Most of us tend to associate grief with the death of someone we love. Experiencing grief when someone dies is normal and expected. But death is not the only event that may spur grief. Life is really an ongoing series of grief and loss events. Grief can be more subtle and show up in the form of missed opportunities or things unrealized. Weddings and graduations missed, places never visited, grandchildren that may not be in the cards, holidays and get-togethers that won’t look like what we had in mind. The loss of health, a changing body, the inevitable side effects of aging. An unraveling of expectations.
What makes grief and loss feel so uncomfortable?
Maybe what makes it difficult is the letting go of those very expectations we’ve created.
Most people create expectations about how life should look long before these events ever take place in real life. Imagine a young woman in her early twenties planning her wedding before she’s engaged. The children she will have, what they will look like and what they’ll be when they grow up. But life happens. Divorce. Changed minds. Chances not taken. Unexpected game changers. Those life circumstances that are out of our control cut a hole in our storybook.
We’re often left with a gap between the expectations we had and the new reality. This is grief…that trough that lies between how we always thought it would be and how it is now.
The grieving process may be the time our minds need to climb out of the trough to the other side….to the new reality…to acceptance. It’s not usually something that happens overnight. Not after years of planning on our lives looking a certain way.
How has grief or loss showed up subtly in your life?
Rotten chinaberries were plentiful where I grew up. My aunt had a chinaberry tree in her yard. Fragrant purple flowers would drape from the tree each spring. So would clusters of chinaberries. Ornaments, as they’re called, from a tree that had made its way to the United States in the late 1800s from India and China. The soaptree. The berries can be mashed and mixed with water to create a laundry soap for clothing.
Eventually, the berries would release from the tree and scatter about the yard. After days of heat, rain and humid temperatures, the berries rot. As kids, we’d pick the berries from the yard and throw them in a pail for later use. Girls against the boys. Ammunition. Organic pellets.
Walnuts made good ammunition, too, but chinaberries were surprisingly effective. They’d give a walnut a run for its money any day. Walnuts were harder to come by. They didn’t have as far of a reach, were less dependable and wobbly when thrown at your target. Chinaberries would sting. They’d leave a welt. The rotted ones also had the added bonus of stink. The stink factor alone made for extraordinary psychological warfare preceding any physical contact with the skin.
We’d tricked our young minds into thinking that a fun way to pass a summertime morning was to climb on top of my uncle’s storage shed and throw chinaberries at the boys.
I wanted to get along with everyone. Seemed like a waste of time and energy to fight when we could just play and have fun. We could have been sipping sugar-laden Kool-Aid or swimming somewhere. Listening to music, riding bikes or exploring some forbidden territory near the creek. But instead, it was often full-on violent chinaberry wars.
When someone is throwing chinaberries at you, you have three choices: retreat from enemy forces, attack and throw back or surrender and be pummeled with berries. There’s really no good option. The best option is for no one to be throwing chinaberries in the first place.
Stop the crazy cycle
Couples come into therapy throwing chinaberries at one another and then wonder why their spouses are retreating, attacking or have given up! Most couples have good intentions. They’re looking for energy, joy, spontaneity, passion and companionship. Some desire a higher level of intimacy on an emotional, physical, intellectual and spiritual level. At the very least, some couples are just trying to survive and get what they think they need. When we don’t get what we want from someone else, we may get confused or angry and attack.
You will never criticize your way to closeness.
Throwing chinaberries at your spouse leaves everyone with emotional welt marks. The psychological stink of shame, blame and behaving like a victim create unproductive arguments and acting out.
Instead of throwing berries, you might ask yourself what it is you’re really trying to accomplish. If what you’re after is validation, love, closeness, passion and connectedness, you’re not going to get it by attacking your spouse or by shutting down and hiding from emotions, either.
Take the focus (blaming/being a victim) off of your spouse and spend some time with yourself. What’s your part in it? Could it be that what you “want” from your partner is something you’ve been afraid to give yourself? When is the first time you felt this “want” missing from your life? Chances are, if you dig deep, you’ve felt this way long before meeting your partner.
