Me and the Tortured Dogs


Hey Kiddo,

I’ve found myself back in therapy for the short term. I’ve been struggling with a deep loss and getting through the grieving process. This therapist has seen me through some very difficult navigation. So I decided to get some input from someone I trust to be forthright and yet also compassionate.

My therapist was particularly on game that day and didn’t let me get away with any shit. As painful as that is, I truly appreciate it. I realized that this is something you simply cannot get from your friends… because they care too much about how you feel about them. They won’t dismantle the little lies you use to cope – because they either cannot see the lies, or they are afraid of hurting you… of exposing you to the sadness and pain you are trying to run from.

I had a hard time handling the feelings that were coming up towards the end of this appointment. I didn’t want to go into it and my therapist called me on it. I was pushing the feelings away because they were too much for me to handle then. I said I couldn’t go into this with so little time left. I didn’t want to melt down and then leave. So we booked a double appointment the following week… to give me more time to process.

On the way home, I thought about why I have such a hard time going into deep feelings and then leaving the therapist’s office… about why it is so utterly difficult for me to show pain or sadness in front of people. I think it’s because it is such a vulnerable moment for me. And when I was young, I was harassed for it by my own family. To show such feelings creates a risk of being judged and belittled. This was something that my mother did frequently and which was so very difficult for me to handle. Unfortunately, my response was to cry more… which caused more criticism and emotional abuse from my mother. It was a vicious cycle that left me feeling exposed and weak… unable to defend myself. Helpless.

That’s the word… helpless. It’s my bane. I have very low tolerance for dealing with that feeling. My default is to DO something… anything other than sitting with that feeling. As you know, Kiddo, your own actions were to separate yourself from your feelings… you buried them deeply and lashed out at those around you. Anything was better than accepting the pain.

I recall an experiment that was done by Martin Seligman around Learned Helplessness. Caged dogs were exposed to shock in a manner that was unpredictable. They were in a constant state of heightened anxiety… and at first, they tried to do whatever they could to stop the shock or predict it. But after time, they came to a breaking point. And when they came to this point, they would do nothing to try and stop the shock. Even if it was as simple as walking to the other side of the cage where there was no shock. They had reached a point of Learned Helplessness.

I remembered this experiment. Along with hating Dr. Seligman for torturing those poor dogs, I also understood that you can go crazy trying to predict “the shock”. I was a fighter… to give in to the shock went against every inch of my being. I would rather go insane trying to figure it out. Acceptance, in my mind, was defeat and a loss of your very soul. My brain would go into overdrive trying to figure out a way out… trying to bargain my way to a resolution. Anything other than sit there and give in to the pain.

I understand now (although still struggle with accepting) that there are some moments in life where you simply cannot stop the shock. You have no power. No choice. You are helpless.

The only thing left to you, at this point, is to accept the shock and focus on the few things you can actually control. You do not have to give up your soul. But you also don’t have to go insane. You have to let go of the bargaining because it will only eat away at our sanity.

My therapist calls it a tolerance for certain feelings… loss, helplessness, unresolved relationships, sadness, and yes – pain. Loss requires grieving. And part of grieving is the bargaining process. I am an expert at the bargaining process. So it will take time for me to let go of this tactic, which at this point, must be hard wired into my brain.

I can be more than those dogs who endured the torture of the unpredictable shock. I can choose to allow the helplessness to exist… and yet also let it fade away as time begins to ease the pain. I do not have to be defined by that time when there is nothing I can do. It does not make me weak or unable to defend myself in the future. I can choose to accept it and move past it.

I can tolerate it.

So can you, Kiddo.  So can you.

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