I had an almost identical word-for-word exchange with two of my patients last week. Both of these patients experienced significant early childhood deprivation and abuse. Both continue to be haunted by the pain from their distant pasts and yet they cut themselves off from feeling that pain.
This is not unusual. Disconnecting from pain—what I call dissociating—happens frequently with trauma survivors. No one likes to be in pain, particularly if they feel like there’s nothing that can be done about it. Or that if by feeling the pain, they might fall apart or not be able to function.
One way people use to avoid feeling old pain is to claim that they don’t want to indulge in self-pity. Both my patients told me that. Now I’m one of the first people who would agree that self-pity is an indulgent, useless state. Nothing good comes from it, certainly no constructive progress toward a better life. But what I was asking my patients to do last week was not to indulge in self-pity, but to allow themselves to grieve.
Grief is a healing process. Grief acknowledges that someone or something valuable has been lost. It recognizes that this loss must be felt—fully—so that the grieving person can let go and move on. I’ve seen patients trapped in protracted grief, and it’s a painful, lonely, hopeless place to be.
If my two patients were able to grieve for their losses of love and nurture during their early years, they would be more able to embrace the opportunities for love and fulfillment in their present-day lives. I know this idea is not obvious to most people, particularly hurting people. It’s important, though, to clear up the differences between self-pity and grief so that healing can take place.