My thoughts right now are my worst enemy.
I know this because I am walking through a minefield of grief triggers. I will go through the day being okay until a stray thought catches me off-guard and sends me reeling into grief. One moment, I am taking positive steps toward my healing and focusing on what I want for my life and the next, I lose my breath, feel that familiar drop in my stomach, and find tears streaming down my face.
Because I’m focused on healthy grief rather than denial or avoidance, I’ve decided to become actively curious about the thoughts that send me plummeting into grief. It’s interesting that some make me feel sad or disappointed and others send me spiraling. It doesn’t take long to identify the difference.
This was my first healthy relationship, and the breakup was as healthy as the rest of it. He is still my closest friend. I am not angry. There is no one to blame.
With that being said, I think unhealthy grief seems easier. When someone is at fault, we can use anger to guide us through grief. There’s someone to blame, a direction for the considerable emotions we feel. When an ending is healthy and no one is at fault, we are left only with our experience of grief without anger to power us through it.
I must say that it’s a daunting experience. I am exhausted without ever feeling tired. I don’t even want to sleep, my usual go-to for dealing with big feelings. I am sucked into the vortex of loss on the whim of my thoughts and then spit back out into relative peace.
I am reminded of my experience in therapy when I learned that controlling our own thoughts is a necessary part of good mental health. Later, I would study and train as a therapist and go onto teach clients this skill. But never have I had to utilize it as much as I am right now.
I could talk at length about thought stopping and thought replacement, positive affirmations, and everything in between, but I think it’s important to first study the thoughts that come along and wreck us.
For me, the thoughts that are the worst are the ones that reinforce an underlying belief I have about myself. I’ve done a lot of healing work on my negative core beliefs so I know well what they are.
When a thought about the breakup closely aligns and reinforces one of those beliefs, I’m not just reacting to the current loss; instead, I am reacting to all the losses along the way that made me feel this way. Instead of just dealing with the present moment of discomfort and grief, I am plummeted into years of neglect, abandonment, and the conclusions I drew about myself as a result of those traumas.
It’s not hard to see why those thoughts might hurt more than others. They act as evidence that the worst things I believe about myself might be true. The impact of those thoughts can be overwhelming.
I’m trying my hardest not to craft negative narratives about myself because a future I wanted didn’t work out the way I had hoped it would. I don’t regret the relationship. I don’t have a single negative thing to say about my now ex — although referring to him as such is enough to send me reeling once again.
When we recognize that the things we’re thinking have a link to past trauma, we can actually empower ourselves to make some changes. I can’t stop the thoughts from coming up, but I can do my best not to dwell on them. In fact, when they come up I recognize them for what they are — an old story I used to tell myself that I know isn’t true.
I am not unlovable. This is not evidence that I am. Recognizing that helps me shut down the thought before I’m tempted to follow where it leads. I know it will come up again, but knowing it’s a trauma response helps me stop it when it does.
I breathe through it. I can’t tell you how important this step is for healing. When we’re hit with overwhelming grief, sometimes the only thing we can do is breathe through the pain of it. The kind of grief that leaves us doubled over and gasping can’t just be dismissed with good vibes and a wish. We have to breathe through the pain to even have the strength to deal with it at all.
I refocus my attention on the present moment. It takes capturing the thought, realizing the trauma link, breathing, and then making an intentional effort to ground myself in the present. I connect with my senses, observe my surroundings, check in with my body, and pull myself out of my head and into the world.
When we’re knocked sideways by grief, it’s easy for the world around us to disappear as we struggle with our internal experience of loss.
By making an intentional effort to tune back in, we lessen the grip the thought has on us and remind ourselves that there is the world and there are the things we think about the world. They aren’t always the same.
Our thoughts are powerful. They can also be empowering and healing. I’m not trying to deny that I’m experiencing grief, but I can see that the worst of the thoughts, the ones that leave me sobbing in the middle of my workday or make it impossible to sleep, are the ones that underline an old narrative that I’ve worked hard to heal.
I will cry when I need to — and I’ll likely need to a lot. I haven’t lost my friend, but I’ve lost my idea of forever. Some days, I think I’ve lost the hope that forever, for some of us, even exists. But I’m not following every thought where it leads. I’m paying attention, I’m breathing through it, and I’m grounding myself in the present moment.
By doing this, I can grieve the actual relationship — not the things I sometimes think it means about myself. I can grieve my loss — without creating more trauma and triggers for the future. I can feel my feelings — without making them exponentially worse by strengthening harmful narratives.
I remind myself that I am strong, capable, and resourceful. It’s true. There’s plenty of evidence in my life to back that up. I remind myself that I’m also loveable and enough just as I am — things that would be easy to dismiss right now.
My thoughts can be my worst enemy or the greatest aid in my healing. It’s up to me which it will be.
Another thought hits me, and I breathe through it. Today is going to be a difficult day. There might be a lot of these ahead.
Yet, I know that if I can craft a narrative that breaks me, I can also craft one that supports me while I explore healthy grief, possibility, and even hope for the days ahead.
Crystal Jackson is a former therapist turned author. Her work has been featured on Medium, Elephant Journal, Elite Daily, and The Good Men Project. She’s also the author of Left on Main, the first book in the Heart of Madison series. When she’s not writing for Medium and working on her next book, you can find Crystal traveling, paddle boarding, running, throwing axes badly but with terrifying enthusiasm, hiking, doing yoga, or curled up with her nose in a book in Madison, Georgia, where she lives with her two wild and wonderful children.
Image courtesy of Andrea Piacquadio.