Can Life's Disappointments Really Make You Stronger? Part 2

The upside of emotional pain, continued...

Posted Oct 20, 2011

In last week's blog, I asked you to evaluate your response to a disapointment or emotional loss. This week we take a closer look at how that pain may actually enhance your life.

When we are in the middle of a crisis, disappointment or emotional melt down it is difficult to tolerate that level of pain for very long. Many will try to self medicate with substances or behaviors that cover it up or postpone it.

I recall a woman I was seeing in my practice who had a habit of using a new relationship to get out of the bad one she was in. Her avoidance of the feelings of loss kept her locked in a pattern of rebounds, even a few overlapping rebounds, because she was never truly conscious. Being conscious requires that we pause and look inward using the pain as a beam of light will lead us out of a very dark forest.

Feelings are there for a reason. When we lose something we are supposed to notice that and sit in it for a little while.

For me, pausing means asking myself, "What's up with that? Where am I? How did I get lost? Haven't I been here before? Do I really want to do it again?"

It can also help to meditate, talk it out with friends or a counselor. It may take a while but we can use the pain to guide us to our truth. Things are rarely what they seem to be because the problem on the surface isn't where the pain is coming from.

We need to look deeper. Turning back or repeating the same mistake just becomes a mind numbing exercise. Like a gerbil on a wheel we are doomed to repeat the same pattern until we can't stand the pain of being stuck in the pattern any longer. Pausing to process the feelings and events can shorten the time it takes to break a dysfunctional cycle.

That said - I'm not sure that terrible events make us stronger or even that getting stronger is a good thing. I do believe that if we are willing to go through the open door created by a loss, it can make us smarter and wiser with a clearer view of the road ahead.

After two consecutive major tragedies in my family and a great deal of pain I heard myself say to a friend who was offering support, "If this is how my life is going to be, bring it on!!" My words of resignation shocked me. I couldn't believe that I had reached such a low point.

My personal philosophy has long been that words and thoughts hold a great deal of power and magnetism. If I held on to that belief, I was not going to recover and grow from this trauma. I began to bounce back with the help of friends and family. I remembered that my true intent is not to get stronger so I can handle more bad stuff. It is to handle whatever comes with grace and with hope to use this situation to better the world and those I love through the wisdom of my experience.

In fact, disappointment, heartbreaks, losses, mistakes, unanswered prayers will happen to all of us. It is the human experience. Those who experience very little disruption in their lives appear to have it all. They live charmed lives; at least that's how it looks. The reality is that we all have pain and it is all relative to our own life experiences at any point in time.

Small things can feel very big until bigger things come. No one escapes it all together. Some get more than their share and as hard as it is to believe, they may have a few advantages in life because of it.

You have probably noticed that when young people experience a tragedy like the Columbine shootings, the loss of a friend, or parents' divorce they often try to reach out to their peers only to find that most teenagers have not yet had enough life experience to have developed empathy or wisdom needed at such a time.

They don't have the depth that can only be earned by experiencing loss and suffering. There are some exceptional young people who can be a comfort to others despite their naiveté but they are rare.

The same is true for adults. People in pain prefer to turn to others who have had some experience with it. When you understand the pain of others even if it is from a totally different situation, you are able to show empathy, validate how another person feels and avoid the quick fix suggestions that are so often a sign of inexperience with your own emotions.

Here are a few other benefits that you may see from experiencing pain:

  • Close relationships will deepen from shared experience and vulnerability. A moment of emotional honesty provides benefit to both parties. The speaker is able to relieve some of the internal pressure of their hurt while the listener has the privilege of serving as witness to a deeply personal and fragile moment.
  • Another benefit for the strong independent types is learning to ask for help and lean on others which can create healthy attachments and mutual support systems for life. If your tendency is to tough it out and not look back, you probably appear to be very strong but also constantly in crisis. You can become so skilled at coping with problems that you believe that it is your destiny and you have no way to prevent them.
  • Once healed and processed, the experience of loss provides a newfound ability to be sensitive to the needs of others, to have compassion, patience and to love deeply.
  • Pain can inspire expression through art, writing, dance or song. Country music for example, reflects honest emotional experiences that provide solace and validation for those who listen.
  • Feeling lost and alone tends to push us to seek spiritual answers and encourage us to develop the ability to look for something greater than ourselves to rely on in the future.
  • Awareness of blessings and gratitude for what we have sharply increases when the perspective of loss makes the trivia of life seem even more insignificant. There is a shift in the knowledge of what is important and how fragile our physical lives really are.

The take away is this. Live one day at a time. Don't miss out on the value of disappointments and be sure to embrace the moments of love and joy. Both are important and bring meaning and color to our lives. If you notice that you are having the same problems over and over, seek help to change your pattern and move past it.

Ann Smith is the Executive Director of Breakthrough at Caron. For more information, visit Breakthrough online or like Healthy Connections on Facebook.

About the Author

Ann Smith is the author of the books Grandchildren of Alcoholics and Overcoming Perfectionism.

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