How to climb mountains of grief: don’t.

Cognitive therapy often aims to provide healthier ways to interact with and understand reality. One of the more problematic components of emotional struggles that I think can benefit thoroughly from attention to our thinking is the following: A lot of unnecessary anxiety and stress over personal problems comes from a perceived distance, or isolation from others. Feeling depressed is lonely as hell.

When I sense this is the case with someone I’m talking to, I try to illustrate the conflict in emotional isolation. We all have a sense of what loss and hurt feel like, but no one completely knows your situation and exactly how it makes you feel. This two-sided truth to our experiences is exactly what permits us to be social (shared component), and individual (unsharable). When something profoundly emotional happens, half the dilemma is how obvious and discouraging the unsharable component is. But quite importantly, it doesn’t make it more true. In other words, attention and sensitivity to the unsharable part of your experience does not make you more alone.

Lately, in talking with people who are sorting their feelings out, I have been using a distinction between two metaphors to illustrate this point. Often emotional loss feels like a mountain we’re climbing, or more generally, a journey. Sometimes we color the destination with particular expectations. There are many troublesome things about this metaphor, but its emphasis on external isolation and  an all-or-nothing conquering especially bother me. If on day thirteen of your climb you feel deeply discouraged you not only are completely alone, but exhausted at the thought of going “up” or “down.”

Instead I see emotional struggle as a flooded bedroom. It’s invasive and personal, but more importantly, not something that must immediately be conquered or reliant on an all-or-nothing victory. Progress is the continued labor of controlling the leak, removing the water, and most importantly, living with the mess and damage. You’re not more isolated by having a flooded room. It may make your room more private, a serious burden, but it is livable. It may be obvious in your wet clothes when you go to work, but you still can (and often must) interact socially.

Above all these, I think the most instructive part of the metaphor is that time is part of the solution rather than problem. Assuming the flood was an isolated event, or that you gain tools to control the in-flow of water, time alone will drain or evaporate the water. When, years later you find a box under your bed that never got drained, you don’t have to imagine yourself suddenly, horrifyingly, still on the side of a mountain.

All this says nothing about the personal value of emotional experiences. That’s another point (hopefully my next post). It also makes no comment on the reality that “caused” the situation (also another post). But the flood allows for a healthier treatment of all of these components, because centrally, stagnant water in your room shouldn’t stop you from being able to fall asleep.

In fact, I like this metaphor for explaining almost all aspects of inexpressible experience. The differences in my life experience don’t put me on a mountain, or render me unknowable to my friends and family. It’s less dramatic than the mountain equivalent to say, “you can’t come in my room, right now.” For more explanation on the ins-and-outs of floods, and how thinking alone can change the size of your emotional mountain, send me a message.

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