Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Closure or Acceptance

"I just want closure."

"Now that this is over, we can look for closure." 

"Our nation wants closure on this difficult time."

We often hear these wishes for closure. A wish for closure is often a wish for the cessation of the emotional pain associated with a specific event. The idea that, at some point, a painful emotional experience will be finished has become an expectation. 

But consider this definition: Closure is the act of bringing to an end a process that was characterized by ambiguity or uncertainty. Getting closure on an event means that we no longer have to wonder what happened. It means that we know something we did not. It does not mean that we stop hurting. 

In fact, there is no specific point at which a painful event stops hurting emotionally. That's not to say that we have to be in pain forever. But the process of coming to heal from emotional wounding is not done in a single act, in a single moment. And further, setting up an expectation that it does is setting up an expectation that will further hurt us.

Instead of looking for closure, I encourage working for acceptance. 

Acceptance is a process in which we work to be at peace with the world as it is, including our reactions and emotions. Instead of a single moment, acceptance is a process that takes time and effort. When we work towards acceptance, we begin to tell ourselves that we will no longer feed into our pain, instead, we will cultivate healing. It is important to note that acceptance is not a passive state: It is a series of actions designed to grow our internal capacity to find peace in the world. Acceptance comes from within us, whereas closure comes from outside of us. 

We all, each one of us, face challenges in life. We all have difficulties. And, we all have a choice as to how we cope with them. We can choose to seek closure, and expect that emotional pain will stop when we find it. Or, we can move towards acceptance, with the recognition that emotional pain lessens over time and with effort. 

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

How we experience tragedy

I heard about the Boston Marathon tragedy yesterday afternoon while driving home. At that time, there was little news, except that there had been two explosions and many people were injured. Much more was unknown than was known.

I wanted more information. So I did what anyone living with a 24-hour news cycle would do: I went online and looked for news about the event. The first result that I found was a link to a video of the explosions. The event was not even 2 hours past, and already there were videos on YouTube of the explosions. Ah, life in this modern world.

I clicked on the link, and then I thought better of it, and stopped. Instead, I surfed over to NPR and HuffPo. I am glad that I made that choice.

What we know about trauma is this: Trauma responses are created by events that cause loss of life or significant injury, when compounded with powerless on the part of the individual watching the event. Further, the more you repeat a disturbing event, the more likely you are to experience a trauma response.

I was in graduate school when 9/11 happened. I remember how the video of the towers falling was shown again and again, over and over, 24 hours a day. And I remember how many of us watched those images, transfixed by them, often with an inability to process what was happening, and what it meant.

One of my professors at the time said that she believed that we were creating a nation-wide trauma response, by watching and identifying with the tragedy repeatedly. Now, 12 years after that event, we know that she was right. Our nation did experience trauma, and it did not require any direct contact or proximity to the actual events. Our ability to disseminate information effectively disseminated the trauma across the country.

The lesson learned is this: It is not necessary to watch a tragedy unfold. It may go against the natural curiosity of our primate brains, but we do not need to see what happened. We do not need to look at pictures of tragedy. We do not need to see the video. We do not need to hear the sounds. It does not honor the victims or their families to watch the tragedy. It does not help anyone, and it will not reassure us.

Instead, we can read the news--reading does not trigger the same trauma response that video does. We can send our prayers and thoughts to those who are in pain. We can donate blood. We can donate money. We can offer a listening ear to our friends and families, if they need one. We can take action in any number of ways. And by taking action we remind ourselves of our power, and we can help hold a space for the healing that needs to happen.

We can choose to remember without choosing to re-experience. And we can choose the empowerment of action, and reject the powerlessness that comes with trauma.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Staying Open

People often come to see me because they feel their relationships are not satisfying.

I remember one man in particular. He was able to identify that he felt betrayed in every significant relationship he had ever had, starting in his childhood. He felt that his mother and father had betrayed him as well, shaming him because of his poor academic performance, disproving of his failures in athletics, and eventually turning their backs on him completely when he came out of the closet in his late teens.

One session, he detailed the subsequent betrayals and hurts. He was opining that he did not believe he would ever be able to love again because of all the pain, when I stopped him: “I hear that these experiences were painful for you. But what if you could open your heart up even when it hurts?”

The expression on his face told me that he had never asked this question before. And I believe that this is a question that we as a culture do not entertain. If you are in pain, you should take a pill. If you are hurting, find a solution. If a relationship does not work, leave and get another one. We look for the fix to our problems, often describing the thing that we feel will take the hurt away as a “need.” “I need a better relationship,” or “I need to make more money.” What if, instead of looking for the way out, we looked for an inner strength to sustain?

I am not referring to staying in unnecessarily bad or abusive situations here, but rather recognizing that some pain and discomfort are necessarily a part of our lives. What if we each knew with an instinctive and unflappable certainty that we will endure, that we have the fortitude to struggle through our pain?

With the client I mentioned above, we began to look at how he closed himself down. We studied his body movements and the physical sensations he had when he felt wronged, and we worked to lessen these reactions. We worked with physical cues to remain open-hearted, even when he felt hurt or betrayed.

Open your eyes and pull your shoulders back. Breathe from your stomach and relax. Sit or stand up straight, and soften your belly and chest. Be present with the feelings. See what it feels like to be unafraid, to be in control even when you are in pain.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

The kinds of relationships we want.

My client said, "I told my husband about my medical test, and it turned into a big fight."
"Oh?" I asked, "how did that happen?"
"Well, after I told him, he just said, 'We'll have to wait and see what happens'. I didn't feel that was very supportive. So I told him, 'We'll have to see if I don't divorce you, too'."
"What made you say that last part, the part about divorce?" I asked.
She replied, "I guess I was angry. He was just so calm about the whole thing! I wanted him to tell me that he understood how scared I was! I wanted him to be scared too!"
"So, you didn't feel that your husband was supportive because you wanted him to be as scared as you were. So you said something to him that you hoped would frighten and scare him?"

   ~~~~~~                     ~~~~~~                    ~~~~~~

This is a pattern that I notice frequently in relationships. Rather than owning what my feelings are and expressing a desire for support, people will become angry that their partners do not anticipate their needs, and lash out. Sometimes, it works just like it did in the example above: I want my partner to join me in feeling insecure/angry/scared, so I will say things that make my partner feel insecure/angry/scared.

But do we really want to be in a relationship in which we meet insecurity with insecurity, anger with anger, and fear with fear? And do we really want to be in relationships in which we hurt each other just so that we can all feel hurt together? Or, do we want to be in relationships in which we support each other with honesty and compassion?