The Problem with Grief Avoidance

Facing hurt in your past rewires your brain to heal.

BY MIKE MCHARGUE LIFE August 06, 2015

I was sitting in therapy once and found something in my soul I never knew was there. It was as if I was taking a guest on a tour of my home and noticed a door in the hallway I’d never seen before. It was that unexpected.

I wouldn’t be able to open that door for weeks.

We were talking about my childhood—my therapist insisted on it.

The funny thing is, I could talk about what happened when I was a kid, and I could explain what other kids had done to me when I was bullied. It didn’t bother me, and I told my therapist I was over all that.

But then she asked me how I felt when those things happened to me.

I don’t want to sound melodramatic, but it was that moment I saw the unexpected door for the first time. And when I touched the doorknob, it scalded me.
I couldn’t tell my therapist how I felt. Even thinking about it made my heart pound like a bass drum, while filling me with some awful terror. It confused and disoriented me.

I mean, here I was in a safe place and I was terrified just because a kind, smart woman asked me how I felt about something that happened decades ago. It split my consciousness for a few seconds—part of me was afraid, and part of me was wearing a lab coat, studying that fear.

The River of Grief

That was a rough day. I was shaken for the rest of the afternoon, uncomfortable in my own thoughts.

Week after week, my therapist kept guiding me toward that door, but I still couldn’t open it.

And then, one week, a friend asked me what I would tell the 7-year-old me if he was sitting across from me, and the door opened.

A river of grief came out. Grief is a briny river for sure, but somehow it leaves you feeling clean.

Opening the Door

Most of us have these sort of untouched rooms from our past—painful experiences we refuse to talk about, places we just won’t go.

But while it may feel terrifying at first, the crazy thing is that the more we open those doors, the less scary they become. Each time, the flow of grief gets a little smaller, until at last, it’s just another door.

I don’t mind going in that room anymore, especially if I can grab a story that will help someone else face their own grief over past trauma, loss or hurt.

The Past Shapes the Present

Here’s the thing: When you bury the pain of the past, it can warp you.

On the one hand, my bullies gave me a gift. I have a profound sense of independence and I’m not too worried about the approval of a crowd. On the other hand, I have an acute fear or rejection, and intense doubt when people tell me they like me.

By suppressing all those feelings of rejection from my childhood, I set the stage from some pretty toxic behaviors later in life. It’s where I get my love of being in front of crowds, entertaining them, but also controlling the interaction. It also led me to seek acceptance and validation in some unhealthy romantic relationships.

I was able to drop a lot of those behaviors and live a healthier life when I finally forgive the people who’d hurt me as a child.

The first step in redeeming the wounds of our past is forgiving the ones who wounded us. It’s the only way forward.

But it’s just the beginning of the healing process. After forgiveness comes grief. You have to mourn the loss that came from that wound.

Essential Pain

Western people have a profound talent for avoiding grief, and Americans are exceptional at it even by the standards of the West.

This is all rooted in our brains, of course. When you recall events and people from the past, different parts of your brain light up. For traumatic memories, your amygdala will get hyped up just as powerfully as if am imminent, physical threat was present. The power of the human brain in re-creating the past means our painful memories have exquisite power.

Why wouldn’t you bury something like that? Who would chose to wander into such pain? It’s awful.

Awful, but essential. Because every time you recall a memory, your brain changes that memory a little bit. That’s how conditioning works.

Pavlov’s insights apply to people just as much as dogs. I salivate when the microwave dings. It’s positive reinforcement. But if someone hit me with a rock every time the microwave did it’s thing, I’d probably break into a sweat every time someone reached for a frozen dinner. That’s why grief and therapy work so well.

When we recall the painful past in a safe environment, we weaken that memory’s association with the parts of our brain that drive fear and anger. We rewire our brains to take the punch out of those wounds, and finally allow them to heal.

I think that’s why people who’ve been hurt have to return to their stories over and over. They have an instinctive drive to share once they feel safe. As long as that doesn’t become an obsession, it’s healthy.

Forgiveness and grief are helpful in living a whole, healthy life.

This article was originally published on mikemchargue.com. Used here with permission.

Mike McHargue

MIKE MCHARGUE

People call me Science Mike. Christian turned atheist turned Jesus follower. Spiritual & skeptical. I roll with @TheLiturgists. Host of @asksciencemike.

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