Working through emotional pain: A narrative study of healing process
A narrative study was conducted to enrich our understanding of how people work through their emotional pain which culminates in self-transformation and healing. A healing narrative of a middle-aged woman who had undergone major life crises was generated and analysed to explore the path traversed in arriving at self-healing. The study provides rich insights in the role of acknowledging one’s vulnerabilities and emotional release in transcending life crisis and attaining inner peace.
Life is beset with tragedies and traumas of varied nature, viz., bereavement, life threatening diseases, loss of material possessions and relationships, etc. People not only learn to live with their losses, but many emerge enriched and invigorated. How people handle their emotional pain is an area of research rife with many possibilities of growth and self-enhancement. The main objective of the present study was to augment our understanding of the experience of emotional pain, and to trace the process of healing. The study also examined the reconfiguration of self as healing progresses. A healing narrative of a middle-aged woman was generated and analysed to illuminate how people work through their pain and gain new insights.
Emotional pain refers to a feeling of loss and vulnerability, in the face of major life crises. It is akin to an experience of losing a part of oneself. It includes in its gamut a feeling of brokenness and loss of control (Bolger, 1999). Bolger considers emotional pain as a natural consequence of living in this world, that gets complicated as a result of a tendency to avoid or deny painful feelings. Clinical interventions aim at working through pain as a necessary task to induce changes in the inner self and ultimately in the ability to cope with life in healthier and more satisfying ways (Bradshaw, 1990). Taylor (1997) has called attention to a profound sense of isolation, meaninglessness, hopelessness and despair, as major accompaniments of emotional pain. According to him, emotional pain tends to isolate a person from the flow of contemporary events. One may often be ridden with the feeling of being abandoned and having been left alone. Bakan (1968) has focused on intimate relationships and considers emotional pain as a loss of familial world, which evokes fear of annihilation. Jain (1994) has shown in his work how emotions are construed within the Indian cultural context. Misra (2002) has further viewed all emotional experiences within the social constructionist framework. Accordingly, the experience of emotional pain is situated in a matrix of meanings, identities and relationships, specific to a particular culture. Analysing the relevant scriptures, Paranjpe (1998) and Misra (2002) have argued that in the Indian culture the oft-used term for emotion is ‘bhäva’ which considers cognition and emotion as indistinguishable, and has its genesis in aesthetics and the Bhakti (devotional) movement.
Healing may be understood as the other side of emotional pain.It is an experience of an inner sense of well-being, harmony, balance, and peace. It is a process through which the harmony between mind, body and spirit is restored. It would involve a reconstruction of one’s reality, a change in emotions, and broadening of one’s perspective. Thus healing does not change the life conditions causing emotional pain, but engenders hope, acceptance, release of trapped psychic energy, resolution of internal conflicts and new insights (Kakar, 1982). Healing will not be enduring till the painful emotions are acknowledged, worked through, and released from one’s system.
Siegel (1991) says: ‘When you put your feelings outside, you may heal inside. And you will certainly heal your life, if not your disease’; for emotional repression prevents the healing system from responding as a unified entity to threats from inside or outside’ (p.188). Anger, anxiety, depression, fear and many other feelings are unhealthy only if they remain buried inside, unexpressed and not dealt with. When one goes beyond one’s surface emotions and begins to acknowledge one’s real fears, one can break through the resentments and disappointments one holds, and herein begins the process of true healing. True healing, in this sense, means one’s ability to become “whole” again, to gather together the many fragmented pieces of one’s life and make peace inside. True healing means one’s ability to discover oneself and one’s sense of purpose and meaning in this life. This is a painful and difficult process and what Campbell (1968) refers to, as “the hero’s journey”.
Taylor (1997) contends that forgiveness forms the very basis of healing. One cannot “pretend” to forgive oneself or others. One needs to courageously go within and feel one’s hurt and sadness and grieve one’s losses; acknowledge one’s failures and mistakes, even when one may feel they were justified or deserved; forgive oneself through the hard and difficult path of self-disclosure and honesty. One can find one’s true strength and healing only by acknowledging and accepting one’s own humanity, one’s vulnerabilities, and one’s limitations (Dalai Lama, 1992). The healing process (of any type) is an emotionally charged experience (Frank & Frank, 1984), and the salience of any social or spiritual practice lies primarily in their ability to elicit healing emotions.
