We live in a culture that does not approve of big feelings. We don’t approve of little feelings very much either. All the feelings that we have are supposed to be kept neatly tucked out of site. In fact, men aren’t supposed to have feelings at all. And if you are female, you have likely been conditioned to make room for your male partner’s feelings and to caretake him while keeping your feelings subdued so as to not overwhelm him.
This cultural expectation, that when you experience grievous losses and hurts you will keep your pain, anger, and sadness to yourself, is a recipe for addiction, mental illness, and physical health problems. It is like holding a beach ball under the water. The deeper you push it under, the more forcefully it will eventually burst up and out, flying off in random directions.
This is true in all facets of life, including sexual betrayal. When you experience this or any other type of betrayal, you automatically enter into a grieving process. You experience an enormous sense of loss. The loss of the person you thought you were in a relationship with. The loss of your relationship history as you once knew it. The loss of your unsullied dreams for the future. Last but not least, the loss of your sense of self as your body is swept up in a powerful trauma response. All of these losses are felt and experienced simultaneously, and you plunge into grief.
And grief is inconvenient. It is its own master. It shows up when and how it wants. You can be in a grocery store, minding your own business, and a random stranger does or says something that reminds you of your situation. In a singular moment, you can go from fine to furious, calm to panic, clarity to confusion, collected to falling apart. Without warning, these waves of feeling can overtake you, flooding your senses and clamoring for release.
During times in my life when I have experienced significant grief, one of the things that always shocks me is the way that life keeps on going. I remember when a good friend of mine named Jason died a few years ago. I loved Jason. He was one of my favorite friends, a bigger than life personality, an extraordinarily gifted artist, and he died in his late-30s from a cancer that mowed him down in less than three months.
When he died, I experienced several days of intense grief before things settled down into a more subdued form of sadness. During the initial intense feelings of loss, life felt surreal and confusing. How was it that Jason was gone, and I still had to go to work, still had to interact with people who had no idea what I was feeling inside, still had to cook dinner and brush my teeth and do all the mundane chores that make up daily living. It seemed odd and confusing that life could just keep on going when something so momentous and horrifying and unfair had just happened. I felt like I needed a moment when everything would just stop and there would be a universal pause to acknowledge the loss that the world had just sustained.
But that did not happen. And it does not happen and will not happen for you, either. Your boss will still expect you to perform admirably at work. Your children will still be fussy and difficult at times. Your schedule will still be full, and you will feel obligated to show up and smile despite a heart full of dread and pain.
Without the cultural support and approval to grieve your losses publicly and in community, you may find yourself trying to figure out what to do when you are in the middle of the grocery store and suddenly you really need to ugly cry.
So here is what you do. You leave your cart. You just leave it. No one cares. You go out to your car, and you move your car if you can to an empty corner of the parking lot, and you cry. You ugly cry until you get it all out. You snot and heave and bawl until all the feelings that got triggered in the grocery store have moved through you and you are calm and spent.
This is not likely to be convenient, as most of us are on a schedule most of the time. This may make you late or make you miss something altogether. You may end up feeling like you do a lot of apologizing for a period of time as you give yourself space and permission to process the grief and loss that keeps surfacing.
However, I cannot tell you how important it is that you give yourself permission to feel your feelings and allow them to move through you. Doing this allows your body to move all the way through the stress response cycle triggered by the person in the grocery store. Without this, you will continue to push the beach ball deeper under water until you can hold it no more and it careens up and out whether you want it to or not.
When you are triggered, your body’s threat response system fires, and feelings of fear, panic, rage, and anger rush through you. If you do not allow these feelings to be felt, they will stay inside you, replaying in an endless loop of traumatic response. And this can leave you susceptible to using unhealthy coping mechanisms (drinking, being inappropriately sexual, overeating, etc.) to suppress and manage your feelings.
It Is far better to give yourself permission to feel the feelings and allow them to move through and out of your body. You can do this in all kinds of ways. You can cry, you can scream, you can say a mantra, you can journal, you can run, walk, bike, or swim. You can play with your pet, you can talk to a friend, you can connect with your partner (if helpful). You can pray, you can go out and spend time in nature, you can take a bath.
This is where self-care and self-kindness comes in. It is an act of profound kindness, tenderness, and self-care to give yourself some space and time to feel your feelings. So give yourself whatever you need in the moment that will help your feelings of grief move through you. When you give yourself this kindness, you will feel the release and relief that comes when your distress is tended and released with love and care.