December has been a ridiculously busy month. I worked hard on finishing a children’s nonfiction book on Russia that I was hired to write. We had a holiday arts & craft sale at our art gallery that took a lot of work. Bob and I took a 2-night trip out of town for R&R. Someone in the family had surgery, requiring days of recovery and care-taking. Plenty of social events too. Also gearing up for big changes in our living situations (hard). And oh yeah, all that getting-ready-for-Christmas business.
It’s still an emotional time around here, too. While my feelings aren’t as raw as the first month, I still feel the roller-coaster effect of riding high for a while and then plummeting down, and increasing calm spells. I’m learning to allow ALL the feelings to flow in a way I never have before— sadness, anger, grief, fear, and yes, even joy. The mask that I wore for so much of my life, the one that covered all my feelings so I could keep up a pleasing façade—that mask has fallen to the ground and shattered. I’m feeling rather oddly new.
Last year I got to study with Brene Brown during an e-course. She’s the author of the fabulous books “The Gifts of Imperfection” and “Daring Greatly.” If you haven’t seen her excellent Ted Talk on “The Power of Vulnerability,” please do yourself a favor and watch it soon. One of the many valuable things I’ve learned from her is about Numbing Feelings. As an emotional eater and a survivor of an alcoholic/dysfunctional household, I had really mastered numbing my feelings. It was a daily practice for me (using food, the Internet and other distractions), since feelings didn’t feel safe and I didn’t know how to handle them. Brene taught us that you can’t just numb the “bad” feelings. Every feeling gets numbed, even happiness and pleasure . Hearing that, I saw the truth in my own experience, the flatness that numbing brings, the inability to really absorb the good times. And now that I’m not numbing—because I just can’t anymore– all the feelings are flowing. And that means, in this mixed bag, I’m finally experiencing joy too.
What I’m learning, however, is that experiencing joy, happiness, pleasure or delight takes some practice, at least for me. As paradoxical as it sounds, it’s not easy for me to stay with feeling good– my mind wants to run away to the more familiar neural pathways of anxiety and fear. These reactions became my default throughout my life as a survival tactic— predicting the worst or catastophizing how bad it was going to be helped me feel like I was in control, that I would be prepared for anything. It’s a false sense of security, and as you can guess, not really a great way to live.
And oh, these days my mind especially wants to leap to the future, and every time it does, I seize up with such a tightness in my gut and chest. I haven’t written fiction in a while, but my mind is sure good at telling stories. For instance, Bob and I were on our mini-trip a week ago and having a wonderfully lovely time, and my thoughts would suddenly veer far left: “Oh no, what’s it going to be like next month? What will it be like when this change happens? Where will we be a year from now? What about this and that?” Stomach clenching, heart pounding, my mind lurking in dark alleys with shadows in every corner. Tragic, dramatic, sad, frightening stories. And all of them Complete Works of Fiction.
Of course, any of these stories might come to pass, but honestly, the greater chance is that they might not. When I think of all the things I’ve worried about in my life, the vast majority have not actually happened. So what use was all that worry? What good did it do me? Did it help me in any way? Or did it basically make me miserable for no good reason?
This brings me to my latest lesson…
Divorce Lesson #6: Don’t Pre-Suffer (or Post-Suffer, Either)
Bob came up with the term Pre-Suffer during one of our recent discussions. I’d previously been thinking in terms of “telling myself bad stories,” but the concept of Pre-Suffering has been really helpful. I know there may be a hard event looming in the future, and I may actually suffer during that event, but do I really need or want to suffer about it NOW, in advance, as well? Do I want to add to my suffering, especially given my track record that the things I worry about may not actually happen?
When I wake up and get aware that I’m pre-suffering about something, suddenly I know I have a choice. I can continue to stay with the story I’m making up, or I can take a sharp U-turn back to the present moment. (Yes, this directly relates to Divorce Lesson #1. Refining the concept has been even more helpful.)
I’ve added in Post-Suffering to my checklist of things to be aware of, too. It can be easy for me to look back and—especially in this current separation process—bemoan what I did or didn’t do in the past. Regret, self-recrimination, old shoulds… none of these are helpful NOW. What happened has already happened, and I can’t change the past. I can make changes in the future and go forward with awareness, but beating myself up and suffering about it after the fact won’t change anything. Suffering about it now is useless.
I’ve also discovered the concept of Detachment as a helpful way to examine my suffering. Months ago, the painfulness of my own thought processes led me on a search. I found solace in what Deepak Chopra had to say about Detachment, that there was freedom to be found in giving up the story, in letting go of the outcome. I’ve repeated his intentions to myself many times (read the whole essay here). Here are a few:
“I will allow myself and those around me the freedom to be as they are. I will not rigidly impose my idea of how things should be. I will not force solutions on problems, thereby creating new problems.”
And I especially love this:
“I will step into the field of all possibilities and anticipate the excitement that can occur when I remain open to an infinity of choices. When I step into the field of all possibilities, I will experience all the fun, adventure, magic and mystery of life.”
Hmm… what an appealing argument for openness.
Giving up Pre-Suffering and Post-Suffering to land back in the present moment is really a gift. The present moment isn’t always fun, but it’s real, not fiction. While it’s probably easier for many, I’m finding that with practice, I can more often stay with the joy when it comes up and bask in it a little. With awareness of my own thought processes, I can learn to recognize when I’m Pre- or Post-Suffering and make a choice. I can detach myself from trying to control or worry about future outcomes. I can learn to ride the waves of emotion and surf my way through daily life. I don’t want to deprive myself of what I DO have in the present moment. It might be joy. But even in hard times, there is something to be grateful for.
Right here, right now, life is okay. I can hang on to that and not leap forward or backward. Really, why would I want to suffer if I don’t have to?
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[Photos used are in the public domain unless otherwise credited. Photo of me by the talented Ayanna Muata of Waning Moon Photography. Photo of Buddha’s eyes by me.]