Letting go is the point at which our recovery turns around from darkness to light. In previous articles, we have discussed all the stages of magical thinking, how we progressively become more and more willing to accept reality.
In a trauma or extended trauma, like a relationship with a sociopath, there is a lot of difficult reality to accept. Here is a recap of our healing stages or strategies:
• Denial — the most “unreal” stage, where we say it is not important, where we are at war with our own feelings
• Bargaining — we admit it hurts, but we still think it is in our power to change it
• Anger — we blame the external cause, we recover our feelings of personal power over our lives, but we continue to maintain the idea that there is something we or anyone else can do about it.
This article is about letting go, the stage where we face our losses and come to terms with our powerlessness to change them.
The light in the darkness
If the last paragraph sounded like a line from an Alcoholics Anonymous book, there is a reason. This transition from anger to acceptance is the key to the AA approach. Facing up to reality that is both the hardest thing we ever do, but also the only possible path to real healing and recovery of ourselves and our lives.
Anger — whether old embedded anger or a fresh reaction —is an expression of the “me” side of the brain. It spurs us to take action for ourselves. Embedded anger is the underlying cause of addictions — because we are “taking care of ourselves” against the forces that threaten our survival at some level. That level may be, and often is, our right to be whole human beings entitled to all our feelings and potential.
Embedded anger is usually about situations in which we feel we cannot act. If we act, we lose something even bigger. A good example of this is childhood abuse, where we “agree” to act, think or feel in certain ways in order to survive. Adult situations may include work or personal relationships where we have something at risk — like our jobs, our children’s welfare, our lifestyle.
Compromising our integrity, a word that means “wholeness,” never comes cheap. Each compromise warps us and evolves into greater complexity over time. These compromises have the full range of negative emotions attached to them — fear, anger and grief. Every one of them sets up a pattern of feelings, a “state,” that recurs in circumstances that remind us of the original situation or just exist perpetually.
These states are linked to our addictive behaviors. What we do to make ourselves feel better. We find our “drug of choice,” whether it is a chemical solution or something more socially acceptable like work or shopping to anesthetize or distract us. Beyond that, we imagine bigger solutions. The love affair that will heal us. The financial score that will relieve our stresses. The answers we might find through some self-development or spiritual pursuit. The “perfect” anything that will magically change our world.
However, unless the solution resolves that loss, eliminating it as a source of recurring states, nothing is really a permanent fix. The states keep returning. We keep searching and buying into “apparent fixes” with hungers that in retrospective seem overly risky or out of control.
The solution here, the solution to all of this complex structure of pain and faulty solutions, is in the cause. The loss. It is through the loss that we emerge on the other side of it as renewed and somehow more than we were before. The loss, in a way that we never anticipate while we are avoiding the pain, turns out to be a gift.
Sociopaths offer us perfect solutions. In their cleverness at reflecting back our most powerful dreams, they “make real” our best ideas about what will fix us. For the magical moments of their efforts to recruit us, they give us a taste of what we imagine perfection to be. And so, we are relieved of the anxiety, loneliness, resentments and fears that come from our earlier compromises with our personal monsters.
It all feels so natural, so right, because none of us want to feel like we’ve lost anything. In fact, the sociopathic seduction actually reverses our progress in handling earlier traumas. Most of us are at least up to bargaining as a life strategy, and some of us have access to anger in certain circumstances. At minimum, we feel it in relationship to other people’s traumas, especially the ones that remind us of our own.
But in these relationships, we return to denying any of it was important. We lose every reason to remember, to hold onto the lessons we learned. We are free, beautiful, trusting, fully connected, with nothing standing between us and this dream. (And whatever hints or warnings that this is not what it seems get pushed away, because this is our own best idea and it seems worth anything.)
When they start depriving us of this perfect fix, we are in agony. We think it is about them, but it tends to be more than that. All the old states, every reason we wanted that fix is back and it is louder. We start going through all the stages again on all kinds of levels of our lives — denial, bargaining anger — everything that was ever related to these losses. And worse, we are in battle with the addiction, which has experienced relief and wants more.
