Listening (and Learning from) Our Painful Emotions Through Divorce
In 1995, Daniel Goleman’s NY Times Bestseller book “Emotional Intelligence” broke new ground. Raising our awareness about the many ways to nurture and strengthen our emotional intelligence, the book and the topic provide a lot of food for thought.
That said, it still seems to me that as a culture and as people, we pretty much remain closed off to facing our negative and painful emotions. There is just something inside of each one of us that cringes and recoils, shutting down when those most painful emotions come even close to the surface.
I wonder what that is? As you read this, what is your understanding of what shuts you down when you feel painful emotions arising within you?
I think as an example, of how we apologize if we spontaneously break down and cry. What is it that makes us uncomfortable that we need to apologize for?
Learning to listen and lean into our feelings through divorce and beyond, no matter how we dread them, is central to healing and growing into who we genuinely are after divorce.
Learning more about who we genuinely are allows us greater freedom to become more of who God made us to become in God’s likeness.
Just think about it for a minute. All the upheaval, all the arguments, all the times that you felt confined or limited or unable to be your true self – or all the ways that you stopped being yourself upon learning that your spouse was leaving you—is now all the past. In the present, you are now called to open all those windows and doors to become more of your genuine true self, free to blossom and fully become.
You may likely be aware of the concept of “High Conflict Divorce”. In fact, a majority of divorces in recent years tend to be high conflict processes between the couple for reasons that are related to intense feelings each party has toward the other, that simply have not been resolved. Conflict is a way of staying connected to each other, albeit in a counter-productive way.
Awareness of your discomfort toward your own negative, painful feelings through divorce is a first step toward changing the dynamic that currently shuts you down from feeling close to yourself and to others
If perchance you are reading this and shaking your head, believing that “nice” people, good Christian Catholics shouldn’t have or aren’t allowed to have negative feelings, I hope that you will find a way to resolve that and move beyond that belief.
The truth is that feelings themselves aren’t bad, it’s what we do with them that allows them to become harmful or not. It is what we do with our feelings that allows them to become sinful or not.
I think about the painful emotions of fear, grief, terror, anxiety, depression, hopelessness, and despair through divorce. I’m aware of the effort it takes to block these feelings, rather than opening up to them, to allow them to help us learn more about who we are.
When we allow fear, hopelessness, anxiety, and other painful emotions to enter into our mental and spiritual space, then we are better able to explore, work through, understand them, and discern how we will use these feelings
How will we strategize and manage these painful feelings going forward? Or, how will we resolve them and let them go? Or, what do we need to do differently to respond to these feelings when they emerge, rather than react to them?
Left unchecked, these painful feelings may ultimately sabotage us, leading us to devolve into reactions and behaviors that we wouldn’t otherwise choose for ourselves.
It is true that we have learned from our earliest life experiences to dismiss our negative emotions. Consider for a moment how acceptable (or not) you would have been in your childhood home with negative feelings.
But more than learning to ignore painful feelings, I believe a bigger problem is that fact that we never learned how to deal with painful or negative feelings. We simply are not experienced in knowing how to accept or work through them.
We haven’t been taught, how to tolerate the painful emotional energy behind painful emotions, in ways that allow and bolster us to use that energy. What I’m suggesting, is that rather than control these painful emotions, another choice is to harness the energy inside of them to grow emotionally and spiritually.
What I am suggesting is that when you work with your painful feelings, you free the energy inside of your painful emotions to help enlighten your path.
Trust me that I know that sitting with those painful emotions and working them through is not easy. And my use of the word “choice” might seem in poor choice. But in the end, I think what we do with our painful emotions and how we allow them to change us in less than healthy ways, is a choice.
Choosing how to manage painful feelings is a choice that I believe we all want to be mindfully aware of, especially in the presence of children who are living and learning the effects of your unresolved painful feelings.
Surrendering and giving up your painful emotions allows you to enter inside of them with your whole heart and soul. Once inside, your heart and soul will guide and enlighten you, as you delve into pain that feels too great to bear.
The process of opening up to and going inside of your painful feelings might almost be described as becoming presence with them, a process that welcomes and allows the Holy Spirit to be in that space and inside of those feelings with you.
The Holy Spirit knows who and where each of us is and where each of us really wants to go.