Scientific evidence for the healing power of self-disclosure of emotions and honest self-examination comes from the work of James Pennebaker (1991). Pennebaker found that writing about traumatic experiences for as little as 15 minutes a day for 4 days can reduce physician visits for illness, improve serum immune function and enhance work performance up to 6 months time. That is to say, that sharing one’s true feelings and needs helps one to unlock the power of one’s healing system. Why does this disclosure improve one’s health and trigger one’s healing system? The disclosure is a deep and sometimes painful exploration of one’s deepest thoughts and feelings involved in the traumatic event. Somehow, when one moves one’s disturbing thoughts, feelings, fears, hurts, disappointments and resentments onto paper, one takes that energy “out of our bodies” in an appropriate manner (i.e., not dumping it onto others or kicking the cat) and begin to “free up” one’s own internal healing energies.
The present study has relied on the narrative approach to illuminate the process of healing emotional pain. Narratives are life stories. Narratives are about the past happenings of one’s life, which are reconstructed as a sequence of events in a story form. Because narratives are constructed retrospectively, they also reflect the ways in which the narrator has come to understand his/her own experience (Jacobson, 2001). While talking about one’s personal experiences, a narrator endeavours to move from confusion and meaninglessness to greater clarity (Jackson, 1994). Thus, a life narrative is more than a simple description of past events. It is a process through which events are construed as having a meaningful and coherent order, through which events and experiences are interpreted, and through which the narrator acquires an identity, like a character in fiction (Good, 1994). Under conditions of adversity, individuals often feel a pressing need to re-examine and re-fashion their personal narratives in an attempt to maintain a sense of coherence and identity. The self is, thus, reconstructed through narrative.
The narrative analysis respects and upholds this self of the narrator in responding to crisis predicaments in a creative manner. When a layperson constructs and communicates through the narrative of one’s personal experience, one does so within cultural settings, which provide specific forms of language, values, role expectations, and modes of living. As Kelley (1994) has noted, “people develop a sense of self, and attempt to construct a public identity for themselves on the basis of the way they talk about coping” (p. 6).
The narratives are compelling because not only do the narrators convey their emotional pain, but they attempt to reconfigure their experience, and wrest meaning from the same. Healing narratives amount to reliving painful memories and trying to find meaning in the experience of traumatic events. Williams (2000) argues that healing narratives provide insights into how people reconstruct some sense of purpose in their lives. In this exploratory study, a narrative of a woman who went through severe emotional pain was taken, to systematically follow the trail of self-healing.
The narrative discussed in this paper is Madhur’s life story. Madhur is a 50-year old woman who has three grown up children, two married daughters and a son looking after the family business. Madhur hails from a traditional upper middle class background. She got married in a joint family when she was just seventeen. Her husband was the eldest son and was involved in the family business. A few years after her marriage, Madhur underwent a series of life crises (marital distress, bereavement, and illness in family). When she was contacted for an interview she had considerably recovered. She was willing to talk and share her inner experiences of having lived through the various upheavals of her life.
Madhur was interviewed at her residence. Despite the fact that it was the first time that I was meeting her, she was very cooperative, willing, and gave her very best in sharing her most innermost feelings and experiences. She was quite eager and forthcoming in her narration, and there were places where she became emotional. But due credit goes to her for recounting all her experiences from the very beginning, and reliving her pain and all the associated feelings of those experiences. It seemed, as though, she was pouring out her heart without any attempts to withhold or conceal anything. The researcher is not without some guilt for having raked up her past memories, but towards the end of the interview, it was reassuring to learn that Madhur has happily graduated from her past crises. It was an exceptionally intense session that continued for lasted almost four hours.
The interview was recorded after taking Madhur’s prior consent. The language of the narrative was a mix of both Hindi and English language, and was transcribed verbatim. In the narrative discussed here, the names, locales and backgrounds have been altered to preserve anonymity of the narrator. The effort was to stay as close to the narrative as possible, and to use the closest possible English translation of the Hindi language. Wherever it was felt that the translation would alter the meaning or sense of the expression as the narrator had used it, the Hindi word/expression was retained as it was.
