Six Ideas for Moving Through Grief

A friend of mine who’s been going through a rough time recently asked me for advice about moving through grief. But soon after he asked the question, my baby started getting upset, and I got off the phone to help her. But I haven’t forgotten the question, so here are six strategies I would suggest for moving through grief as quickly as possible.

1. Feel the Grief as Intensely as Possible

The first and best idea I have (also exactly what my husband suggested when I asked him what he would suggest), is to feel the grief as intensely as possible by leaning into and welcoming the emotion. Let it flood over you, without trying to resist it, and it will pass much more quickly. I have found that once I really let my emotions in, they rarely last longer than minutes. Mourning something important will take longer, I think largely because there are many updates to process and emotions to release.

Especially when mourning something important, it’ll be on your mind anyway, but if you’re trying to push it away, you won’t really be processing it. Plus, allowing your emotions in instead of releasing them actually feels better. So it’s not just that if you do it this way you’ll suffer less overall, you’ll actually suffer less pretty much immediately.

2. Process Your Guilt First

Guilt will keep you stick feeling terrible unless you address it. When you notice a huge amount of pain that you’re having trouble moving through, ask yourself, “What makes me think I deserve to feel this way?” 

Listen to your automatic response, and keep in mind that it doesn’t have to make sense. Maybe some part of your brain thinks you deserve to keep being upset about breaking up with your girlfriend because you cheated on a test in fourth grade, or something similarly nonsensical. 

Once you become aware of any guilt you’re holding onto, it will usually be easy to let it go.

3. Uncover Any Anger

I don’t like thinking of myself as an angry person, and, because I didn’t like thinking of myself as an angry person, I used to be pretty bad at noticing and admitting to myself when I was feeling angry. I’m not the only one with this pattern. 

If you ever find yourself saying, “I’m not angry because X”, where X is a logical reason that it wouldn’t help the situation to be angry, or something like that, be alert for the possibility that you actually do feel some anger. It’s not just possible, it’s extremely likely that you’d have conflicting emotions, and emotions that you had good reason to believe weren’t helpful.

If you want to figure out what you might be angry about, ask yourself, “If there were one thing I were maybe a little bit annoyed about, it would be…” If you find yourself complaining about some aspect of the situation to other people, that also might be something you’re angry about.

And if you do uncover any anger, accept it and move on. It can help to admit it to yourself, so try saying out loud, “I’m angry because…” Being angry is normal, and it will usually pass quickly once acknowledged.

4. Follow the Sensation in Your Body

It’s very easy for me, for hyper-analytical types specifically, and for humans more generally, to get stuck in our thoughts to the point where it interferes without our ability to process our emotions. A good way to shift our attention is to find where we’re feeling the emotion in our body, and work with that sensation instead.

Questions to ask  yourself are:

  • “Where do I feel this in my body?”
  • “How big is it?”
  • “How big does it want to be?”
  • “Is it moving at all?”
  • “How does it want to move?”

5. What Are You Afraid Would Happen If…

The suggestions here may not work. My standard go-to if they don’t is to ask myself what I’m afraid would happen if I did them. So, if I’m trying to feel the emotion intensely and it’s not happening, I’d ask, “What am I afraid would happen if I allowed myself to feel my grief intensely?”

Or, if I can’t find my emotion in my body, I would try, “What am I afraid would happen if I felt my emotion in my body?”

I learned to ask questions of this form from studying Internal Family Systems, and I’ve found the practice to be very valuable.

6. Go at Your Own Pace

Processing emotions requires mental effort and sleep to recover, and I suspect that there are probably physical limits that we frequently run up against. And even if you don’t get to that point, most people have other commitments to attend to. 

So, while I advocate feeling your emotions as intensely as possible, there are limits. I know sometimes I’ll decide to dissociate, distract myself, and skip being in tune with my emotions from time to time. Trying to go too quickly will backfire.

Why we procrastinate the most when we’re working on the right thing

I’ve had trouble focusing today. A lot of the right things were in place: I had a short list of the most important things to do today, my schedule was almost completely clear, I was in my favorite work space with a good friend there to co-work, and I’d gotten lots of sleep.

