You may have already read the recent article (or at least the headline) “The First Step To Healing Is Opening Yourself Up And Letting It All Out." If you haven’t, I suggest you do.
William Ralston gives a detailed and painfully honest recollection of the pain caused by his father’s death, his struggle to deal with that pain and his process of finding the honesty and vulnerability that ultimately led him to the closure he has found.
He asserts that the way he came to terms with this tragedy in his life was by sharing his suffering with his close friends and family; that having a shoulder to cry on and an ear to listen ultimately allowed him to accept what he had to live without because he had so many people reminding him of what he had to live with.
As I read the article, I found myself comparing the progress of his recovery to similar points in my own life, and if you read the article, I’m sure you did, too.
Tragedy is a stranger to nobody old enough to understand the meaning of loss. Even those with the most comfortable, sheltered lives still experience the pain of tragedy.
While the pain of losing a parent may not be comparable to the pain of losing a job, the perception of tragedy is relative to the individual. One man’s tragedy being more or less serious or difficult than another man’s is entirely a matter of opinion.
My point is to illustrate that we all experience some form of tragedy and, because of that, we all can use as much advice on dealing with these tragedies as we can accrue.
Ralston’s experience highlights the comfort he found in bravely sharing his pain with the ones he loved and trusted, a discovery with which I wholeheartedly agree.
There is a certain contentedness in sharing yourself with someone you truly believe will listen and empathize with you; someone who will not judge you or disregard your opinions and feelings, even if he or she disagrees.
Even those who aggressively shield themselves from exposing their deepest fears and anxieties can benefit from opening themselves up to someone whom they trust will not take advantage of their nakedness. I know because I am an example of this.
However, with no offense to Mr. Ralston, I believe opening yourself to others is not the most fundamental step in healing from tragedy.
While it certainly is very beneficial, perhaps even necessary, I believe that opening yourself up to yourself is the indispensable first step of true healing, change and growth. To me, opening yourself up to yourself is the process of allowing yourself to understand and reflect on the emotions associated with a traumatic or tragic event.
“Honesty” would be the best one-word summary I can think of.
I came to this realization shortly after dropping out of the University of Georgia midway through my junior year. I spent my first five semesters in school focusing on and doing pretty much everything but school itself.
As my uncle would put it, “There’s a big difference in being a student and being enrolled.” I was always strictly “enrolled.”
Upon returning home, I found myself in a pit of shame and despair. To me, this represented the nullification of everything I had ever done in my life.
I never had another plan but to get a degree from Georgia and start a career from there. Now that UGA was no longer an option (if I wanted at least some degree of support from my parents), none of it mattered.
This saddened and terrified me, but it was real, and I had to do something about it. It was the first time in my life I had nobody to lean on or blame for my failures. And for the first time in my life, I chose to be completely honest with myself.
I had a lot of alone time to reflect on the situation and everything that had led up to it, and the more I reflected, the clearer it became that, for better or for worse, this was a major turning point in my life.
I had two options: I could continue living like a miscreant, spitting in the face of anyone who tried to advise me, and continue to get the same failing results, or I could take this opportunity to finally change the things I’d felt so powerless over.
Being completely honest with myself was extremely difficult, and it will be for you, too. In his article, Ralston describes his difficulty with immersing himself in his emotions but finds peace in writing down his pain.
Total honesty requires you to shred your ego and all your excuses to pieces. It forces you to face the ugliest, most shameful side of yourself and ask all the questions you don’t want to have to answer. Nobody can force you to do it but yourself and it takes a certain level of despair and hopelessness to attempt.
For me, the choice itself was not tough to make. I had already lost everything I held dear.
But why had I wanted to stay at UGA so badly? Did I really enjoy waking up already planning where and how I was going to get f*cked up that day/night? Did I enjoy making enemies with and manipulating some of my closest friends for the sake of my pride or my selfish habits? Did I enjoy disappointing and shaming my parents in virtually every imaginable way for the sake of a life that left me empty and alone once I sobered up? Did I even want the life I was creating for myself?
Once I completely opened myself up to the reality of the choices I was making and the way they were affecting me and others close to me, the questions I had to ask myself were extremely eye-opening. What was even more eye-opening was the fact that it took me two and a half years and losing all the freedom I thought I had to ask myself these questions.
I had shielded myself from the truth because I was having too much fun living a lie. What it took me longer to realize, however, was that I really believed I was doing what I was supposed to be doing.
Obviously I wasn’t doing everything I was supposed to be doing, but most outsiders typically viewed the general path I was carving as a successful one. When I came home and saw people I knew from my community, it was very clear that they viewed my departure from college as a failure.
Most were polite or supportive, but I knew what they were thinking. Although I could understand their feelings, because I had the same opinion for so long, I was finding more happiness than I ever had at college.
I was free from the constraints of the expectations placed on me for as long as I could remember. The rush from this wave of freedom was like nothing I could have imagined at that point.
I started feeling more at peace with society thinking of me as a failure or embarrassment or whatever they wanted to, because I started feeling more at peace with myself.
I think this unconscious peer pressure affects most of us to some degree, especially as the influence of global and social media becomes ever-more prevalent: Some embrace it; some fight against it; some ignore it as best they can.
Your choice on how to deal with the engrained expectations of whatever society you identify with is not what’s truly important here. What is important is that you understand it exists and understand and follow what is right for you; what you, at your core, want for yourself and your life.
The only way to do that is to be completely honest with yourself.
I’ve focused this argument around a traumatic personal experience that may or may not be comparable with your own. You may not even think my experience qualifies as a tragedy, and compared to a multitude of occurrences that happen every day, you would be right.
What I want you to take away from this is that being honest with yourself is the most critical step in fixing whatever problem(s) you are facing: emotional, social, familial, economical, spiritual, etc.
There are plenty of ways to do this, but for it to work, it has to be done entirely by you and for you. Sharing yourself with others can be therapeutic, but you can’t be honest with anyone else unless you are honest with yourself.
The more you force yourself to be honest, the easier it becomes. Sometimes -- I would say most times -- tragedy is the perfect place to start with honesty. Like Tyler Durden said in "Fight Club," “It’s only after you’ve lost everything, that you’re free to do anything.” Good luck.
Photo Courtesy: We Heart It