Mind the Gap: Living in the Space Between Loss and Healing

One of the most difficult phases in any life transition is the space of the unknown between a loss or change, and healing or new beginning.  All life changes, even positive ones, entail a sense of loss or grief.  For example, there is a sense of loss in giving up addictive behaviors like cigarette smoking, despite the fact that the change is a positive one.  Even the change of getting a better job or promotion entails loss — you might be giving up security, relationships and the comfort of the known in making such a change.  The most difficult changes involve the death of a loved one or death of a relationship.

Our lives are always in transition.  Every breath we take involves a transition, from inhaling to exhaling, to the gap or space before the next inhalation.     After the end of a phase in our lives, we have a tendency to jump into something (or someone) new, because that space of the unknown can be so uncomfortable.  William Bridges (1980) calls this space the “neutral zone.” As Bridges explains (p. 112), “one of the difficulties of being in transition in the modern world is that we have lost our appreciation for this gap in the continuity of existence.  For us, emptiness represents only the absence of something.  So, when the something is as important as relatedness and purpose and reality, we try to find ways of replacing those missing elements as quickly as possible.”

Resting in the space of the neutral zone — feeling the pain of our loss, exploring our options, getting to know ourselves on a deeper level — is the key to transformation and growth.   How can we sit in that space of the unknown that feels anything but neutral, without giving in to the impulse to do something?  The first step is to be rather than do, which sounds much easier than it is, until we develop some friendliness toward ourselves and our anxiety.  Notice the impulse, and instead of acting on it, explore it with curiosity:  Where do you feel it in your body?  What is it telling you?  Breathe into it and let it be without having to change it in any way.

Mindfulness meditation, especially mindful breathing, is very helpful in learning how to be in the gap or neutral zone:  Feel the cool air entering your nostrils on the in-breath.  Pause and then feel the warm air leaving your nostrils on the out-breath.  Notice in particular how the out-breath dissolves and experience the space before your next in-breath.

Journaling can also be helpful in navigating the neutral zone.  Journaling helps us get those swirling emotions out of our bodies and head in a way that is workable and spacious.  We can gain some perspective on the stages of our journey — a major function of the neutral zone, and get to appreciate that time as a time for renewal.

Finding a regular time and place to be alone is also helpful in the neutral zone.  The period after a loss is a natural time to turn inward. This time of year, the barren stillness of winter, is also a natural time to turn inward.  Experience the loss of summer’s richness and the loss of the autumn leaves.  Know the gap before spring comes again as a time for renewal.  Without death, there can be no rebirth.

The Christian mystics call this gap and time of turning inward the “dark night of the soul.” It is a time to allow ourselves to feel the pain and despair that is a universal part of the human condition in the face of loss and change.  We may feel bereft and spiritually arid, and it is necessary to feel those feelings in order to transform them.  Despair can be seen as the manure from which spiritual growth and personal transformation arise.  As Michael Washburn so beautifully says in the aptly titled article The Paradox of Finding One’s Way by Losing It (1996), “It is only in the depths of despair that genuine spiritual life is found.  It is a paradox that we sometimes have to lose our way in order to find our true self.  We sometimes have to die to the world and to our worldly self before we can discover that our deepest and truest self was within us all the time.”

REFERENCES

Bridges, W. (1980). Transitions:  Making Sense of Life’s Changes. Cambridge, MA:  Perseus Books.

Washburn, M. (1996).  The Paradox of Finding One’s Way by Losing It:  The Dark Night of the Soul and the Emergence of Faith.  In Sacred Sorrows, Nelson, J.E and Nelson, A., eds. New York:  G. Putnam’s Sons.

The Use of Narrative Therapy in the Transformative Work of Healing Painful Life Transitions

Helen Keller has said that “the only way to get to the other side is to go through the door.”  This is certainly true in the work of transforming painful emotions, such as those we experience after a divorce, into healing and growth. This process involves allowing ourselves to feel the intense emotions of grief – sadness, anger, despair and other difficult emotions, as well as tapping into our internal strengths and external sources of support.