All of this is about not wanting to feel our losses. Not wanting to lose. Wanting to be whole. We are back in the grief cycle with a vengeance. And all of it is about “no.” No this is not happening to me. No I don’t deserve this. No these are not the rules I agreed to. This is bad. I hate it. It is not part of who I am or my world. I refuse.
Graduating from anger
Anger is that roar. That animal cry that really combines the resistance and grief below it. At some point, we recognize the grief below the anger. It comes when we see that no matter how ready we are to act, no matter how well and appropriately we have responded to the alert messages of our survival system, the deed is done. It is over. There is nothing we can do about it.
In anger, we link the pain to the external cause. The sociopath did this to me. In grief, we link the pain to our own loss. It does not matter what caused it. We can blame forever, make ourselves the victims in ways that relieve us from fault, but we ultimately cannot get away from the fact that a change has occurred. And the change is in us.
Even talking about loss is hard. Ironically, we talk about it more easily when we are in denial or bargaining. I don’t want to feel like I’ve lost my ability to trust. I don’t want to feel like the world isn’t safe. I don’t want to loss the idea that I can manage my own life. I don’t want to feel like no one will ever love me again, or that I will never love anyone else. I don’t want to admit that that the money I lost represents months or years of my life. I don’t want to know that my children or my friends or family have faced losses because of my behavior.
In anger we reject all of it. We use our recovered sense of personal power to try to penetrate these losses, to turn them around. In this, we gain important insight about what happened. But that eventually puts us in touch with the great roaring grief. Our real feelings. The renewed sense of personal power is important. We need to recover our sense that we can do something about our lives. It makes us ready to learn.
The great pivot of healing
Everything that leads up to grief is getting us ready for it. To be real about our losses and how we feel about them. To face the fact that something has changed. To allow ourselves to be human again, not the childish superheroes of our attempts to magically make the changes go away.
Finally this is us being vulnerable with ourselves. Being honest. Giving up our internal defenses and our attempts to medicate our pain. This is a war that we have lost. And also won, because in grief, we are real.
For all the work we put into avoiding our grief, it is a great irony to discover that it is about being kind to ourselves. What keep us from grief are the internalized voices of harsh parents or other authorities that denied us the right to our own feelings, dreams, ideas. We accommodated their demands up to this point, but now we are taking our power back. We are in our own reality. We are finally ready to respond to our losses and to support ourselves through it. We become our own “good parents.”
How do we feel and act in grief? Everyone has their own processes, but here are some of mine:
• Tears over how the reality is different from what I wanted it to be
• Loving feelings toward what I lost or what I really wanted
• Tenderness or understanding toward myself for feeling this way
• Allowing myself to feel the loss until I am truly finished with grieving it
I am comforting myself in a way that a “perfect” parent would have treated me when I was hurt and in pain. I am reinforcing the integrity of my psyche by not denying how I really feel, and giving myself the entitlement to go through whatever I have to go through to finish the loss and move on.
How we let go
Grief is about letting go. We don’t learn that until we surrender to the reality and to our grief. At the beginning, we are afraid of the feelings, afraid of how they will feel. This surrender is always an act of courage, though it becomes easier after we have done this a few times. We do it because is the only course left to us, but many of us avoid it, staying in anger or earlier stages, because we are so afraid of these feelings.
But allowing ourselves to feel them serves many purposes. The most important purpose grief serves is to separate us from the cause of our grief. The loss.
The more we grieve, the more we realize that what we are grieving is not us. What grieves is us. The feelings are us. But the loss is not. It is something we wanted or loved. Something that we may have imagined was part of us, and the loss made us feel like less than we were. But as we grieve, it becomes more and more clear that a difference exists.
The length of time we grieve is exactly equivalent to how long it takes us to realize this. Our grief may be multi-layered in that sense. One of my greatest anguishes after my relationship with the sociopath was the knowledge that he did not love me, combined with all the reasons he gave for not loving me. Most of them were about my age and how I looked.
