Respecting the lessons of despair, fear and grief

Encountering a situation where diversity is not respected, where we feel excluded or shamed or stigmatized simply for being who we are, or for striving to be who we want to become, is typically accompanied by painful emotions. Being made to feel less than due to membership in a particular class of people, possession of, or a failure to possess, a particular characteristic or trait, or identifying with a cause, creed or group, results in feelings of grief, fear and despair. According to Miriam Greenspan, “…we are schooled to endure, deny, bypass [or transcend], avenge, and escape painful emotions. These five common ways of coping have their strengths and weaknesses, but for the most part they aren’t conducive to healing and transformation” (pp. 58-59, Healing Through the Dark Emotions). Understanding how utilizing any of these five coping strategies can block our growth and well-being, will help us to create ways to work with and through our painful emotions instead.

Endurance is the ability to withstand suffering without collapsing” (p. 59). Endurance can be a valuable skill in the short term, allowing us to survive long enough to reappraise our situation and regain our strength. However the longer we simply put up with things that cause us suffering, the more we give up our power and our agency, our ability to be the authors of our own lives. In addition, if we don’t question the system or individuals whose actions we are enduring, we may never learn that there is the possibility for change.

Denial is the unconscious detachment from emotion and the truth that emotion holds” (p. 60). Judicious use of denial can help us to accomplish tasks that might otherwise appear to be beyond our capabilities due to fear of failure or concerns about our performance. However when we push our suffering away, we are unable to hear the messages that our painful emotions hold, messages that let us know that we are being harmed. When we can process these messages, we can ask for the help we need.

[Spiritual bypass] denies the evils of earthly existence and declares that only love and light are ‘real’…” (p. 60). Privileging the good things in our lives can lead to an increased sense of gratitude and stop us from limiting our dreams and desires. However when we restrict our focus to what is positive, we may mortgage our present for some ideal future that will never arrive because we have not properly assessed the challenges and obstacles before us.

In vengeance, we neither bury nor rise above our suffering; we get mad and we get even” (p. 61). When we avenge a wrong by concentrating on how we can make the world a better place, we can build a stronger community that is able to learn from the suffering of its members. However by turning our attention outward, to the other, we can miss the impact our painful experience had on our souls, we may fail to see how we were diminished and that we need time and space to heal and rejuvenate.

Buying, owning, using gadgets, consuming experiences — these are the hallmarks of a culture of escape; so is the inability to tolerate silence. The most extreme forms of escape with the most devastating consequences are addictions” (p. 62). Distraction can be a powerful tool when we use it to give our minds and souls space to work through difficult and troubling experiences outside our conscious awareness. However, unlike all of the other coping mechanisms that begin with some acknowledgement, no matter how fleeting, that something bad is happening, distraction is an escape from the recognition that we are hurting. When we mask our pain with action and make no time for quiet reflection, we may be undermining our ability to recognize when we are suffering and immerse ourselves in distractions even when life is good.

When things are tough and grief, fear and despair threaten to overwhelm us, we can turn to one of the five coping strategies above. We can also decide to look at our experience and sit with the feelings it arouses. By allowing ourselves to process the dark emotions rather than endure, deny, bypass, avenge or escape them, we have the opportunity for learning. To help us achieve wisdom and transformation, Greenspan (p. 268) suggests asking ourselves:

  • “Out of knowing and being with my (fear, grief, despair), my task is to…
  • When I view my dark emotions as teachers I learn…
  • Instead of avoiding dark emotions, I can use them creatively by…

Respecting rather than replacing our fear, despair and grief can repay us in dividends of self-compassion, joy and healing.

Miriam Greenspan. (2003). Healing through the dark emotions. The wisdom of grief, fear, and despair. Boston: Shambala.



Creative Commons License
The Diversity Dividend by Katherine W Hirsh is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Respecting the lessons of despair, fear and grief

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