Usually, these elements are a reliable formula for a productive day–so what happened???

As I noticed myself starting to beat myself up for not having accomplished more today and lamenting the wasted opportunity, I realized: I think I do know what happened.

Today, I was having trouble focusing because I was working on exactly the right thing, and for most of us, certainly including me–it’s when I can actually see the connection between what I’m working on and a picture in my head of getting something I care about, I balk a little.

It threatens my self-concept–not sure exactly how–but, to paraphrase some advice I’ve heard recently, who I am right now can handle exactly amount of success that I have in my life.

So, when I get working on something that goes beyond that, my self-concept is threatened and I get a chorus of voices saying:

“But this isn’t exactly the right thing!”

“This doesn’t feel right.”

“I don’t know what to do next”

And then there’s this kind of mental blankness, and the next thing I know, I’m clicking on the Facebook button in my bookmark bar.

(Okay, that exact problem will never happen again. Because just after I wrote that previous sentence I removed the Facebook button from my bookmark bar.)

I didn’t usually stay distracted for long, since I’ve gotten pretty good at pulling myself back, but even so, the total amount of time spent staring at what I was doing instead of making forward progress was a lot higher than I’d like.

Anyway, increased awareness about what was going on today–that I was butting up against some sort of identity issue–not only resulted in clarity and self-compassion, it also prevented me from making a strategic error.

When I was reviewing what I’d gotten done today, and wishing that I had knocked more things off my to do list, I could feel myself reaching towards a potential solution. I was imagining, probably accurately, that if I had started the day by taking care of a bunch of other things on my to do list that I don’t have blocks around, I would have had more to show for myself. But it also would have been a mistake.

There’s a time and a place for accomplishing more routine tasks, and I do like being on top of them, but I want to be the sort of person who tackles something important that feels uncomfortable…something high value that I’ve been avoiding because it seems hard, and I’m afraid I might not be able to do it.

Even when it means a day where I’m not as focused.

Thank you, Resistance, for letting me know when I’m working on something that I care about, and that I think has the potential to make a difference in my life.

How to Prove to Yourself Once and for All that Pain is Not Suffering

Pain is not suffering. Don’t believe me? Good, you don’t have to…yet. But if you not only read what I say in this post, but try the strategies I recommend and allow yourself to notice what’s going on inside, you’ll get it.

Now, the reason I’m talking about this at all is that people talk about pain as though it’s suffering. “Pleasure is good, and pain is bad.” “The goal of life is to seek pleasure and avoid pain.” I say, that’s nonsense.

Pain is a part of life, and pain is especially a part of growth, so learning to do it without suffering is an obvious win.

Examples of Popular Pain

At the same as people go around saying that pain is bad, almost everyone I know can name some pain that they enjoy. The classic examples are spicy food, deep massage, and exercise. I’ll add sad books and movies to the list so that it includes examples of emotional pain.

Have you ever enjoyed the burn of spicy food, the feeling of pain as a knot in your back unravels, or the gentle ache of your muscles after a good workout? Have you ever cried in a movie while reading a particularly heart-wrenching scene in a book and considered the experience positive? If so, you’ve experienced pain that wasn’t suffering.

And if you’ve experienced pain that wasn’t suffering, then when you experience pain that does induce suffering, you should realize that there’s something different going on with that pain.

The Function of Pain

Pain is an attention signal. More accurately: think of pain as an attentional signal and you’ll suffer a lot less. Some part of you has some data that it wants to share, and it’s not going to shut up until it communicates it. Your model of the world is wrong, and the pain isn’t just trying to inform you, it is actively informing you right now. If you try to resist it and pretend you can’t hear what it’s telling you, you will suffer.

Maybe your pain is telling you that the hot stove is hurting your hand (true). Maybe it’s telling you that cold weather could be dangerous (maybe true, likely not true). Maybe it’s telling you that your dog is dead and you can’t play with him anymore or that you can’t always believe your own promises.

When you resist pain and try to ignore it or push it away, it will get louder and grow bigger. It will overwhelm you and create a feeling of urgency.