Grief at his not loving me was mixed up with grief about the years I lost. I met him in blooming middle age when my hormones were wild, I was vibrantly attractive, and I was at the peak of my career. My grief over him not loving me evolved to grief over the losses of age. My appearance was changing. Without being able to provide a child, my relationship with a man was never going to include the protective elements that I valued so much. My likelihood of having the type of relationship that had made me happiest —trophy wife of an older man — was vanishing. That part of my life was over.
This is personal to me, my reality. Whether it is the truth about me in anyone else’s view is not the point. It was a massive piece of how I navigated the world. It incorporated a great internal complex of “rules,” of expectations about how the world would treat me, and of accommodations I’d made to early compromises of my life. Letting it go was terrifying to me, because I had nothing to replace it.
But in grieving his not loving me, and then all the linked losses associated with it, I found them firming up in my mind. From murky anxieties and resistances and resentments, the real nature of my fear and losses coalesced. I could “look at them” and see them as something I wanted and treasured perhaps, but there was another me that was looking at them. A more central me that was measuring if I was going to die of it or if I had other resources, and that eventually decided that was then and this is now. So now what?
It didn’t happen overnight. But it got a lot healthier and a lot more direct, as a process, once I let myself cry over the loss of his love. Or the loss of belief in the honesty of his love. Or the loss of belief in him as someone I could trust or even understand. Every time I started somewhere, grieving something, letting myself feel the loss, I got to a letting go.
It didn’t matter who caused it, because it didn’t change what I was dealing with. This was between me and me, and my need to be whole, to be real with myself.
Getting stuck in grief
Sometimes we feel like we have more losses than we can deal with, and we become muddled in despair. This is obviously a time when an anti-depressant may help us manage an overload of sadness, so that we can process our way through it. But here are some other suggestions for dealing with grief that we feel is not progressing.
The single best technique I found to process grief is to follow my feelings. Often when we focus on an event that gives us strong feelings, we are not really clear about what aspect is triggering them. If we turn our attention to our feelings, essentially asking them what they are about, we can often get a clearer idea. Like I thought I was grieving him not loving me, when I really was grieving a loss of what made me lovable to men. Paying attention to my feelings helped surface those insights. (I should probably add here that in rebuilding, I found a lot of less transient things that make me lovable.)
Another technique is to listen to our own resistance to the loss. Grief that goes on and on is usually about a battle within ourselves. We refuse to let the loss go, because we have some internal rule about its necessity. Again in my own case, I was afraid of becoming hard or bitter. To be attractive or lovable, I had a rule to be cheerful, no matter what. I looked at that loss, and saw it was something I learned, not something I really believed. Letting go of that rule was one of the best things I ever did for myself.
A third technique that I used with particularly sticky losses was arguing with God. It took me a while to see that I was doing this. I kept getting stuck in anger and feeling like a victim, because I felt that I’d done my part. Even if I couldn’t trust the sociopath, my parents, or anyone else, surely there had to be some rules I could depend on. Surely God had not put me here to just be a straight man for other people’s pathologies. For me, conversations with God set me back on the right path, because God’s response was always, “What are you going to do with this? That is what interests me.”
What we learn
Grief teaches us something that literally changes our world. That is the difference between what is transient and what is not. What is us and what are simply changing circumstances.
Something inside of us endures no matter what we lose. This central self is whole and invulnerable, no matter what happens to us. A great deal of what we imagine to be our true identities are things that we learned, often through threat to our survival or rules about what it takes to be accepted or loved. We identify ourselves in triumphs or failures, appearances or things that reflect these learned rules of existence.
Grieving clarifies that we belong to ourselves. All those other learned rules may have some reason for being, some use to us. But in grief, we gain new perspectives, seeing them as more or less functional guidelines and not who we are. We are what is grieving, surviving, identifying our feelings and what triggers them. By coming home to our own reality, we become comfortable and confident in a world of many realities.
We become more authentic. We are more in our skin, seeing through our own eyes. We are also freer to build lives that reflect who we are, rather than what we are afraid of.
In the next article, we will discuss rebuilding. In the meantime, for those who are making this transition from anger into grief, I reassure you that you truly deserve kindness. You have been kind to so many other people. It is time to give it to you.
Namaste. The brave and tender spirit in me salutes the brave and tender spirit in you.