Kate had come to see me for counselling support during her divorce. She was incredibly stressed and had lost a huge amount of weight. She wasn’t sleeping well and her mind was going round and round the same track and wouldn’t let up.
There are so many people who would be familiar with this scenario. About one third of Australian marriages end in divorce so that’s quite a few people who have to go through the pain and discomfort of separating from their partners1. The process is not easy but Kate was having a particularly difficult time. This was however partly because of how she was approaching the whole matter. Kate needed to learn how to free herself from the emotional torture she was subjecting herself to.
Self inflicted pain
Life scenarios like divorce can be challenging but so often we actually add to the discomfort ourselves. We like to think the other person is the source of our misery but this is not necessarily the case. Yes, someone may be mean-spirited, revengeful or callous towards us and this is not pleasant to say the least. But some of the difficulty comes from how we approach the whole situation.
Let’s look at Kate’s complaint. She felt that her situation was unfair. And perhaps it was. But dwelling on the injustice was making her bitter and resentful. There are a lot of things in life that are not fair; bullying, disparate rates of pay, how minorities are treated…the list is endless. None of this is okay of course. But if we make ourselves ill because of the unfairness then we have just added to the misery. How does it help anything?
Wisdom teachings throughout the ages have pointed to the fact that there is reality, which might be fair or unfair, and then there is how we react to this reality. If the world is full of unfairness, which it is at one level, then we are going to live in misery if we react to the unfairness all the time.
“So, what…are you telling me to just give up then?” Kate asked furiously. “Am I just supposed to let him get away with this? Its just not fair.” I needed to explain. “The situation may not be fair. But you are banging your head against the wall of this unfairness and then expecting to feel better. You are just going to give yourself a headache.” Actually she already had!
A healthy approach to reality
To be clear, Kate’s situation may not have been fair. But there was not a lot she could do about it. Her partner was going to be bloody-minded and she couldn’t stop him from taking this path. In fact her reactivity was probably provoking him further. This was the reality – how her partner was behaving. This was something she couldn’t change.
So wouldn’t it be better to work with what she could change. And what she could change was her response to the situation. She could work on her own inner state. “Why should I have to be the one to do all the work though,” Kate complained. “Yes again, I agree, it’s not fair”, I replied. “But you are suffering through this process and you could actually be making it better for yourself. If you do the ‘work’ you end up feeling better. There is less pain for you. Why go through extra torture if you don’t have to.” “Yes, but its not fair.” Again, her continual refrain.
Kate was going to be learning a valuable life lesson here. She was going to learn about how best to face ‘reality’. We might want reality to be different. It might not be fair that someone gets away with stealing our car, or dismissing us from a job. It might not be fair that we get sick or injured. It might not be fair if someone gets a job ahead of us or gets a lucky break and we do not. However, this is the reality of life and of the world.
This does not mean that we give up on things. We still speak up when necessary, we still ask for what is wanted, we still make a stand for what is right when necessary. But what needs to be different is how we are when we do the speaking. If we are reactive, stressed and frustrated then we are hurting ourselves. It creates a tense internal state that harms our physical and mental health. And this in no way helps the situation. It’s double the suffering. There is ‘reality’ and then there’s what we do to ourselves because of this ‘reality’.
Gradually Kate came to understand that if she became able to take control of her emotional self then she was going to get through the process with so much less hardship. She became able to look at her frustrated, angry self and see that this ‘self’ was not helping her and that it needed to settle down and let a wiser aspect of herself take charge.
Learning to be wise
Part of maturity is learning to face reality and accept what cannot be changed, and to work with our own interior reality, which can be changed. On the world stage it is people who are able to do this internal self-management that we come to admire. We instinctively respond with respect to people that can transcend the harsh reality around them, manage their own inner being and then act from this more still, inner position.
Take Nelson Mandela for example. He was faced with the ‘reality’ of being imprisoned for protesting against apartheid. He could have let himself get eaten away with bitterness and rage. But he didn’t. He came out of prison ennobled and ready to work for change.
Similarly with Rosie Batty. It wasn’t fair that her husband murdered her son. This could have broken her. She could have let her emotional state get the better of her and ended up depressed, enraged or bitter. But she didn’t. What had happened had happened. This was reality. She didn’t bang her head against that wall. Despite it being a painful reality she managed to connect with an inner strength and stepped up to take action. Not from a stance of hate or revenge but from a constructive approach to change.
Kate too gradually got the hang of this more mature approach to reality. She understood that while it wasn’t fair how her husband was behaving, she had a choice about how she was going to deal with this. What was the point in not sleeping and going through an endless mental monologue? She had to take her resentful self in hand and teach it to grow up.
What this meant was that when she felt herself getting charged up and when she heard her resentful voice starting up she had to stop and take a moment to regain composure. She needed to shake out the tension from her body, starting with letting her fingers and hands vibrate then letting this spread to her arms and then the whole body if needed. This helps to release the accumulated tension from the frustration. Then she would breath some deep, gentle breaths. Finally she had to talk to this resentful ‘self’ within to remind it that there was a better way.
