire when her anxiety began, and she says it started right after her brother's death. "Why are we even talking about this?" She asks, frustrated, tears beginning to fill her eyes. I notice that in the one moment that she talks about the grief, her leg stops tapping. Interesting coincidence. It's almost as if her anxiety is a cover for her pain. And once she speaks about the sources of her pain, her anxiety fades to the background. Jake began to numb his feelings a couple of months after he got married, when he realized that he just couldn't make his wife happy no matter how hard he tried. "I don't want to talk about this. You'll tell me to leave her. And I can't do that." He swiftly turns the conversation back to his latest relapse, before the cracking in his voice breaks through his iron walls of defenses.
Claire and Jake aren't ready to face their pain. And that's ok. For many of us, the thought of acknowledging how we really feel is so frightening that we would rather do almost anything to avoid it. However, by disowning our pain we open ourselves up to a whole range of somatic and mood disorders. We leave ourselves vulnerable to staying in situations that stunt our growth, just so that we don’t have to feel the excruciating process of leaving. As in the song “Shattered,” denying our difficult feelings only causes more wear and tear on our hearts and souls in the long run. Imagine, for a moment, that the fictional “Shattered” man left his relationship, felt the heartbreak, and allowed himself to cry and grieve instead of turning the car around. Had he fully lived his experience of gut-wrenching sorrow, he may have been able to drive forward and move on. He may have emerged stronger, and wiser, and ready to bring his healed and whole self into a future relationship.
Jake and Claire learned to say "I'm not ready to talk about those things but I know that when I do I'll truly begin to heal." We began to "dose" the sadness, by bringing it into our sessions for only moments at a time. Inevitably the walls came down and the tears came through. It was difficult. It took strength that neither knew they were capable of. And it was exhilarating. Their experiences mirrored those of the many courageous souls in my office who choose to grit their teeth and live into their true feelings of hurt and regret and grief. When we are brave enough to stay with our minds and bodies as we feel hurt, we allow ourselves to eventually feel the flip side of agony, which can be a grounded sense of inner peace and joy. Our symptoms of panic, worry, and depression often fade into the background. We recover the ability to truly laugh, to feel our hearts swell with pride, to find the joy in small moments that are only accessible when we are genuinely present in our selves.
If you have got some disowned pain, simply acknowledging your avoidance can bring you one step closer to inner peace. Challenge yourself to be still for just a moment and allow the feelings to rise to the surface of your heart and mind. They may manifest as a lump in your throat, a deep ache in your heart, a throbbing in your skull. Instead of looking for ways to block those feelings out, welcome them. Honor them. Allow yourself to be with them. These are feelings you are already carrying with you each day. You already have the strength it will take to work through the intensity of the emotions. When you feel yourself starting to get overwhelmed, allow yourself to put the pain back into the recesses of your mind and body for now. You’ve taken the first step toward healing. And you too, can emerge more whole and resilient than ever before.
Wattenberg, G. (2008). [Recorded by M. Roberge]. Shattered (Turn the Car Around) [CD]. NYC: Matt Wallace .