“Pain is a pesky part of being human, I've learned it feels like a stab wound to the heart, something I wish we could all do without, in our lives here. Pain is a sudden hurt that can't be escaped. But then I have also learned that because of pain, I can feel the beauty, tenderness, and freedom of healing. Pain feels like a fast stab wound to the heart. But then healing feels like the wind against your face when you are spreading your wings and flying through the air! We may not have wings growing out of our backs, but healing is the closest thing that will give us that wind against our faces.”
― C. JoyBell C.
I’ve been thinking off and on all week about the journey that is healing, about how many variations there are to anything, and everything, about how we are with each other and with ourselves and ultimately I have been thinking about my personal journey with estrangement. So lots of thoughts, let’s see if I can capture them a bit.
A hundred ways to get to here
It is something of a major feat to write an estrangement blog that doesn’t cater to any one sort of estranged person. From time to time, it’s really REALLY hard. We have people who have walked away from various members of their families and of course feel generally justified in their decisions. Then we have people who have been estranged from – someone, or many someone’s in their family cut them out. Generally people who have been estranged from don’t feel so good about that. We have parents who have children who have estranged from them and we have parents who have felt that they must estrange from their children. We’ve got siblings who are estranged. We’ve got extended family who estrange, or who we feel we must estrange from. There’s just a really LOT of estrangement permutations happening.
I could make it easier I suppose and say okay, from now on this is going to be a blog for estrangers … or from now on this is going to be a blog for estrangees. However, I don’t think this is how estrangement works, certainly it doesn’t in my experience, not as a therapist and not personally. I have both had family members who elected to estrange themselves from me and I have also made decisions to distance if not estrange myself from people in my family.
In the course of my healing I have had to learn to work through both the leaving and being left. You may be able to relate to my experience.
Perhaps being on both sides of the estrangement equation gives me a unique appreciation for what it is leave and be left. Perhaps it gives me a belief that while there are so many differences within estrangement stories, whether you left or were left, that the process of healing is similar enough that a single blog can speak to the complexity of the issues on both sides. I have had confidence that this ‘intermingling’ could be done and mostly it does happen. We are pretty respectful on this blog. (Thank you, each of you, for keeping this a usually / mostly safe space)
It's incredibly confronting and hurtful to have people define who you are and what your experience is based on a post or a handful of postings. We are way more complex than a few hundred words. Our estrangement circumstances are way more complex than a few hundred words. In addition, there are definite stages of healing. Let's think about that a bit.
In the beginning
In the early days of healing when we are raw and wounded, we often seek answers. We are asking a lot of questions. Why did / do they do that? Why me? Why my family? Why does it hurt so much? Why am I so angry? Why should I have to change? When will this get better? What should I do? How do I make them listen? How can I make them change? Can I feel better? Will I ever get past this?
Often people who are in the early days of healing are very emotional. They are trapped in grief or anger. Sometimes they are drained, detached, unable to feel much of anything. They may feel like they are "in shock". They can’t see a way out. Sometimes in the early days of healing people are very “other focused” they need to talk about the actual story, what happened, who said what, who did what. Sometimes they sound very blaming. Our task here is to create some distance from the source of injury and to find our way to safety. In the early stages of healing there is not a lot of personal accountability as personal accountability requires time, distance, critical reflection. People in early healing need a lot of time, attention, validation and support.
I remember being in this place. Do you?
A little bit of movement
As healing moves on, people generally become more resourceful. They read books, see therapists, speak to other people with similar issues. They still talk about their circumstances – they talk about them a lot. Many people in second stage healing define themselves according to their issues; they say things like ‘I’m an adult child of an alcoholic’ or “I’m the parent of a child with mental health problems , or ‘I’m the sister of a narcissist", or ‘I’m the niece of a sexual abuser’. So we come to think of ourselves as ‘survivors of’ and our self-concept is defined in a significant way, by what other people have done ‘to us’.
People in second stage healing develop insight. They ask less questions and often feel that they have found some answers, some labels and definitions that have helped them make sense of their own experiences. Sometimes they are quick to generalize their experience to others. They may decide that ‘if it is this way for me, it must be this way for everyone in a circumstance like mine’. Sometimes people in second stage healing get caught up in telling their stories in great length, often to “prove" or to rationalize, justify or explain why it is that they think what they think, feel what they feel, and do what they do.
