What grieving can tell us about everyday life AKA how to avoid avoiding

Krista Bringley-Cain, Orlando Licensed Mental Health Counselor, presents a way to think about what you do with your time that also helps you decide when an action meant to be useful has become avoidance!

Krista Bringley-Cain, MA, MPH, LMHC

There’s a theory of grieving called the Dual Process Model that basically says that when someone is experiencing grief they need to go through the feelings and process of grieving, but it is also critical that at the same time they find ways to keep living.  The theory points out that ideally we would oscillate between grieving (loss-oriented responses) and finding ways to keep living (restoration-oriented responses), and is definitely a useful thing to understand for people who are grieving.  I use this theory frequently when I work with grief and loss, but I also think the theory has some useful things to tell us even if we’re not grieving!  If you’re experiencing grief, I’d be happy to tell you more about it.

For today, let’s look at what this theory can tell us about everyday life!  To be honest, to make this relevant to everyday life I’ve adapted this theory a little.  So you don’t worry, other counselors I present it to seem to think I’m on to something!  First, I switched one of our two tasks, “grieving” to “feeling“, which is definitely a critical activity in our lives!  When we don’t feel important feelings, they unfortunately tend to find a way of punching us in the gut.  Second, although the way the theory approaches living (restoration-oriented responses) can include things like self-care (they mention distraction from grief and denial/avoidance of grief), I find it more useful to split things like self-care out.  Here’s why:  both feeling and living (activities like going to work or school, learning new things, maintaining and growing relationships) take a lot of energy, and self-care is about helping ourselves regain energy!  When we think about the work of feeling and the work of living, well, it might make us feel kind of tired and like we’d like a break!  So rather than expecting ourselves to just bounce back and forth between living and feeling, let’s give ourselves a place of rest.  I’ve decided to refer to this place of rest as “distraction“.

You might think distraction has a negative connotation or you might think distraction sounds great! My intent is for us to see a distraction as neutral and look more carefully at the specific distraction to see if it is helping us.  In the best-case a distraction helps us regain energy, and then it is self-care!  You might remember from Daniel Garner-Quintero’s recent blog that self-care is absolutely critical to our health.  If our distraction is self-care, then hooray!  In a less-good-case a distraction could turn into avoidance, which means we’re now staying in the distraction instead of doing some feeling or living that we need to do.  If we look at our distraction (say hours of binge-watching Netflix or even something “useful” like cleaning) we might discover that it’s an excuse to fill our time so we won’t have to tackle that difficult task of living or confront that difficult feeling.  As an interesting note, we’re also entirely capable of using living to avoid feeling (like when you schedule yourself so completely that there’s no time to think) and using feeling to avoid living (sometimes we call that rumination).  So it isn’t only distraction that can become avoidance!

A big, important question is “How do we know when something started as useful has actually become avoidance?”  After much thought and experimentation, it seems like the best answer is “you know it when you see it, as long as you allow yourself to look for it“.  What I mean by this is it’s tough to know for sure that you’ve gone too far until you’ve actually gone too far!  Maybe watching one or even two shows or taking a walk or reading a book helps you decompress and regain energy, but watching hours of tv or exercising compulsively or staying in all weekend with a book when you were invited to see friends is likely to mean you’re choosing those activities instead of something else you need to do.  If you intentionally check in with yourself on your energy levelshow you’re spending your time, and what you’ve done in the feeling and living arenas lately it can help you keep yourself out of avoidance or at least recognize when you’re hitting it!  And if you do find yourself in avoidance, consider congratulating yourself for recognizing it instead of beating yourself up for getting there!  You needed the distraction and now you can choose to move forward with feeling, living, and self-care!  This is great news!

If you could use help finding a good distribution of feeling, living, and self-care, getting out of avoidance, or getting yourself to deal with tough feelings or tough living, give us a call at Life Skills Resource Group Orlando at 407-355-7378.  We’d be happy to set up a free phone consultation with one of our Orlando mental health counselors!