Through prayer, the Holy Spirit will help you to get there!
The Holy Spirit knows how easy and comfortable it is for us to slip into our small, ego driven selves. And through prayer and intentionality, the Holy Spirit will help guide and motivate you toward healing that reflects more of your True Self.
The concept of becoming more through divorce is very real, from a life and from a faith perspective.
There is no life without loss and grief.
Everyone’s life has some amount of grief and loss, whether we choose to work with it or not.
Divorce, for whatever reason you are experiencing it —
whether you are the one who initiated it or are the one upon whom it was initiated –
whether yours is a “gray divorce” occurring when you were just stepping into later life,
or divorce that occurred and is occurring in your younger life –
is an opportunity for growth.
Beyond divorce, we need to learn to like and love and value ourselves – just the way our loving God loves us.
Human, weak, imperfect, unfinished, insecure or bold, exhausted, hurt or confused – God loves you!
The question is, do you love and value yourself?
Whatever aspects of who you are that were less than desirable for your partner, be aware to not become critical or belittle yourself because of those judgments made against you.
Rather, decide for yourself what is honest and reflective of who you truly are, what needs to be changed or not, to be at peace with yourself.
There is only one of each of us and we are all precious in God’s sight.
As I read Pope Francis’ homily, delivered at the Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica on October 10, 2021 announcing the opening of the Synodal process, I couldn’t help but be struck by a sense of synchronicity I experienced between his words and the words that I was writing for this article.
Encounter, listen, and discern are three keywords in the Synodal process.
“By listening to the Holy Spirit, the Synod can be a process of healing” Pope Francis stated. By listening to the Holy Spirit, moving into your painful feelings can be a process of healing this article suggests.
“A Synod calls on everyone to become experts in the ‘art of encounter” in a way that is uplifting and transformative” Pope Francis stated. By honoring your painful feelings and working through them to become so much more in God’s likeness, you too will be uplifted and transformed this article suggests.
“Celebrating a Synod means walking on the same road together” just like Jesus did – encountering, listening, and discerning with all who one meets. Are we prepared for the adventure of this journey? Or are we fearful of the unknown? Pope Francis asked. By listening to your feelings and discerning honest choices that best represent your True Self, this article suggests that you will become better prepared for your Life journey.
If you remain fearful of the unknown, continue working through it. If you need professional help to support you, by all means find a therapist you feel safe and secure to work with.
Because the Holy Spirit will never leave you or let you down, if you just remain connected and open.
Last, I paused, and smiled when I read Pope Francis’ words about walking on the same road together.
I know, and I hope that you know, that separated and divorced Catholics are walking on the same road together with the larger, wider church.
We are one church.
In fact, the whole church has a lot to learn from separated and divorced Catholics.
It is through suffering and dying to our dreams and our goals, our good intentions and multiple efforts that failed, together with our vow driven commitments, the endings of which only God understands, that we are led to dying and rising again into the fullness of God’s love.
“We walk by faith and not by sight, no gracious words we hear, of him who spoke as none e’er spoke, but we believe him near” (2 Corinthians 5:7).
Geraldine M. Kerr, Ph.D., LMFT, is Licensed in Marriage and Family Therapy as well as having a Certification in Pastoral Ministry from Fordham University School of Religion and Religious Education. As an experienced therapist for over 30 years, Dr. Geri is an educator, retreat leader, workshop leader, and speaker. Working from a family-systems, somatic, psychoeducational, and psychospiritual perspective Dr. Geri has worked with individuals, couples, and families for many years, specializing in trauma and loss. Dr. Geri was an active participant in the Ministry for Separated and Divorced Catholics years ago when she began her journey as a single parent. With the strength of her Catholic faith, she raised a strong and vibrant single-parent family that consists of four grown children and ten wonderful grandchildren! Dr. Geri Kerr is passionate about her work and her life, giving honor and glory to God each day for God’s way of helping her turn endings into new beginnings!
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In 1995, Daniel Goleman’s NY Times Bestseller book “Emotional Intelligence” broke new ground. Raising our awareness about the many ways to nurture and strengthen our emotional intelligence, the book and the topic provide a lot of food for thought. That said, it still seems to me that as a culture and as people, we…