There is a thin, almost invisible line, between dwelling on and avoiding. In reflecting on my own experience I can affirm that I swing quickly on a pendulum, spending time dwelling on and ruminating only to bounce into full avoidance at the drop of a hat. I believe that all individuals have their own ways of coping but that the two methods listed above are most common.
As I work with clients to discuss grief, loss, pain, fear, anxiety, regret and the gamut of other emotional experiences, it has become clear through the years that almost all clients have the same questions: How do I know what to do? How do I know when I should be dwelling on versus avoiding? When is it good for me to do one versus the other? Is there some type of middle ground? Am I doing it right?
Our uniqueness as human beings makes it difficult to provide simple answers, as does my role as a therapist; I am not employed to provide answers or to give my opinion. Rather, I guide.
I was watching my favourite version of “Peter Pan” when an analogy was described, one that I feel fits or directs the above question. Mrs. Darling is describing Mr. Darling to her children, before they are whisked away to Neverland. She shares that in his life, their father has needed to put away certain dreams. When asked where, she responds “in a drawer” and that sometimes, he opens the drawer to look at and appreciate his dreams, though it becomes more difficult to once again close that drawer.
It is this same attitude that I myself practice and encourage others to do so as well—to look at the more difficult or complicated feelings we experience. Because it will not work to simply avoid these feelings. This is how maladaptive behavioral reactions are bred, by avoidance of the emotions and the use of other means to cope. Sometimes, these means can be dangerous at best and lethal at worst. Other times, they may act as a meddling distraction.
Constantly diving into the thoughts and feelings will also yield poor results; this is not to say that one should not practice mindfulness around feeling states or being in the experience. Instead, it means that always practicing being in touch with the emotion mind might prove just as difficult as avoiding the emotions altogether. For instance, grieving at all times may lead to lack of regular functioning or difficulty moving forward, just as ignoring the grief may cause the individual to remain stuck. This is why there must be a delicate balance of opening the drawer on the pain or the grief or the fear, and then knowing when to close the drawer.
It is this intention or philosophy that provides permission and comfort. The permission to experience all that arises when facing life’s difficulties and the comfort of knowing that there can be an end point or closing of the drawer, as oftentimes there is a fear that once someone starts to feel the feelings, s/he will be unable to stop.
By opening the drawer, the person gives him/herself the much-needed care and time to feel, to be. The knowledge that this drawer will be closed at whatever point the person deems appropriate or necessary creates space for validation and expression. It will likely take time for someone to assess when to open/close the drawer. This may happen with care and intention or it may sneak up on the individual, bursting to be opened or slamming itself shut. Above all, having the awareness to be able to open and close the drawer provides a delicate balance to express and feel rather than drown in or detach from any particular experience.
I encourage my clients and remind myself to integrate this thinking, to visualize the drawer when an experience feels overwhelming or a habitual avoidance rounds the corner. It is vital that during a time when feelings require validation rather than stifling and expression rather than thoughts or attempts to “fix” that we all practice opening and closing these drawers. Not locking them. Not leaving them ajar all the time, but perhaps once in a while welcoming the tears or the pain because to do so is to relish being human. And to move forward is to then experience growth. We must help each other to create space to listen, to speak and then to allow one another to rise up—to tend to ourselves and support our loved ones so that our drawers are easily accessible.
By Temimah Zucker, LMSW
Temimah Zucker, LMSW, is the assistant clinical director of Monte Nido Manhattan and also works in private practice. She is a national speaker on the subject of eating disorders, body image, and mental health. Temimah runs a support group for Jewish Women in Recovery from Eating Disorders. See www.temimah.com for more information.