Analysis and interpretation
The narrative script was chronicled in the order the events unfolded. As far as possible, the events were documented along with the context in which they occurred. Efforts were made throughout to make sense of the narrative from the narrator’s perspective. The main focus was: on the emotional pain which Madhur suffered in her relations and bereavement, on her search for an anchor in her own self, on her release from her emotional cocooning, and on subsequent attaining of inner peace and tranquility. Madhur’s narrative provides an insight into the way emotions play a pivotal role in reorganizing the self to efficaciously deal with life crises. The attempt has been to stay with the flow of her narration to delineate the process of emotional healing.
The experience of emotional pain
After marriage, Madhur gave herself fully to her husband’s family and tried to live up to everyone’s expectations. She earned an enviable place for herself in the family, so much so, that her father-in-law would often seek and act upon her opinion in family matters, much to the chagrin of her husband, who did not enjoy as much say. Some time later, when Madhur discovered her husband’s infidelity, she was very distressed. She felt she had lost all grounds with her husband. Her sense of failure multiplied when she confronted the indifference of her (in-laws) family. She had served and catered to them as her own family, but none of them stood by her when she needed their support in the time of her crisis. In response to her husband’s illicit relationship, which was an event almost twenty years in the past, she narrated her plight as if it had happened yesterday.
“I used to be very upset, I could not sleep in the night. I suffered from insomnia and became dependent on sleeping pills, for without them I couldn’t sleep in the night. I used to keep awake the whole night…. I told the family members also, but no one helped me…. Then I realized that perhaps this is no one else’s problem, this is only my problem…. Then I started finding faults in myself that there is something lacking in me and so he’s doing this (having a relation outside marriage). I used to ask him also that do you also (find something lacking in me)? He used to say, ‘No, there’s nothing wrong with you, please don’t think in this manner ever’…. I started looking for a reason, that is there something lacking in me, but I found nothing lacking in myself…. Gradually I started understanding that perhaps he was suffering from some complex, and was unable to take my goodness and my abilities in a positive manner and was taking them negatively. This was my own psychological analysis that stands till today.”
She further added:
“Suddenly one day something came up in our conversation (between husband and wife), it must have been for just a minute, and I went into severe depression, and I was drowned in that for two and a half years…” She continued: “He mentioned his friend’s name – he said something, exactly I don’t want to remember, and I got such a shock, like (I’d been hit by) an electric current, and I felt that I am drowning in it…deep inside…and I won’t be able to come out of it…I had that feeling inside…and the feeling that I’ve become a failure in life…that after doing all this (for everyone) I have become a failure…I tried a lot that somehow he gets improved, but his heart was not in his business…”
It was an emotional trauma for Madhur and she plunged into an abyss of depression. Her self-esteem was badly bruised. She found her world crumbling, both within (herself) and without. Her emotional investment in her husband and his family was so intense that she felt cheated and dejected. Her depression left her emotionally drained and washed-out. She lost interest in household work and was mostly confined to her room, brooding over her failure in life. She had no one to share her problems with, and slowly became a recluse.
As Taylor (1997) observed, the initial phase of depression entails a feeling of loss and isolation, and one is mired in unresolvable emotional conflicts. One may feel incapable of expressing any kind of emotion, and may find it difficult to relate with people in one’s social world. One experiences constant pain that has no boundaries. All one knows is that one cannot bear these feelings, yet, must continue to endure them.
In Madhur’s own words,
“I started feeling that the family members were not my own. Slowly I started feeling that all are selfish, this whole world is selfish, and that I have to fight my battles myself. Most of the time I would feel my children to be a burden. How do I look after them, what do I do? I was so warped in my own problems that I didn’t understand what guidance to give them…. I used to do the household work but I used to get very tired. I used to feel that its better that I die. Many times I had suicidal tendencies, but I always resisted the impulse, that if I attempt suicide then I would be faced with a question mark. If I commit suicide then I would be at peace, and somewhere I felt that I would take revenge from the family members also, but … then what will happen to my children? It would be a stain on their lives forever, i.e., that their mother has committed suicide. So I could never take that step. But from inside there was great anger brewing, which could never come out, and it became so intense that I went into depression…. It was such severe depression that the whole day I would just keep lying down, would not get up, and it took me two and a half to three years to come out of it….I did not want to discuss this thing outside. I never discussed it outside. Even my parents never came to know…”
“I started getting the sympathy due to a sick person. And I don’t know, maybe when that sick person gets mentally sick, so his/her body mechanism also becomes such that it begins to seek sympathy, and it begins to get solace in this. Or I used to feel that perhaps my bodily and mental mechanism would work in such a manner that I may get my husband’s attention. Because I was always an analyzing person, so I used to feel that (perhaps) this was my attitude that I wanted his attention, therefore I was sick. But that had got so deeply entrenched within my body that despite my desire to get well, I was not improving.”
