So, the worst has happened. Your greatest fear has come true. It feels like your heart has been ripped out of your chest, and your world is crumbling around you.
Trust me, I have been there many times, and I have both good and bad news. I’ll start with the bad news: There are no shortcuts through the grief. The only (healthy) way through it is through it, so we are going to experience some existential pain, and we are going to have to process some challenging emotions. Depending on the severity of the situation, it could take hours, days, weeks or months, but regardless, we have some spiritual work to do.
Now for the good news: this could be the best thing that has ever happened to you. I know that might sound crazy, but hear me out.
A great deal of our lives are spent under the control of the ego, which is constantly working to maintain the illusion (even within ourselves) that we have everything under control. Our bank accounts, our waistlines, our relationships, our careers…we do everything we can to make sure we’ve got it all under wraps, or at the very least, we make damn sure it looks like we do on Facebook. Then disaster strikes. The economy tanks and we’re out of a job. Our partner leaves us for someone else. Our child gets sick. The ego’s fantasy that we are in control is shattered. This is a GOOD thing, because our ego was never in control in the first place! As comfortable as denial may be, it ultimately doesn’t serve us, or help us achieve our highest goals. Embracing, and dealing powerfully with reality does.
OK, so you may still be wondering why displacing this control-seeking device called the ego is a good thing. It helps make sure we fit into society, and conform to our culture’s expectations. It makes sure we impress our bosses. It gets us to the gym. Why would we want to get rid of that? It’s what helps us keep our sh!t together, right? Well it’s not that simple. The ego does some good work, don’t get me wrong, but it does so almost by accident. Volunteering in a children’s hospital is very good, but volunteering in a children’s hospital just to get our picture taken doing it, is all ego. It’s not genuine. The ego is never genuine, because it’s driven by survival instinct, not the SELF–the person we know ourselves to be underneath it all. So, when our ego’s defenses are down, as they are after a jarring event, it is the perfect time to look around and see what really matters to us. It is then we can connect to our deeper purpose, and it is this clarity that is truly one of the greatest gifts we will ever receive.
Unfortunately knowing this isn’t going to magically make us feel better, but I have do an exercise that I use when it feels like all is lost. It works. All you have to do is ask yourself four questions.
To make this easier, take out a sheet of paper, divide it into four quadrants, and label them Event, Assessment, Commitment and Actions. Then follow the prompts below:
Event: What happened? Write down in very simple terms what happened. Do your best to take out any fluff, or descriptors. It could be as simple as “I broke my foot” to “My best friend died, and I didn’t get to tell him how much I loved him.” Don’t be afraid to tackle the big stuff, there’s healing to be found here.
Assessment: What am I telling myself about what happened? It is our natural tendency to interpret and assess everything that happens to us. Something is either good or bad. Some incident means either this or that about us (or the world, or other people). “She left me, so I must not be good enough.” “I didn’t say no, so it must have been my fault.” “I was robbed. People are evil!” These assessments may appear to be true. We may even be able to get a lot of people to agree with us that our assessments are “correct” or “reasonable” or “accurate.” At the end of the day though, an assessment is just that: an assessment. And it is just one of of many possible perspectives. It is very therapeutic to identify the assessments we’re making, write them down, and label them as what they are. Let yourself be dramatic if it helps. If you’re still unsure of what I mean, this Chinese parable does a great job of illustrating this principle.
Commitment: What am I committed to? – If something happens that we label as bad, or a problem, it’s because we are committed to something else. For instance, if you’re committed to having an honest, loving relationship, then having your boyfriend cheat on you is a problem. After all, if you weren’t committed to that, it might not be a huge deal. So, look at what is upsetting you, and identify the commitment that’s sitting underneath it. If it doesn’t come to you right away, don’t worry about it. Just be in the inquiry of it, and something will come to you.
Actions: What can I do about it? This is where the juice is! Ignore what happened for a minute, and look at your commitment. Then write down as many actions as you can think of that would support that commitment. Write at least five, but you can write as many as you like! When something difficult happens it is our natural tendency to focus on the difficulty, rather than what we’re committed to, which leaves us stuck. Giving yourself actions to take will put your focus back on what really matters to you. Grief can be a powerful motivator, so there is no time like the present to go out and take some of these actions. At first, it may be all you can do to just get off the sofa, and make yourself a bowl of cereal. But moments of inspiration will come, and when they do, you’ll know exactly what to do.
I wrote out an example for you guys using a recent challenge I faced that you can use as a model.
As always, be patient with yourself, and be gentle. It takes time to get past a traumatic event, even when we have this tool. Thankfully, every time something challenges us, we can use this to propel us forward in a way we never could have without that unpleasant event. Sadness is a catalyst for transformation when we let it be. So let’s let it.
I am offering a free workshop on this to the first 10 people who sign up, so if you want to do this exercise and need some coaching, please contact me!
All photos by Daryl Henderson.