Virtually all of us have spent time as emotional grave diggers, working hard to bury our feelings. “Those feelings need to be got rid of,” we say to ourselves. “They do me no good. They’re old and unattractive. No one else wants to hear about them.” And so we push them down, as far under the surface as we can manage.
If only it were that easy. Too often, the feelings are like vampires: they don’t stay buried because, like the vampires, they are “undead.” After dark the earth moves and soon enough the coffin is empty and the hurt feelings are once again at liberty to suck the life out of us.
Why do we do this? We want to end the pain, of course, and this burial seems the most direct way.
The burial tends to start with some sort of rationalization. Most of us compare things. People inclined to ignoring uncomfortable feelings often see the misfortune of strangers as reason to delegitimize their own pain. If you had a difficult childhood, you might tell yourself that “Everyone had something like that” or “My life wasn’t any different from most of the other kids I grew up with” or “How can I complain when I didn’t get physically abused and there was always enough food to eat?” And it is almost always true that there is or has been someone worse off.
Therapists call the attempt to normalize one’s experience — the mental gymnastics that some people do to minimize their suffering — a kind of invalidation. By that they mean that the person is discounting his pain; negating his own feelings, usually by the intellectual exercise of comparing. And since he might well have been told at some point, in words or actions, that his feelings weren’t important, he now has the additional problem of saying it to himself. It is one thing to be alienated from the world, but self-invalidation adds a level of estrangement from yourself on top of that.
Our instinctive withdrawal from pain seems the only right answer when we ask, “What good would it do to think about this? It is over and done.” We hope that time alone will heal whatever small wound is there, even if it isn’t too small. Meantime, we get on with the funeral rites and the premature burial.
But, think about it for a moment. Is the pain of a surgical procedure any more or less acute because someone else has more pain than we do? And does it really make the fact of your unhappy childhood or lost marriage any more pleasant because others have had it worse? Perhaps if you are suffering in a group of compatriots who share your tough times, as in wartime, does shared misery provide some solace. But when you try to make yourself feel better by reference to an abstract group of strangers who have had it bad, there is little comfort.
Ultimately it doesn’t change the way you feel to know that, as I was frequently reminded over the childhood dinner table, “You’d better eat your food — people are starving in India.” The good but unlucky folks in Asia were simply too far away to influence the way I was thinking about the food right in front of me. Suffering and unhappiness are very personal and immediate. The comparisons are usually not of great value, in part because we can’t get out of our own skin. Even distant memories of our own earlier and greater suffering usually don’t salve the pain of the moment.
Of course, it is true that everyone has misfortune; some more, some less. But if your own history of pain haunts you despite your attempt to plant that undead feeling in an emotional cemetery, then perhaps something else might be required. The therapy of grieving usually involves the following:
- Admit that something in you is unsettled. The vampire who feeds on your pain won’t die until you face him and put a stake in his heart. You must therefore recognize that your efforts to minimize your misfortune have failed and that the wound in your psyche won’t go away by itself. One way to bring yourself to this point is to ask whether you know of others who have gone into therapy for issues like those you are trying to ignore. Do you still get upset when you think about or interact with certain people? Then you probably aren’t finished with them, even if the person you are thinking about is dead. It doesn’t matter whether the damage is ancient because the heart has no calendar with which to register the passage of time. The feelings remain, undead.
- You might encounter a sense of guilt as you begin to take on the grieving process. Are you betraying your parents or an ex-love by even thinking negative thoughts about them? But thinking about them, writing about them, and talking about them in a confidential setting will hurt no one and might help you.
- Beware the forgiveness trap. Some among us, usually for religious reasons, suggest that one should quickly forgive past injuries. Maybe, but first allow yourself to face what that hurt is, how it was inflicted, and take the time to recover from it. Ignore those who tell you to “just get over it.” A rapid push to forgive doesn’t allow the psyche to heal, especially if the person who hurt you is still saying and doing things that inflict more injury. Once your emotions have been respected and cared for, then you can determine if forgiveness is something you want to do. Not before.
- Let your feelings take you where they want to go. Make friends with them. Turn your brain off for a bit of time. When you are reminded of the unhappiness, the mistreatment, or the grudge, don’t try to distract yourself, reach for food or alcohol to kill the pain, or turn on the TV. Sit with it. Yes, it is likely to begin to feel worse, but that probably is because it really is worse and you’ve been fleeing the internal reminders until now.
- Talk about your feelings with someone you trust. It needn’t always be a therapist, but must be a person who will listen patiently and validate you; not a person who will try to talk you out of your hurt or give you quick solutions about “what to do,” what action to take to make it better. The “solutions” don’t generally solve the emotional side of things, even if they represent good advice. Instead, they make you feel like your confidant really doesn’t get it.
- Grieving by oneself makes recovery harder (and sometimes impossible), fueling our sense of being like roadkill on the highway of life, hardly ever given a second look. Opening up in a kind of self-imposed solitary confinement tends to be excruciating. It distances you further from the rest of humanity. Part of the advantage of having someone with you in the grieving process is not only their validation, but the presence of a caring person who reconnects you to the value of human contact. It is a bridge back to humanity when everything in you says you don’t belong.
- Be prepared that the problem won’t disappear as quickly as you want. Healing long-standing wounds takes a while; you will discover that you cover the same ground multiple times. Unlike fictional vampires, the emotional ones sometimes have to be “staked” more than once.
- Stop hoping for a magical resolution to your loss. If you are still trying to win back your lost love; or receive the approval that your parents never gave, you won’t be able to successfully get over your loss. If you are still trying to achieve “the great accomplishment” that you believe will make you satisfied with your life, you may not recognize that your emptiness might have little to do with your accomplishments, but perhaps has everything to do with an absence of love in childhood. Sometimes giving up hope of such things is healthier and more realistic than holding on to it.
- Open up. If you are a “man’s man,” the idea of expressing your feelings, especially to the point of tears, is probably abhorrent. The tears may or may not come, but regardless, it is more courageous to face the injury you’ve suffered than to keep it bottled up. There is no profit in trying to be a Spartan unless you are getting ready for the Peloponnesian War. You can only discharge your pain by expressing it, like squeezing an orange. And once you are less defended against vulnerability, the internal walls against “feeling” will no longer prevent others from achieving intimacy with you.
Validating your sadness doesn’t mean giving in to it. Indeed, if you grieve the injury you will eventually find that your feelings will have been “defanged” — carry little bite. They will hunt and haunt you less. You will feel stronger and less dogged by the undead emotions you have long been running from.
Stop running. It is the running that has given your vampiric emotions the opportunity to repeatedly torment you.
If you give your wounds attention in the daylight, eventually the vampire who feeds on them will not come for you at night.
You may find the following post of related interest: Are You Too Emotional?
The Vampire is an ink drawing by Ernst Stöhr, first in Ver Sacrum, 1899, issue 12, page 8, sourced from anno.onb.ac.at. The second image, Emotions, was downloaded by Access. Finally, the poster shows the official logo of World Compassion Day, founded by Pritish Nandy Communications. The logo is the work of PriyankaShah69. All three images are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.