The Ebb & Flow of Life

We have so little faith in the ebb and flow of life, of love, of relationships. We leap at the flow of the tide and resist in terror its ebb. We are afraid it will never return. IMAG0268

Anne Morrow Lindbergh

I recently went to the seashore after experiencing a significant loss. I longed to be still in a tranquil place to feel my feelings and do what Anne Morrow Lindbergh so eloquently describes in Gifts From the Sea – to accept the ebb and flow of life. Morrow Lindbergh continues… We insist on permanency, on duration, on continuity; when the only continuity possible, in life as in love, is in growth, in fluidity—

Endings, no matter how painful, are necessary to our growth and renewal. Consider how nature illustrates this enduring truth. Colorful leaves turn into murky mulch as fall turns into winter. Winter storms bear down on us, blustering winds and frozen rain, until sprigs of green appear on a sun-drenched branch in spring. Ebb tides, the period between high tide and low tide in which the sea recedes, occur daily, water pulled by the force of the moon in the darkness.

Little light shines when we experience a loss; the pull of darkness is palpable. Anger and sadness, melancholy and mournfulness pull at our heartstrings. Our bodies grow tired; our minds struggle to let go. Life feels hard, overwhelming sometimes, but over time, grief transforms us.

Griefwork, according to author and psychotherapist, Miriam Greenspan, is not a return to the pre-loss status quo, but an opportunity for a wholly new awareness of reality, self, beloved, and the world…. One way or another, we construct a meaning story, and it is through this story that we find acceptance.

The opportunity Greenspan speaks of can never be rushed. A tide doesn’t turn in an instant, IMAG0265and fruit on the vine doesn’t ripen until it’s time. In nature, there are seasons of stillness, yet human nature (especially in our 24/7 world) struggles to embrace transitory times. We leap into the next job or relationship, grabbing hold of something or someone to help us feel more secure or less heartbroken. We get busy doing, distracting, or denying our feelings, fearing we’ll drown in the ebb tide of sorrow.

But we won’t drown if we allow the waves of grief to take their natural course. The poet William Butler Yeats affirms this truth…How many times man lives and dies between his two eternities.

It’s never easy to be still and contemplate life’s endings, but it’s the only way I know to make meaning out of loss. Greenspan knows this all to well, having lost a child two months after his birth. She offers us hope for Healing Through the Dark Emotions, reminding us that out of this stillness an imperceptible movement occurs, from sorrow for what has been lost to gratitude for what remains.

Emotional Honesty

The final regret of the dying, according to Bronnie Ware, author of The Top Five Regrets of the Dying: A Life Transformed by the Dearly Departing, is “I wish I had the courage to express my feelings.”  Many of her patients suppressed their feelings in order to keep peace with others. Ware writes, They settled for a mediocre existence and never became who they were capable of becoming. Many developed illnesses relating to bitterness and resentment they carried as a result.

What might their lives have been like if they chose to be emotionally honest? How might your life be different if you told others how you truly felt?

Recently, I worked with a client who was a breast cancer survivor. She was a highly intelligent woman, yet deeply disconnected from her feelings. She talked about locking her emotions away in a “Pandora’s Box.” She was acutely aware of how this choice fueled her passive-aggressive behavior and caused her to drink too much. Still, she didn’t know how to change her ways. She was terrified of opening up what was hidden deep inside.

I gently probed to help her discover why she continued to stuff her feelings. While sharing her childhood history, she told me that she never saw her mother cry until two years prior to our meeting (this woman was 51 yrs of age.) Interestingly, her mother had lost one son in an automobile accident and another to a chronic illness years before (my client’s brothers) and lost nearly all of her possessions in Hurricane Katrina.

Hmm! Such tragedy, yet my client’s mother hadn’t shed a single tear over the death of her children or loss of her worldly possessions, at least not in public. Hmm? Nor did my client cry while recounting this story or talking about her emotionally abusive marriage.

I don’t know about you, but I would have been boohooing for days. Crying for me is cleansing, a salve to heal my soul. Still, many individual have difficulty expressing their feelings, especially the “negative” kind, like sadness, fear, and grief. Like my client, many people were taught that being emotional means being weak, overly sensitive, or disrespectful. Buck up and stop being a crybaby. There’s nothing to be afraid of (you wimp). Don’t you raise your voice young lady! That’s no way for a nice girl to act.

Thankfully, times are changing. Daniel Goleman’s book on Emotional Intelligence (EQ) has changed our minds and begun to change our hearts. Yet still, EQ only scratches the surface. It doesn’t address what’s tucked away in Pandora’s Box. That’s why my client, and millions of people all over the globe, continue to numb their feelings with alcohol, drugs, food and other addictive pastimes; distract themselves with work, shopping, and other compulsive activities; or dissociate from painful memories for fear that overwhelming emotions will take them down.

Being aware of your feelings IS the first step, but it’s insufficient in creating a healthy life. Renowned neuroscientist, Candance Pert, has proven that emotions reside in every cell of our bodies, and that when we stifle the flow of our emotional energy, sorrow can turn into depression, anger into aggression, and fear into phobias or panic attacks. And it’s not only our mental health that is negatively affected. Neuroscience is proving that bottled up emotions can contribute to systemic inflammation in our bodies which results in cancer, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s.

To live our best lives and die with little regret, I believe it’s essential to let out our feelings in a constructive manner. According to author and psychotherapist, Miriam Greenspan…

Goleman’s focus on the need to control potentially destructive impulses neglects the value of free-flowing emotional energy when it’s mindfully tolerated. The free flow of the dark emotions can’t happen in a contain-and-manage kind of process. What Goleman wants control to accomplish is better accomplished through emotional tolerance and mindfulness. These skills prevent the dark emotions from becoming destructive. When we can tolerate emotional energy mindfully, we can control our impulses without suppressing our emotions. Strictly speaking, it’s not our emotions that we control, but our actions. The emotional intelligence of the dark emotions moves us not to management but to transformation.

Learning to be emotionally honest can be scary. Expressing your feelings to those that matter does take courage. But remember, if you learned to suppress you can learn to express.

If you need a helping hand in opening up your Pandora’s Box, I highly recommend Greenspan’s book, Healing Through the Dark Emotions. But don’t stop there. Spend some time with a trusted therapist or a caring friend who can comfort you along the way.