Discover more from My Sweet Dumb Brain
We all have to feel pain
But do we have to suffer so much?
You all know Becca from the shoutouts she gets at the end of each newsletter. She’s a great editor and an even better friend, one I can count on to show up and support me when I’m feeling down.
While I wish I could say that I always respond to Becca’s supportive efforts with grace and gratitude, that’s sadly not true. Because she’s been there for me through the heaviest of my grief days, she’s unfortunately seen me at my worst — engaging in especially hurtful and self-sabotaging behavior.
Becca’s most recent support came earlier this week when I was feeling especially discouraged about life. She told me about meeting another mother at a playground where their kids were playing. After some comfortable chitchat, the woman revealed that her husband died from a heart attack three years ago, while she was pregnant with her third child.
“She talked about how much she cried and cried and cried and didn’t want the baby,” Becca texted. In the end, the woman had that child — the little boy who was now playing with Becca’s daughter. The woman shared that she’s proud of her ability to navigate the roles of both mom and dad for her three kids. “She kept saying that she thinks it’s all going to be okay,” Becca told me.
What was my response to this kind and thoughtful story, one that my friend thought would offer some perspective and hope?
“Good for her. She’s lucky to have children and a brain that feels hopeful.”
Yep. Such a fun and reasonable and gracious reply!
My grief over losing Jamie has been rearing its ugly head lately — or, rather, my response to grief has been especially ugly. There are plenty of healthy ways to respond to grief: crying, journaling, talking with others, crying some more. There are also plenty of unhealthy ways to face it. That’s the path I’ve been taking lately. I’ve been sabotaging my happiness, fighting with my partner, distancing myself from friends, and feeling bitter about seemingly innocuous things.
Cool, cool, cool. Good job, brain.
This is especially frustrating because I know the things that I should be doing. I know the difference between healthy and unhealthy coping mechanisms, and have done enough internal work to be able to identify what works for me. I know that taking the time for gratitude journaling, meditation, and breathwork does wonders for my mood. I know that a warm bath often calms me. I know that spending time with friends alleviates my feelings of hopelessness. I know that drinking more water never hurts.
I also know where I want to be. I want to be happy for that widow. I want to be appreciative that Becca told me that story. I want to be grateful that my partner is sticking by my grief-weary side. I want to feel more open-hearted.
Deep down, I do think I’m feeling all of these things. On the surface, though, I’m a bubbling mess of anger and resentment. The happiness, appreciation, and gratitude that I do experience are overshadowed by my rage. I am still SO ANGRY that Jamie died. I am still SO ANGRY that I’m no longer in a loving marriage. I am still SO ANGRY that I didn’t become a mom when I expected to be. I am still SO ANGRY that I am starting over in so many ways.
Lately, I’ve been letting that rage win. I’ve been allowing anger to dominate my brain without looking for ways to release it. The end result is a lot of pain — for me, and the people closest to me. You know the phrase “hurt people hurt people”? That’s me. I’m hurting, and I’m hurting.
I recently finished Lori Gottlieb’s memoir, “Maybe You Should Talk to Someone,” which is about her reflections as a therapist and her own experiences from the other side of the chair, as the patient seeking therapy. There were so many takeaways from the book that resonated with me, but I can’t stop thinking about a specific exchange between Gottlieb and her therapist, Wendell. It happens after several sessions of her rehashing painful memories and raising endless questions about a recent breakup.
One morning, as I drone on about Boyfriend, Wendell scoots to the edge of his couch, stands up, walks over to me, and with his very long leg, lightly kicks my foot. Smiling, he returns to his seat.
“Ouch!” I say reflexively, even though it didn’t hurt. I’m startled. “What was that?”
“Well, you seem like you’re enjoying the experience of suffering, so I thought I’d help you out with that.”
“There’s a difference between pain and suffering,” Wendell says. “You’re going to have to feel pain — everyone feels pain at times — but you don’t have to suffer so much. You’re not choosing the pain, but you’re choosing the suffering.” He goes on to explain that all of this persevering I’m doing, all of this endless rumination and speculation about Boyfriend’s life, is adding to the pain and causing me to suffer. So, he suggests, if I’m clinging to the suffering so tightly, I must be getting something out of it. It must be serving some purpose for me.
Damn. Wendell’s insight surprised Gottlieb, and did the same for me. The pain I feel from losing Jamie makes all the sense in the world. But all of the suffering I’m experiencing — the ways I’m making that pain worse — isn’t as reasonable.
Wendell tells Gottlieb that she not only lost her relationship in the present, but her relationship in the future. I can relate to that so much. “We tend to think that the future happens later, but we’re creating it in our minds every day,” writes Gottlieb. “When the present falls apart, so does the future we had associated with it. And having the future taken away is the mother of all plot twists. But if we spend the present trying to fix the past or control the future, we remain stuck in place, in perpetual regret.”
Gottlieb’s insight from all of this is a hard one for me to face: “If I live in the present, I’ll have to accept the loss of my future.”
Instead of accepting the loss of my future, I’ve been grasping onto it, desperate to prove that it once existed. But that’s only creating more pain. By holding onto the dreams that Jamie and I had — the relationship we built, the family we were planning, the friendships we shared, the things we looked forward to — I’m causing myself to suffer even more than I already am. And all of that suffering is currently manifesting itself in the form of bitchy text messages and other less-than-charming things I’ve done lately.
Sometimes I feel silly writing this newsletter when I don’t yet have a success story to share or an inspirational note to end on. I worry that you’ll read this and think, Seriously? She’s still harping on the same problems? I guess that’s why Gottlieb’s memoir was so helpful for me. If a therapist can sometimes benefit from therapy, then a person who writes about grief can sometimes be walloped by grief — and struggle with the right way to respond to it.
Good job, brain
I'm reading: “Evvie Drake Starts Over,” by Linda Holmes. This is a book about a young widow starting anew. I guess I can kind of sort of relate to it!
I’m inspired by: The journaling habit I’m in lately. It may not sound like it from the struggles I described in this post, but journaling is helping me process my intense ups and downs.
I'm aiming to: Be kinder to myself and to the people I love most.
Pain is necessary, suffering is optional: “If you cannot open up to discomfort without suppression, it becomes impossible to face difficult problems in a healthy way.”
If you’re also feeling anger, venting it may not be the wisest approach. Here are some tips for breaking the venting habit.
I just started listening to “The Happiness Lab” podcast and found the first episode to be really encouraging. We all have sweet dumb brains that like to sabotage our well-being! Science proves it! (Science, fortunately, also gives us ways not to self-sabotage.)
Speaking of podcasts, Gottlieb was a recent guest on “Terrible, Thanks for Asking,” and shared a powerful, hard-to-forget story. Get your tissues ready!
For your sweet dumb brain
I’m notoriously guilty for thinking my feelings instead of feeling them. Thinking your feelings looks something like this: I feel sad. My mind latches onto that sadness, and creates a story around it. I convince myself I’ll always feel this sad and that any attempts to make things better are pretty much hopeless. Voilà! I’ve taken my pain and turned it into suffering.
Believe it or not, that’s not the healthiest approach. The better route is to allow yourself to feel your feelings. The next time you’re feeling something unpleasant, follow these steps from Emily McDowell and let yourself truly feel it. I’ll be right there alongside you doing the same work.
This newsletter is written by Katie Hawkins-Gaar. It’s edited by the wonderfully kind and patient Rebecca Coates. I’m sorry for not being a better friend lately, BPB.