People in second stage healing can appear inflexible, or a little rigid – they may struggle to hear other people’s stories or be empathetic. In second stage healing people are making ground, they are likely to be more resourceful and more emotionally literate. They are better able to name what they feel. In second stage healing many people continue to struggle with personal location and accountability. People at this stage of healing may need to be gently challenged to own their own experiences without putting them on others. They are probably exploring boundary setting and enforcement, maybe a bit clumsily, or selfishly – they may struggle to balance their needs, feelings and experiences with the experiences, feelings and needs of others.
I spent a lot of time in this place and remember it well. Do you?
Another bend in the road
As healing moves forward, we are better able to turn our focus on ourselves. We aren’t defining ourselves so much by what other people have ‘done to us’- we start to carefully consider what we may have done to maintain dysfunction, we might think about things we’d like to change or do differently in terms of how we relate to others as well as how we relate to ourselves. We start finding the first threads of personal responsibility and accountability. Sometimes we get very overwhelmed and sometimes we can feel pretty depressed. We are more likely to blame ourselves in this stage of healing because our blinkers have been removed and we are looking at the bigger picture.
When we find our sea legs in this stage of healing, we get to taste the first real sweetness of personal power. We can see that we have choices. We are getting more graceful with the way that we set and enforce our boundaries. We work out what we need to do to be responsible for ourselves. We understand the need for self-protection and self nurturing. We know that self-care isn’t a luxury, it’s a necessity. We look after ourselves, but we have an emerging awareness that other people also have needs and also need to look after themselves.
Sometimes people who are in these stages of healing are very self-attuned, not in a selfish way, more in a self-reliant and resilient sort of way. We speak less of what other people did to us, and speak a lot more about what we have done to disadvantage ourselves in the past, and what we are working on doing differently right now. Many people in this stage of healing are looking for concrete strategies to do things differently. They have decided that they are ready to move forward. It doesn’t mean that they never feel upset or angry or do not experience moments of sadness, intense loss and grieving even – just more that the desire to move forward has exceeded the desire to stay where they were.
People who are in this stage of healing might be discussing strategies, what they have tried, what is working, what isn’t. They need space to experiment, to fall on their arses and then pick themselves up and try again. They might like to hear about what works for other people, they are more likely to hear different perspectives and appreciate variations and colours of context.
With time and distance comes an expansive awareness
The further we move into our healing, the easier it seems to be to imagine what other people might be thinking or feeling without losing our own place – we are more spacious in our judgements, give people more room to struggle with their healing process. We remember our own healing journey, and it gives us empathy for others who are struggling. We think back to how we might have wanted to have our early stories heard. We think back to the people who supported and validated us. We make space for people’s difference. We can lend a hand up. We can listen from our heart, we can hear other people’s stories, without vilifying them or turning their healing stage into a personal attack. We can give room for other people to be where they are, because we are really busy being where we are.
It's not a linear process
This is not perfect. There is overlap. We do things and move through things in different ways. Healing is more a spiral than it is a linear process. We loop around to a different part of our issues and BAM we must start over at first stage healing with it … again. We get better at that too though. We spend less time hanging out in places we know are not life enhancing. We know how good it feels to let go and move forward. We resist getting stuck because we know being stuck is painful.
When we look around us we see
Everyone has a story and some of the stories might be like yours but many of them will not. For everyone who has been left, there is another person who elected to leave. For each person who experienced estrangement for the same or similar reasons that you did; addictions, mental health issues, incest / sexual abuse, intolerance due to religion, gender, sexuality, ability, inter-generational trauma and attachment issues, crisis's of loyalty, continental drift, whatever – there is another person whose situation is not even remotely like yours, but is still valid, compelling and potentially devastating for them. There is also another person, maybe many persons whose story is familiar enough to yours that they will sagely nod their heads and say, "me too."
It also follows that every person who is estranged is at different points along the journey that is healing. Since it's not a straight line, it follows that many of us have been where you are, maybe many times. It also follows that some will be fresh to the journey and haven't had the opportunity to scope out the landscape, or appreciate the landmarks. The further we walk, the better our understanding that 1 - healing is possible 2 - there's always more to learn and more growth to be had 3 - that it is possible for those who are further along the path, may sometimes still stumble or fall 4- that we get better at navigating set backs, and it doesn't mean we are not healed/healing. It means estrangement is journey and recovery is a process.
So there you have it. Some considered thoughts on the process of healing. The quick map I have sketched out is not perfect. It doesn't show the many different routes, or all the landmarks, but does provide a general lay of the land. I see my journey, and those of my clients reflected in the above. Perhaps you will find something of your journey reflected too.
Safe travels, friends!