Episode 24: Emotional courage
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 24. In this episode, I explain why we naturally avoid pain, why avoiding pain actually makes things worse, and I offer a simple 3 step process to help.
Losing your spouse is catastrophic and brings the most profoundly difficult emotions. And the brain is hardwired to avoid, at all costs, difficult feelings. Why? Because to your primitive brain, difficult feelings likely equal danger. It’s how our ancestors’ ancestors survived. Discomfort could very likely mean death, so it is the most primal instinct to find a way to avoid pain.
In an attempt to avoid pain, some people overeat, some use alcohol or drugs, and others overspend their money or spend their lives overscheduled or constantly scrolling social media. Each behavior is a Band-Aid, an avoidance strategy, a way to buffer difficult emotions.
The problem is that these strategies don’t really work; and worse, they actually compound the problem.
For example, feeling stressed prompts overeating, which may provide a short-term relief. But only moments later there is added guilt, regret, and feelings of failure, all of which prompt more overeating.
Attempting to escape our emotions in this way ends up heaping more bad feelings on top of the original bad feelings, only reinforcing the desire to reach for that strategy of choice—a vicious cycle.
After my husband passed unexpectedly, as soon as I was able, I jumped headfirst into work. Work was like a vacation for my brain. It took a few years for me to realize that I couldn’t outrun grief, and the more I ran, the bigger it became. It wasn’t until I stopped running that I truly began to face it, feel it, and process it. I learned that healing requires feeling.
What if instead of reaching for an avoidance strategy we were willing to face the feelings, and actually feel them?
What if we simply say, “Right now, I am feeling this way, and that’s okay.” That is emotional courage.
Feelings are neither forever nor fatal. Sometimes we just have to be with our feelings, reminding ourselves that this too shall pass.
So when your brain urges you to reach for an avoidance strategy, here’s what to do.
1. Notice that you’re feeling a difficult feeling, and your brain wants to solve for it with some avoidance strategy.
2. Recognize that this is normal and the primitive part of your brain is doing its job.
3. Process the feeling instead, using the steps I shared in podcast episode #4.
To the degree that we practice processing difficult feelings instead of attempting to numb them, literally anything we could possibly want for ourselves becomes available.
The more we can override the primitive brain’s fear of difficult feelings.
The more we can utilize and strengthen the higher brain, aka prefrontal cortex.
The more we honor the feeling, bear witness to it, learn from it and tend to it.
The more we gain mastery over the feeling.
The more we reduce the feeling to proper proportions.
The more the feeling becomes less scary and more do-able.
The more we become people who are good at feeling difficult feelings.
And then whatever life throws at us, we can handle. Because no matter what life throws at us, the worst thing that can happen is a feeling.
The vast majority of humans make decisions based on that primal fear of difficult feelings. They don’t go back to school for fear of failure. They don’t apply for the promotion for fear of rejection. They guard their hearts for fear of losing someone. They don’t ever learn anything new for fear of the embarrassment they might feel as a beginner.
But as a person confident in your ability to feel difficult feelings, you have no limits.
One of my favorite quotes by author Christina Rasmussen is, “You can do the impossible because you’ve been through the unthinkable.” Any difficult feeling I might experience today simply can’t compare to walking through the early days of the darkness of loss. That thought gives me courage. I bet you can reflect on your toughest times and say the same for yourself.
If this episode was helpful, please share it with a widowed friend. And 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.