Reclaiming the self in depression
Madhur emotionally intended to use her depression and misery as a way to seek attention and sympathy of her husband, who, she thought, still loved her very much. Instead, he started avoiding her. That was probably the turning point. Madhur was not the one to give-up. She took the cudgels in her hands to salvage herself from drowning in the quicksand of depression. It was during this period that she indulged in a lot of introspection, auto-counseling, and cognitive reappraisal to derive meaning out of the existing situation, because somewhere this realization had dawned on her that she only could help herself; if she relied on outside sources for help, she would be left wanting. This conviction indeed helped her to come out of her chronic depression. Depression has the effect of putting a person into a form of painful hibernation where one becomes aware that there is something wrong with one’s life and where one has a chance to discover what is wrong and to put it right (Rowe, 1982). She was rediscovering her inner strength to become self-reliant in dealing with her life situation. This episode of her life, as though, set the stage for self-reflection and greater maturity.
“I became a totally different person…I took treatment on my own, I nursed myself, reasoned out with myself, slowly and gradually, every day – when I used to be lying down, I used to (think), that I have to get out of this. There was a lot of anger also, but I have to get out. I cannot change him; now I only have to get out of this situation. May the Lord give enough strength that I come out of this (situation). When the depression lessened, I began understanding things; that I cannot change him… I felt that both of us were so good and as a couple we did not deserve this…. But I never wanted to take that step, that I divorce him – it was not palatable to me. I loved him very much…despite everything, till date, no one has ever been so dear to me as he was to me, because I loved him very much.” But, she continued, “I have my own integrity, I have my own identity. Why should I trouble myself over this? I became matured by then.”
“…slowly I began to prepare myself to take on all the responsibility on myself; I took over the complete care-taking of my children….I withdrew myself from the (larger) family because my energy was limited; I could either give to myself or to the family….This was again a new chapter for me, that you try to equip yourself in such a manner that you are the only person who can manage all this. To prepare oneself each day is a very difficult thing, and without sharing this with anyone, and without anyone’s guidance. These were all my own thoughts, and these seemed right.”
Certain things were brewing in the family that forced Madhur to come out of her shell and take stock of the situation. It was about the family and business. Despite her depression and sickness she was sensitive enough to perceive that these developments were not favourable for both her husband and herself. Seeing them preoccupied elsewhere, other family members were attempting to usurp the family business, and her husband was getting marginalized. She also noticed that her husband was developing depressive symptoms and was losing interest in his business. She offered him her unstinted support in his work and personally as well.
Her husband’s misery and depression somehow became instrumental in facilitating her reemergence into the world. In the experience of her own pain and agony she had gained certain insights and had become sensitive enough to realise the seriousness of her husband’s predicament. Putting aside all previous grudges, she jumped into the arena to rescue her husband from the throes of his depression. He was holding his father responsible for his failings in the business and used to be very angry with him. Alarmed by his suicidal tendencies, Madhur took him to a psychiatrist. She approached her father-in-law and other family members, voicing her apprehensions, and pleaded for some urgent action. But help was not forthcoming. Once again, Madhur stood disillusioned.
“Again it was very painful for me, that what is the use of family…what is the use of me and my sacrifices, what did I get in return?”
Tormented by his anger, bitterness, and depression, Madhur’s husband, having given several hints, committed suicide. Madhur had had a strong premonition about the same, and despite her best efforts could do nothing to avert it.
“I don’t know how, somewhere inside….I was getting this sense that some day he would do something and I would be left alone…I would lose him…as though my conscience from within, like my sixth sense, or you may call it my intuition – there was such a strong intuition that later people told me that yes, you had said this, which I don’t remember.”
Although her husband’s death was not very unexpected, yet Madhur was deeply pained. She was pained by the inaction and insensitivity of her family. For her it was the most tragic thing to happen. “When this happened, I went to the hospital and the doctor declared that he’s no more. He died…I was left speechless… I was deeply pained and I felt that I have lost the whole thing, and I have lost my battle (jung).”