Inspire your spouse to connect instead of attacking your spouse for not connecting. Learning constructive and healthy ways of experiencing and expressing your emotions will help with this. It’s difficult to understand another’s point of view if you don’t understand how you developed your own.
As an adult, another person can’t create your emotions and behaviors.
Set the bucket of chinaberries aside
Stop blaming. Stop chasing. Stop avoiding. Stop retreating. If this sounds foreign, understanding your own internal emotional world can lead you to becoming an insightful and emotionally safe person instead of an emotionally reactive person.
I was in the dressing room at Macy’s where I had the very entertaining opportunity to listen to my “neighbors” trying on clothing in the dressing room next to me: Mom and her pre-teen daughter.
It was a busy day so the mom-daughter duo were sharing a dressing room. The mother was quickly approving and veto-ing clothing that her daughter was trying on. At one point, the mother tells her daughter, “Uhm. No. It looks like your selling something you don’t have.” The daughter didn’t respond.
I’m not sure she comprehended what her mother was saying, exactly. But mom definitely had a point. It must be a challenge to find clothing for pre-teen girls, little girls or adolescent girls these days. Especially, if mothers are developmentally confused, themselves. The boundaries are blurred between clothing for women and girls. I see mothers dressing like their five year old daughters and 5 year old daughters being dressed like much older women.
Sexualization of women occurs on a spectrum from sexual violence to sexualized evaluation. Sexualized evaluation is often subtle and gets played out through, “gaze.” One of my friends calls it, “the scan.” What’s fascinating about “gaze” is that women have no control over being gazed at, yet, as many feminist theorists have argued, the majority of women take on the view point of the “gazer” about themselves! Over time, girls and women internalize the observer’s perspective and begin to view themselves as objects. This is self-objectification.
What are the consequences of self-objectification?
Shame: having a negative opinion of yourself while also fearing being judged in a social context. Shame is a moral or social emotion. It’s the feeling that one doesn’t measure up to some social ideal. It’s the belief that you are responsible for someone else’s opinions or feelings.
It’s quite confusing for women because success in relationships and work have been shown to be evaluated by physical appearance. Research tells us that “beautiful” women have more power in our society. Women are caught in this push-pull of needing to be attractive in order to achieve, yet feel shame when not meeting the over-idealized images we’re exposed to in the media, day after day.
Anxiety: Appearance anxiety. Studies show that women experience more appearance anxiety than men. Women have anxiety about their appearances because they don’t know when their bodies will be judged and evaluated. Then, in a very subtle way, we internalize those judgments of others.
Eating disorders: anorexia nervosa and bulimia. Women make up about 90% of this population.
Not to mention, every time a sexualized woman is viewed by others, the perception of all women are unfavorable by the viewers. This is called the spillover effect. Even when the non-sexualized woman is modestly dressed. Great! : (
There is no arguing that there is a pre-occupation with the appearance of women in American culture. This is a form of outside validation or relying on someone else’s opinion of your appearance in order to gain self-worth. Our society is so far into this mode of validation that it’s doubtful that we’ll turn it around; but, we can still be aware of what we teach young girls (and boys)!
Some mothers confuse letting their daughters wear skimpy clothes with power, freedom and women’s lib. It’s none of those things if you look at any piece of research. Many have to learn the hard way, though. Girls are becoming depressed, have no sense of self-worth beyond the next cute outfit and fall behind in academics. Does this sound like a good start to having a healthy, successful satisfying life?
Sometimes, I get frustrated because our critical thinking skills are quickly being replaced with cleavage. Then parents want to bring their young daughters in for therapy sessions because they are depressed, anxious, have eating disorders and are generally lost.
At the risk of sounding cynical, I’d prefer parents come in for therapy (instead of their children). We have an enormous opportunity to help boys and girls develop healthy self-concepts and respectful, healthy views of one another. When men and women don’t have healthy self-concepts or healthy, respectful views of others, we can’t expect that our children will either. At the very least, we need to teach our children how to have conversations about healthy sexuality. This won’t make sense to them without parents placing a focus on helping children develop a solid sense of self.