Friday, September 26, 2008

Look back, yes...but only from a distance

He broke my heart several years ago. I did not see it coming. I mean I did and I didn’t. One always knows that a relationship may be coming to an end. The surprise is often in the how.

I was shocked at the lack of honor. I felt that after so much history together, he owed me a decent and honorable break-up. And yes I hear the sense of entitlement in that statement but I was not able to shake it. In fact, that is probably part of what kept me stuck for so long. I just could not fathom how he had ended our relationship. I told myself that it wasn’t that he had broken up with me but how. I spun around in circles trying to wrap my mind around it. And at the end of every episode of introspection, every session of sharing once again with a tolerant friend, every attempt to analyze and understand the situation, I always ended up in the same place. How could he?

A series of new studies coming out of an interesting collaboration between researchers at the University of Michigan and the University of California, Berkeley, suggest that my problem may have been that that the situation wasn’t distanced enough. Research now suggests that attempts to understand painful feelings often backfire and ironically may end up keeping us trapped in sadness. In other word
s, I kept myself stuck by attempting to analyze too soon. I should have done it from a distance.

We have all had that friend that reached out to us after her husband cheated or after his girlfriend left. We have all eventually screened our calls to avoid listening to the same pitiful complaints over and over. We have all been shitty friends to someone in pain because we just could not bear to revisit the same conversation, the same repetition, the same victimizing, the same dizzying lack of emotional movement and resolution.

I’d like to believe that I was never that woman – not the shitty friend because of that I know I have been guilty – but the pathetic victimized self-repeater. But I know that I have been. I know that I have cried the same tears and reviewed the same material and asked the same questions over and over and over. And, in so doing, it turns out that all I accomplished was delaying my healing.

New research suggests tha
t we human beings can sometimes be piss poor at making ourselves feel better. We over-think situations and end up keeping ourselves thoroughly depressed. According to psychologist Ethan Kross, “It's an invaluable human ability to think about what we do. But reviewing our mistakes over and over, re-experiencing the same negative emotions we felt the first time around, tends to keep us stuck in negativity. It can be very helpful to take a sort of mental time-out, to sit back and try to review the situation from a distance.”

We may convince ourselves that analyzing things in the moment makes for healthier coping. After all, we are trying not to be in denial. Our goal is to figure things out because if we can just figure it out, we can set ourselves free. That’s what psychologists have long told us is the path to mental wellness.

Not true. It is only with distance that we can do a better job of analyzing. It is only from an emotional arm’s length that we can stop reinforcing negative messages to ourselves about ourselves, and recover.

Kross and his colleagues acknowledge that these notions are not new. This is the message of many eastern philosophies such as Buddhism and Taoism, which have long noted the importance of letting go. It is only through freedom from attachment that we can truly end suffering. All it takes is a heaps of practice.

Kross uses the metaphor of the thermostat to illustrate that when emotions become too o
verwhelming, we need to practice dialing them downwards so that we can allow ourselves to think rationally and clearly. He teaches his students that it is only through mastering emotional self-control that they can free themselves from despair.

I believe that for some individuals this process takes time. Time heals because it allows for the creation of an emotional distance from a hurtful experience. But even in the absence of time, Kross’ research suggests that we can learn to tell ourselves that going over the same spiel only co
ntributes to remaining distraught and overwhelmed, that we are more likely to self-blame when the emotional thermometer is dialed up too high, and that we can gain a more balanced perspective with better emotional self-control.

I wish someone had told me this years ago. Or maybe someone did but I was not ready to hear it. But with time, and with the 20-20 perspective of hindsi
ght, I have been able to admit that there is no nice way to break up when one person wants to move on while the other does not. There is no nice way to stop being someone's comfortable pair of shoes, her security blanket that no longer provides thrills but which is reliably always there. Until it wasn’t. And with this perspective, I set him free.

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