Paradoxically, whereas on one hand, her husband’s death was painful for Madhur, perhaps in some remote corner she felt confident that she could make a new beginning. Now she had to think only for her immediate family and was no longer bound by the expectation of the larger family. She could take her own decisions and was not constrained or helpless as she was, when her husband was alive. She had a sense of freedom from all emotional and social bondages.
Janoff-Bulman (1992) writes extensively about the growth that people may experience after coming to grips with tragedies and the shattered assumptions that result from them. From these losses, one may develop new and more realistic assumptions. Essentially, one may learn to be tougher about the nature of life and how it regularly involves losses for oneself and others. That is just the way it is. To successfully adapt, one has to learn to make the best of it.
“My husband passed away…I lost everything…but deep inside in my heart, on one hand I was crying also, was feeling upset also, but deep inside, somewhere there was this feeling that I will live it up…What has happened has happened, the worst that could happen in anyone’s life has happened…. My suffering was very much there, but somewhere it was going on in my mind that whatever had to happen, now this chapter of my life is closed. I have to begin a new chapter of my life now. In that new chapter I don’t know where my destination is, and I don’t even know the way…and I didn’t even know how much support I’d get. But I had immense confidence in myself, which was my inner strength. I was questioning myself, I searched within myself, there were no regrets anywhere, till date I have no regrets…. I was very confident that despite having lost everything in life, I still have something within me! I had this strong feeling inside which I could not share with anyone…. I had this faith within myself, I will not lose from life, and I will live it up and show it to them what living means!”
Closeting emotions to brave the world
Madhur took upon the new and changed situation as a challenge and began to invest all efforts in the direction of dealing with the same. She did not allow her pain of losing her husband to weaken her resolve or act as a shackle in any way. She did not want her vulnerability and her weak moments to become apparent before the world!
“My pain was in its place, but my mind was working on the lines that what do I have to do now…Then I thought that I have to break this emotional barrier myself, because one becomes helpless at the hands of one’s emotions only…If anyone else attempted to break this barrier it would hurt me… suddenly this realization dawned on me…. Let me put all this aside and explore other possible avenues.”
Somewhere, Madhur’s single-handed struggle during her depression days, and a certain amount of preparedness about what was going to ensue (regarding her husband’s suicide) had instilled a great deal of confidence in her to take on life and whatever the situation at hand was, as a challenge. She was not prepared to let others control her and her children’s lives.
“I said, either everything will get ruined or I’ll get everything back – it was a gamble. But it will only happen when I’ll do something.”
A month after her husband’s death, against the wishes of her in-laws, Madhur started going to her husband’s factory and learning the trade. She knew nothing about the business but had the confidence that she could manage it. She immersed herself in her work so deeply that she withdrew from everything else.
“I thought that like a labourer who toils every day and earns his meal, and doesn’t know what will happen about his meal the next day, I’ll also think likewise. I work today, I come back, have my meal and go to sleep, get up in the morning and go to work again…. I used to keep taking my sleeping pills so that I’m able to work in the morning, not that I forget everything.”
Madhur suffered from insomnia, and couldn’t sleep without the aid of medicines. But now her orientation and approach was problem-focused, rather than self-indulgent, i.e., her reason for taking sleeping pills was to enable her mind to function properly.
Simultaneously, she used to keep counseling herself that if she had that spirit to learn, she would be able to pick up the skill probably better than the other workers. She never let her ego become a barrier in enabling her to learn the tricks of the trade from anyone and everyone who knew it better than her. She kept her target in sight that she had to stand up and make it on her own, together with tending to her children.
“I became a stronger person, a very firm person gradually. I used to think that I have to do my work – that was my target – I have to do my work and prove myself and give my children everything by the dint of my efforts, in a right manner…. I never felt deprived. I used to feel that this is my world and I was satisfied with it.”
Sublimation of the emotional self
When her husband committed suicide Madhur was very upset with God.
“I used to feel really angry at God that you have done all this with such a true and honest person as me. I had stopped going to the temple.” But her faith remained intact. “I used to earnestly pray to Him whenever in trouble, that if you are really there, then you tell me what to do now.” She had challenged God: “If there is God then let him ward off (this pain). If He’s there, let Him save (me), we’ll see how He saves. I felt that one who is alone and has no support, He is there with him/her.”
She would keep giving herself these messages to reinforce her faith and confidence. After putting in all her efforts and mind when the results were not forthcoming, Madhur surrendered before Him. Surrendering cannot come as a result of cognitive appraisal and efforts – it is very essentially a manifestation of overwhelming emotions, a feeling and realisation of utter helplessness, and an implicit faith in the Supreme Order.
