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.

IFS Question #1: How can I access a part if I can’t remember a specific situation?

Today I was teaching one of my clients to do IFS on himself. We were using the appendix from Jay Earley’s Self-Therapy book as a guide, and doing so made me want to make my own list of heuristics for good questions to ask while doing IFS.

The appendix recommends that you access a protector by imagining a situation where the part was activated. My client said that, while he could remember the part being active recently, it would mostly come up in pretty mundane situations, none of which was particularly memorable.

A strategy that has helped me access parts is repeating thoughts (and other mental movements) associated with the part in question, in order to blend with it. So, if I had a part that thought I should be writing more blog posts, I would think of the reasons that it usually gave and repeat them over to myself, possibly even saying them out loud. I would picture whatever I usually think about when having those thoughts, and try to feel the associated emotions.

So, if you’re trying to access a particular part, try the strategy I just described. Chances are, it’ll work for you too!

IFS practice group this Saturday (Nov 5): Make friends with the voices in your head!

It’s been a while since I’ve hosted an official gathering, but I’ve been practicing hard, and I keep getting inquiries, so it must be about time.

The exact time is this Saturday, November 5th from 3:00pm-6:00pm.

And, even better, Shannon has been doing intensive (averaging multiple hours a day!) IFS training with me, so the facilitator to newbie ratio just went up. More individualized attention for you!

Our practice group will meet at our very own secret lair, Skullcrusher Household, complete with painted monkey-pony monster. (What’s with all the screaming???) We’re at Tortuga in Mountain View, CA. Email me for the exact address.


When you get here, you’ll see a blue garage door with a turtle on it. Go up the stairs to the left, admire Shannon’s monkey-pony monster by the door, and come right in!

You should join us if:

  • You find yourself thinking, “Part of me wants X, but part of me wants Y”
  • You feel stuck because it seems as though you’re being pulled in multiple directions at the same time
  • You’re sure about what you should do, but you “just can’t” get yourself to act
  • You see yourself acting out the same destructive pattern over and over again (i.e. lying awake at night worrying intsead of going to sleep)
  • You want to overcome emotional blocks to becoming the sort of person you want to be (see item #4 from Alicorn’s polyhacking post)

Identifying With

Recently I’ve been using the phrase “identify with” a bunch. As in, “I’m learning not to identify with my past self”, or “I try not to identify with my beliefs”, or “the ego is what, when accurately perceived, we stop identifying with”. When a friend of mine asked me what I meant by “identifying with”, I wasn’t immediately sure how to unpack how I was using the words. I said, “Well, when I identify with something it feels like me. It feels like part of my, uh, identity”. He was unsatisfied with this explanation, as was I.

(Prioritizing explaining myself is a heuristic that has served me well. I want meaning.)

Here’s my best one sentence version: When I identify with something, doing an original seeing on it is aversive. I don’t want to take a fresh look at the evidence and see if it really exists in the way I’m thinking of it. In other words, things I identify with seem like part of the territory, not just part of my map. I’ll expand a bit on what this means in terms of identifying with beliefs, emotions, and parts of myself.

Continue reading “Identifying With”

NVC/IFS in Action: Nausea

I’m a firm believer that physical sensations on their own do not create suffering—that suffering arises when there’s some sort of internal conflict. The book Nonviolent Communication includes a story of a woman resolving a migraine by connecting with her underlying needs, which, to me, was one of the less believable parts of the book the first time I read it. Experiences I’ve had since then have made me considerably less skeptical.  

I was experiencing a lot of nausea (presumably from eating lots of food not long after a long water fast) the other night, so, after sitting around being upset about it for a while, I decided to try to turn my attention to my experience and be curious about the internal conflict producing my suffering. Sure enough, there were two pretty distinct voices.  

Voice 1: You really shouldn’t have eaten that second bowl of food. You were already feeling crappy, so you decided to eat more? That’s transparently stupid, you didn’t really even expect it to work, and you need to remember not to ever do that again.

Voice 2: You were feeling crappy, and you wanted to do something to help. That’s not so bad.  What you were doing wasn’t working, so you wanted to try an experiment, and do something to make yourself feel better.  

My plan was to recognize the positive intent behind each one and feel gratitude. So Voice 1’s concern mostly seemed to be with truth. Even while feeling crappy, it wanted me to remember to keep my beliefs truth-tracking, and recognize that I had been engaging in motivated reasoning when I decided to eat more, thinking that it might help me feel better. Voice 2 was concerned about self-care, and wanted me to keeping working to alleviate my discomfort. Both noble motives, it was easy to feel appreciation for them, and, once heard out, they were no longer in conflict.  

And sure enough, the nausea pretty much went away. It seemed like there was some chance I might still vomit (I didn’t), so I made sure I was in prepared for that eventuality, but the above exercise nearly eliminated the relevant suffering. Powerful and practical stuff.