Most of us have heard the phrases get over it, move on, stop wallowing, stop playing the victim, let it go. I’ve spent most of my adult life trying to do just this. The way I’ve done it is to get counselling, write about it, talk about it, draw it, try to make sense of it, try to grow and learn and change. And THAT is what people will call ‘playing the victim’.
To many it looks like you’re wallowing in it. It’s the people who don’t deal with it, who push it away, pretend it didn’t happen, shove it down and then end up with an addiction or taking it out on someone else – they’re the ones who get the credit for not getting bogged down in it all.
Because on the surface, it does look like they’ve moved on. They’re not talking about it. That’s often because it’s too overwhelming. Those who pluck up the courage to confront it head on and work through it are called ‘victims’ because it looks like they’re still going on about the same old thing yet again.
‘The cure for the pain is the pain.’ – Rumi
I read recently that we often mistake the discharge of a feeling for the feeling itself. What I understand that to mean is that when we express a feeling such as anger or sadness, we are often accused of getting stuck in the feeling and dwelling on it, when we are in fact in the process of letting it go.
Western society seems to be strongly averse to the so-called ‘negative’ feelings. We put a lot of focus on positive thinking, looking on the bright side, and being happy. We all want to be happy, but we have a whole array of other emotions as well so that we can fully express our human experience. When we are only focused on expressing happiness, we block the full expression of who we are.
When strong feelings are not discharged, we bottle them up and carry them around inside us. This not only leads to physical illness but it also means we’re likely to be triggered by something seemingly unrelated as our blocked emotion looks for another way out.
When something unpleasant happens, we have an internal reaction to it – anger, frustration, sadness, grief, etc. To complete the process, we express the feeling outwardly. At this point someone witnessing this might tell us to ‘just let it go’. The irony is that this is exactly what we’re trying to do.
Crying, talking it out, punching a pillow, writing, self-reflecting etc, are all ways we discharge these feelings. How many of us have been told when doing these things that we’re having a pity party, feeling sorry for ourselves, stuck in the past?
Drinking, drugging, gambling, working 80 hours a week, overeating are all ways we stuff our feelings and numb ourselves. They help in the short term. In the long term, not so much.
We heal by discharging the emotion. It’s appropriate to have these emotions in certain situations. I once had a client come to me three weeks after her father died to ask me what was wrong with her. She was still crying about the loss of her father and she wanted to know how to pull herself together. I told her she was supposed to be crying, that’s what you do when the father you loved your whole life dies. But she had been told she needed to move on. She WAS moving on, by grieving her loss, expressing it through her tears, looking at old photos, and wanting to talk about him. This was criticised by those close to her who were worried she was wallowing.
I have been accused of being stuck myself, and in a way it’s true, for a long time I was stuck because I was never allowed to express my anger at being mistreated, my sadness at not having a loving family, my grief at what this had cost me.
The irony is I tried to discharge these feelings in healthy ways. I talked them out, I cried, I wrote, I sought therapy. Friends, family, even therapists told me to let go of my baggage, but at the same time they stopped me from doing just that. It was if I was carrying a couple of heavy suitcases that I desperately wanted to put down, but each time I did someone would tell me to pick them up again, that I couldn’t set my baggage down there because it was inappropriate.
It wasn’t until I found an online group of people who had experienced similar things to me, and a therapist trained in trauma work, that I finally found a place to unload it all. I found the validation I’d been seeking all my life. There is so much healing in the acknowledgement of people who know. The German psychotherapist Alice Miller calls this the ‘enlightened witness’, something she believed was essential to true healing.
We looked at each others’ baggage and realised how similar it all was. We left it in the group and went about our day to day lives much lighter because of the safe place we’d created to discharge our painful emotions. At last.
If you’re holding on to strong emotion because you fear that expressing it will drag you down deeper into it, let me assure you the opposite is true. Expressing it means letting go. Repressing it means holding on. The key is finding a safe place to put down your baggage. When you do, you’ll be bringing the dark places back into the light, and reclaiming lost parts of yourself. This is the true meaning of healing and living a full life.