“When I actually surrendered before God that you only have to do whatever is to be done – this I surrendered when everything slipped away from my hands, when I had failed completely, then God said, ‘see this can happen in this manner’. My vision cleared and I saw that this is also possible, (and) acceptance came. Maybe it was then that I felt God’s presence.”
“When I didn’t know my way around, the family members were also the same, the circumstances were more difficult, and there were so many problems, then…there was some power which was pulling me along. My inner strength was there, but…. I feel (mera man) that it was God’s power only…the strength that He gave me, means the present situation was absolutely opposite of the earlier circumstances…I lost everything, I lost my husband, love had gone out of my life and I had lost faith in life and truthfulness…. Still I had so much faith in myself.”
Madhur’s share of trials were not over as yet. About four years later, Madhur almost lost her son in a tragic car accident, in which her father-in-law died, and her son was battling with life itself. That was another juncture of her life when her faith in God got reinstated.
“The night the accident took place, I felt that neither money, power, doctors, facilities, nothing mattered at that juncture. Only one thing works here, and that is God…That night I literally handed him (her son) over to God, because even if I had gone and placed all my wealth there, and would have used all the powers of the city, and would have done everything possible…I didn’t know whether I could have saved my son…. I was sitting in the night (in the hospital) – I said, ‘O God now I have handed him to you – I don’t know what is appropriate for me. My heart would wish that my son stays with me but what is right for me, this you decide. If it was in my hands I would spend all my wealth, even if I finish off everything, still I don’t know whether I will be getting him back or not…. I was sitting alone and praying…. Now you decide what is to be done with him (her son) and I kept sitting like that that whole night.”
For almost a fortnight, till her son was out of danger, Madhur did not sleep a wink. For all those people who helped her during that period, she felt they were all god-sent. When her son started responding to the treatment that was being given to him, and the doctors proclaimed him out of danger, and promised to return her son as he originally was, Madhur put in all her best efforts and energy in nursing him and attending to all his needs herself. Once again her faith in God got a fillip. It was a significant day for Madhur when her son returned home. Such great was her satisfaction and happiness, that she admitted forgetting everything related to her past suffering and never missed her husband after that. Somewhere it gave a boost to her confidence also that despite all the trauma that she suffered, her strength did not weaken and held her in good stead through it all.
Release of emotions that healed
Healing never takes place unless emotions are healed. Madhur’s is a good example of such emotional healing. After her husband’s suicide, Madhur had seemingly taken hold of her situation. She had immersed herself totally in her work. It was a lopsided existence that she was leading, in the sense, that she had neglected herself totally, and a certain emotional isolation and apathy had set in. She had almost stopped crying after her husband’s death. In the process of making herself strong, she continued to bury her pain deep inside.
“I never used to cry. But because of that the pain kept accumulating inside, I was upset from within, but it didn’t show apparently.”
It was when she joined a preliminary course of The Art of Living and practiced meditation as part of the course, something happened which took her by surprise. In one of the sessions she broke down and cried as she had not cried in years. Madhur shared, that she cried so bitterly, profusely, and so loudly that she couldn’t stop crying for almost fifteen days. It seemed as though all the emotions that she had been suppressing all these years burst forth with a vengeance, as though a dam had broken free. All the pent up pain, fury, bitterness, frustration, and anguish of so many years, as though, got washed away in her tears. When a person suddenly confronts her pain, she becomes overwhelmed by the realization that her numbness was protecting her from her deep hurt, and that she hadn’t healed as yet (Taylor, 1997).“I broke down and it seemed as though a storm was let loose.” She continued: “I remained disturbed for about 15-20 days. I went into a sort of depression. But all my emotions which had been suppressed, they surfaced…. I had started becoming very dry. I used to feel very irritated (chid), a kind of detachment was taking hold.”
When she did the advanced course, she again had those crying spells,“I was feeling that the more I was crying the lighter I was feeling, means, as long as I sat for meditation, my tears were flowing continuously. But after that advanced course, I danced so much, the first day I sang a bhajan … (Earlier) I just could not listen to bhajans, kirtans and harmonium…. There was a transformation and I felt as though I became very light from within. Then I realized that indeed my emotions had been suppressed and they had surfaced now.”
