Episode 19: Is familiar discomfort keeping you stuck?
You are listening to the Life Reconstructed podcast with me, Teresa Amaral Beshwate, grief expert, best-selling author and widow. I’m so glad you’re here because in this and every episode, I shine a light on the widowed way forward.
Hello and welcome to episode 19. In this episode I’ll explain familiar discomfort vs. unfamiliar discomfort, and how one can keep us stuck while the other can lead us forward.
Everything about life after loss is difficult and profoundly uncomfortable. I remember thinking that to simply exist was so incredibly painful. In the early weeks and months, drawing the next breath was painful. Waking up each day was a gut punch. It’s crying yourself to sleep, if you’re even able to sleep, and then crying yourself awake.
Your home no longer feels like the safe and comfortable place it once was.
Everything is uncomfortable and just plain hard.
Add to that…..that in life after loss, our primitive part of the brain is on high alert, functioning in protect-at-all-cost mode. Fear and scarcity are its main messages. It can sound like:
Don’t leave the house.
Never go to unfamiliar places.
That person may be trying to help, but what are his real motivations?
Is it really safe to stay here?
There won’t be enough money.
Can you do this life without him?
The brain urges us to stay inside our bubble of familiarity. Is life easy inside that bubble? Of course not. But the brain craves what it already knows because it equates familiarity to safety.
So, although life after loss is extremely uncomfortable, the brain prefers familiar discomfort over unfamiliar discomfort.
“It’s pretty terrible inside the bubble, for sure, but outside the bubble is probably dangerous,” is what the brain says.
The problem is that staying inside what’s familiar can keep us stuck.
Luckily, other parts of the brain have different functions. The prefrontal cortex, unique to us humans, is the part of the brain that can consider what’s best in the long run, set goals, and help us achieve them.
If the primitive brain is like an unsupervised toddler running around with a steak knife, then the prefrontal cortex is the adult in the room.
When we learn to activate it, it will calm the toddler, put the knife in a safe place, and counter the incessant, fearful chatter of the primitive brain.
When our world is shattered by loss, the primitive brain takes the wheel. Yet it is never too late to activate the higher brain, which might be saying something like:
Your first lunch with a friend won’t actually be harmful.
Going to that new hardware store is not dangerous.
You can do this.
You are safe here.
First do the math, then decide if there is enough money.
You’ll never silence the primitive brain, and actually you wouldn’t want to. If you stepped off a curb into the path of an oncoming vehicle, you would want your primitive brain to do its job and get you back to safety.
It’s always trying to keep you alive. That’s its one job. Your job is to recognize that your loss has sent your primitive brain into overdrive, which is normal. It will offer you fear-based thoughts at every turn, which is normal. It will constantly encourage you to stay within what’s familiar to you, which is normal.
An important waypoint in life after loss is to stop reacting to the constant chatter of the primitive brain and instead activate the higher brain’s ability to think thoughts on purpose.
In other words, talk to yourself more than you listen to yourself.
Although the brain will go to great lengths to avoid unfamiliar discomfort, it is, in fact, where we grow. It’s where we learn. It’s where we challenge ourselves like never before. It’s where we discover this version of ourselves, and what we’re capable of. It’s where we find hope, and where we dare to dream again.
So today, using your higher brain, dip a toe in the water of what is unfamiliar. Do one thing that feels scary. And then come back to what is familiar. And tomorrow do it again.
It’s uncomfortable no matter what. But unfamiliar discomfort leads us forward. And that is my hope for you – that you’ll take small steps forward. Although you probably can’t fathom what the future looks like, you can simply take the next step. And be kind to yourself every step of the way. Remember that I believe in you and I’m here for you. Take care.
If you’ve found this podcast helpful, I invite you to join Life Reconstructed, my coaching program exclusively for widowed people. It will help you step forward toward a life you will love again. Simply go to thesuddenwidowcoach.com and click work with me.