How to Look into your Pain: Six Ways

First, you need to pick some pain that you’re feeling. It can be physical or emotional: either will work. If your knee hurts, you can use that. If you’re judging yourself or worrying about something, use that. If you aren’t experiencing any pain at all right now, get some ice water and put your hand in it. (This is completely safe for at least ten minutes–scientists use the hand in cold water test to measure pain tolerance.)

Now, try these techniques:

  1. Observe the pain with curiosity. Be greedy for its data. Pretend that you are an alien who has been studying humans intensely for the past 50 years. You want to know everything about them. Today is your lucky day–you have been granted 10 minutes to experience the reality of a human. You are so excited about what you’re going to learn!Ask yourself these questions:
    • Is the intensity constant, or does it fluctuate over time?
    • Where exactly do you feel it in your body?
    • What is its character? (achey, sharp, dull, etc.)
    • Does the experience of the pain seem to be correlated with anything else that is happening?
  2. Lean into the sensation, and even try to intensify it. Often, when we experience pain, we try to minimize the sensation. This time, do the opposite. Try to feel the pain as much as you possibly can. Invite it to get bigger, stronger, and louder. Nick Tarleton has reminded me of the power of concrete metaphors and has suggested taking a cold shower so that you can literally lean in while you try to feel the sensation as much as possible. You’ll know when doing this one is working when feeling the pain is making you feel more alive.
  3. Observe your related mental processes.
    • What are you picturing when you feel this pain? (If that doesn’t work, try asking what the pain would look like if it did look like something.)
    • If the pain sounded like something, what would it sound like?
    • What related thoughts are running through your head?
    • What tone of voice are you using to talk to yourself about the pain?
    • What is the pain trying to tell you? Why is that important?
  4. Observe your sense of self and expand your awareness. This is probably my most abstract recommendation, but it does work. How does the pain interact with your sense of identity? When I feel pain, it starts to feel as though the content of my pain is who I am. It never is. I think one of the key factors here is that my spatial awareness gets distorted. Imagine your awareness expanding outwards and becoming in line with the proportions of reality. Don’t try to make your awareness of the painful sensation any bigger, expand your awareness of everything else.
  5. Engage in dialogue with yourself about opening to the pain. practice IFS, which means I spend a lot of time engaging in inner dialogue. If you’re trying to look into your pain but it isn’t working, it’s almost certainly because you’re afraid to do it. Direct these questions to the part of you that doesn’t want you to feel the pain:
    • What are you afraid would happen if I were to feel the pain?
    • Do you trust me?
    • What are you afraid would happen if you were to trust me?
    • Are you afraid that I won’t be able to handle the pain?
    • What are you trying to protect me from?

    Listen to the answers you get and respond appropriately. Tell yourself that you can handle the pain. Tell yourself you’re trying an experiment, and that you can always go back to resisting later if you decide you don’t like the results.

  6. Go meta. My favorite :-). If you’re totally stuck and haven’t opened to the pain, do you now feel pain about not being able to open to the pain? When I set out to accomplish something and don’t succeed, I feel pain. I bet you do too. Maybe you even feel anger at me for suggesting such crappy techniques that didn’t work? Great! Open to that. Try all the steps above on that pain. Or try to open to the part of you that is resisting the pain. Try all the tools on the resistance itself. If you don’t get a shift by doing this, please leave a comment or email me and let me know. I’ll be surprised!

How I learned to look into pain

I mostly have Michael Vassar to thank for learning the right mental posture. Not so surprising, if you know me. Michael has had a huge influence on my thinking in a bunch of ways.

But oddly enough, looking into the pain was something I learned from Michael mostly before I really knew him. Based on a Less Wrong comment of his, I made some Anki cards for myself about how the right thing to do with pain was to look directly into it. And at first I wasn’t quite sure what that meant, but I kept trusting that he must have meant something, and that it was probably good advice. When I found myself in either physical or emotional pain, I would remember to try looking into it. I got the hang of it more and more over time. If you’re interested in turning your pain into something that isn’t suffering, my hope is that this list will help you learn to do it faster than I did.

Further Reading: Suffering as attentional allocation conflict and Overcoming suffering: Emotional Acceptance from Less Wrong