Feeling buoyant and relieved, when Madhur sang bhajans and danced as she had never done before, it was the expression of her inner self which had experienced the release after such a long period. According to Madhur, “everything goes through a process”. Some years back, she had such hatred for her family members that she would curse them. Today, Madhur claims that there is no bitterness, anger, or complaints within her, rather, there is forgiveness in her heart for all those who had wronged her. Instead, she is at peace with herself, and it was visible in her countenance.
As Atwood and Martin (1991) commented, one’s pain and suffering can be a vehicle for helping one to connect with one’s sensitivity. This acknowledgment and acceptance of one’s limitations without attempting to raise any defenses, loosens up the blocked flow within one’s innermost layers of consciousness. It is a humbling and an elevating experience at the same time. Therein begins the healing process. Thus, the crisis situation hasn’t changed, but the individual experiencing it has, in attitude, orientation, and emphasis. In such a scenario, there is evidence to show that the faith in the goodness of humankind, and hope in the benevolence and justice of the Higher Order, all give credence to the fact that the experience of emotional pain does not often maul their spirits – rather they resurface from its depths, enriched and peaceful. Kakar (1982, 1991) has written extensively about how shamans and gurus transform the self of the person and radically change one’s perception, that facilitates a feeling of well-being.
In another study, Anand, Srivastava and Dalal (2001) also found that one of the major outcomes of the healing process is a sense of liberation. The perception about oneself changes from that of a helpless victim to that of a person who is in control of one’s life, and develops better insights into one’s problems and conflicts. Considering healing as a spiritual experience, Taylor (1997) argues that personal loss can be the springboard for transcendence and a sense of freedom.
This study attempted to examine the experience of emotional pain and subsequent reconstrual of the self in the process of healing. Madhur’s narrative provided rich insights about how such healing takes place. Emotional pain for Madhur was quintessentially the outcome of a loss of an intimate relationship and that of a familial world, seriously undermining her sense of self. This resulted in severe depression and anger. Though she silently suffered in her depression, it played its facilitative role by affording the much needed time, solitude, and personal space to Madhur for contemplation, self-reflection and reconstrual of her painful experience. This enabled Madhur to enlarge her vista and spectrum of understanding, of coming in touch with her unrealized potential and strength, and resultantly, reclaiming her natural self. Furthermore, having lived and worked through her emotional pain imparted the keen penetration and insight into the machinations of such suffering and empathic sensitivity to deal with her husband who too plunged in severe depression. Her husband’s deteriorating mental state alarmed Madhur, and led to her coming out of her self-imposed ostracism. Her anger towards the other family members for having wronged her husband and herself also provided the outlet to come out of her shell. Thus, whereas depression pulls a person inside, Taylor (1997) observed that anger brings the person back in contact with the world outside.
After her husband’s demise, Madhur was left alone to face the world and to bring up her children single-handedly. Her self-reflections during her bout of depression had made her aware of her strengths and vulnerabilities. She took it on herself to run her husband’s business despite the disapproval of her in-laws. She wanted to prove herself and did not allow her negative emotions to become impediments in her path. She emotionally insulated herself and effectively managed to keep her inner and outer worlds separate from each other.
It was during the next traumatic phase of her life, when her son met with a near fatal accident and was battling with life, that she realized the ineffectiveness of all worldly resources and support systems she had, in the recovery of her son. It was at this juncture that Madhur came face to face with her acute vulnerability and helplessness. The acceptance of the same apparently facilitated her surrender before the Divine. Because she had sought Divine intervention for her son’s recovery, it did not lessen the pain closeted in her. But perhaps her confrontation with, and realization of her limitations and vulnerability prepared the ground for subsequent healing which was to manifest later. As Siegel (1991) observes, ‘In our acceptance of our vulnerability is our healing’(p. 268). When one is able to confront one’s losses and fears, one’s pain and incapacities, one acknowledges one’s vulnerabilities. This acknowledging the reality of this sense of vulnerability would tantamount to a beginning of healing (Fife, 1994).
With time, when Madhur was able to prove her mettle, and started to live life on her own terms and conditions, perhaps she no longer needed the defenses that had been erected to prevent the eruption of painful and unpleasant emotions. One day while attending a spiritual discourse, without any forewarning, the floodgates of her blocked emotions opened up and she couldn’t stop crying for days. This, as though, washed away all her negative emotions, and healed her.
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