Even though Kate was going through a difficult time she was learning something very important about life. Something good could come from this challenging situation. She was learning to be emotionally free. And she was learning that the keys to this freedom were in her own hands.
The power within
One of the most important life lessons we can learn is that the external scenario does not have to define how we are. One of the most powerful examples of this is the story of Victor Frankl2 who was held in a Nazi concentration camp in World War 2. He noticed the differences in the ways people responded to this brutal reality. Some gave up in the face of the hardship. Some colluded with the Nazis. Some maintained their dignity despite the horror of the situation.
Frankl noticed that the person’s internal attitude towards the hardship determined their quality of life and in fact whether they survived or not. Frankl himself found that by focusing on the love he felt for his wife that he was able to get through the inhumanity of the situation.
Frankl’s situation was absolutely not fair. But it was the reality he was faced with. And he found a way to survive it. Not to compare this with Kate’s situation, but the principle is the same. We can let the external circumstances define us. Or we can define ourselves and find another way through the ordeal. This is what Kate began to do.
Kate’s internal wellbeing was more important than holding on to mental ideas about right and wrong. Her mental agitation was not helping her in her daily life and it was not helping her manage her children through the process. They were picking up on her distress and beginning to act out at home. If she could model a more balanced approach then this would help her children too.
Kate was on her way to emotional freedom. This is because in the end it is we who cause our own misery. It is not the external situation. It is our reaction to the external situation that causes the pain.
There is something that is more important in life than fair and not fair. And that is our inner wellbeing. What is the point of righteousness if the stress of it kills us!
8 Steps to emotional freedom
- Notice when you have an extra level of emotional charge about something.
- Step back from the situation and identify the emotion that is activating you.
- Put the particulars of the issue to one side for the moment.
- Physically release the emotional charge by physically shaking or pushing against something.
- Feel any resulting physical sensations and stay with them until they disappear. Then settle yourself back to equilibrium by breathing deep, gentle breaths.
- Remind yourself of what is really important – love, compassion, connection and your own inner wellbeing.
- Choose how to respond based on this compassionate perspective.
- Ponder the deeper issues that might have triggered your reaction.
Relationships can be a powerful way in which to learn to put notions about right and wrong and fair and not fair in their place. Couples come to me all the time complaining about each other and eager to point out how their partner is wrong and how they are right. They are prepared to argue and fight to make their point known.
What they don’t realize at first is that in their desire to be right they are sacrificing the quality of connection in their relationship. They are eroding the love between themselves and their partner. This can tear couples apart.
In this situation it is important to take people back to what is important. And what could be more important than love. Okay so it wasn’t ‘right’ for your partner to have forgotten to do that chore or it wasn’t right for them to ignore your need for affection. But making them wrong for this, blaming them and getting angry just blasts apart the connection between you both.
This doesn’t mean you have to put up with bad behaviour. And it doesn’t mean you don’t speak up. But it does mean that you have to manage your own emotional state first. Because it is the out-of-control emotional state that causes the damage, not the wrong your partner did or didn’t do, and not you asking for what you need.
Right and wrong is a mental construct. It doesn’t come from the heart. Love does. Connection does. So we need to make love and connection the foundation. If something damages the love and connection then we need to stop and reorient. There will be time for discussion later. First we have to bring compassion and understanding to the situation.
If we can put our sense of injustice to one side for a moment we can listen to our partner and feel what is going on for them. Often it isn’t even about the immediate situation. It is often related to something deeper. The immediate situation is just the trigger.
With Kate, for example, the deeper issue related to having a father who had always diminished her and made her wrong. She was primed to react strongly to anything that echoed this situation. For others it might be about not having been listened to or having been ignored. There are any number of triggers we can carry embedded within us, based on unresolved earlier life experiences.
If we don’t take this time to explore our needs with our partner then we might never get to the deeper issue. And if we miss the deeper issue we will continue to go around the same cycle of issues again and again, often in an escalating cycle.
We can short circuit this cycle by becoming ‘bigger’ than our own emotional reactions, letting them subside and settle by staying connected with our partner first. Once our partner has been heard and once we have calmed down our reaction, then we have the opportunity to bring in a different perspective. Not from a position of right or wrong but from the position of being on the same team and choosing to understand each other’s perspective and needs and then working through this together.
Right and wrong, fair and unfair, good and bad. There are deeper distinctions than this and a wise person knows this. Kate was learning this wisdom, as are many of the couples I see. Love trumps those mental constructs. It makes us wiser. It makes us bigger. And it sets us free. Free to be our best selves and free to face ‘reality’ with dignity and ease.
2 Victor Frankl, (2006) Man’s Search for Meaning, Beacon Press, Boston
Cynthia works in private practise as a psychologist in Melbourne and is the author of the book, Return to the Soul. See: www.cynthiahickman.net