Narrative therapy and has been used with a wide variety of difficulties and issues, including reactions to a major life transition.  The role of the narrative therapist is as collaborator or co-author with the client.  As such, the narrative therapist partners with the client to explore the stories that give meaning to the client’s life (White, 1995). The The

Narrative therapy is thus an empowering vehicle for “re-authoring lives” (Carr, 1998, p. 468; White, 1995), in which the therapist takes the role of a partner or collaborator with the client, rather than an authority figure (Angell, Dennis & Dumain, 1999).. The narrative therapist partners with the client to create a safe place to feel the emotions of loss and change, and to explore the stories that give meaning to the client’s life. The use of narrative or story is a useful vehicle for making meaning and sense of difficult experiences in our lives, by allowing us to access alternative cognitions and gain self-knowledge.

A narrative therapy tool that is often used in this work is the use of written expression, such as journaling and letter writing.  This can be a powerful vehicle for expressing the emotions of loss and change and accessing the individual’s unique internal strengths and resources.

The collaborative approach of the narrative therapist can be useful for accessing the client’s spiritual strengths by respectful inquiry into the client’s worldviews, including his or her beliefs before the loss, and how they may have changed since the loss, and discussing spiritual and existential issues that arise in this context. (Calhoun & Tedeschi, 2000, p. 167).

As one gets in touch on a deep level with his or her own suffering and resiliency in the face of that suffering, he or she can begin to get a panoramic view of the human condition and tap into his or her spiritual strength. Religious and spiritual beliefs have been observed to be one way in which individuals create meaning and a sense of order and purpose to the human condition and its difficult transitions (Golsworthy & Coyne, 1999; Calhoun & Tedeschi 2000).

Narrative therapy can be an effective tool for working painful emotions and finding new meaning in one’s life.  The process of expression literally takes deep feelings out of the body, externalizing them so that they become workable. Through this process, my clients are able to see that they have some control over their lives, and can tap into their strengths and their inherent wisdom.  With my guidance as a partner on the path of healing painful life transitions, my clients can discover their unique strengths, resources and resiliency, deepen their spiritual beliefs, and enhance the meaning of their lives in the context of the human condition.

The Heroine’s Journey: The Modern Woman’s Quest for Professional and Personal Fulfillment

According to Carl Jung’s theory of human development, the first half of life is devoted to differentiation and development of one’s individual ego, and the goal of the second half of life is integration and a movement toward wholeness, also known as individuation.  Individuation is accomplished by developing the undeveloped side of one’s life.  Traditionally, for men, this entails developing the anima, the feminine capacities for nurturance, feeling and intuition. For women, this entails developing the animus, the masculine capacities for logical thinking, action and assertiveness.

However, my journey as a woman in the second half of life has taken a different path.  As a product of the feminist revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, I spent the first half of my life differentiating in a way that developed my male energy at the expense of my feminine nature.  I became an attorney in the male-oriented entertainment industry, and had to “act like a man” to succeed and survive.  I felt unfulfilled and incomplete as I moved into the second half of my life.  Being a high-powered attorney in New York City was no longer congruent with my changing identity.  As a result, when I turned 50, I become a psychotherapist in order to develop my nurturing, feminine and intuitive side, while also working as an attorney for musicians, and letting go of some of the trappings of my career as a New York corporate attorney.

The Process of Individuation

Carl Jung and Erik Erikson both emphasized adult development in their theories (Crain, 1992, p. 287).  For Erikson, the developmental task in mid-life is a choice between “generativity” and “stagnation.”  Staying on the outward-oriented path of ego development and differentiation without self-reflection can lead to stagnation and spiritual aridity. In contrast, turning inward with introspection in order to attain wholeness and balance in one’s life can lead to ego transcendence, and the ability to give back to younger generations, i.e., generativity.  Jung describes the journey toward integration as “our unconscious striving for centeredness, wholeness and meaning, …and inner urge to balance and reconcile the opposing aspects of our personalities,”  (Crain, 1992, p. 290).

Traditionally, the path to individuation is said to be achieved by developing “those unconscious parts of ourselves that carry the mystery of the sex that is not ours” (Singer, 1992, p. 134).  This model is not relevant for many modern women.  During the differentiation stage of the first half of life, high-achieving women by necessity developed the energy of the male sex, neglecting their feminine energy.  For such women, the path to individuation is a process of reuniting with the feminine qualities of their anima.

The Heroine’s Journey

Maureen Murdock’s book The Heroine’s Journey (1990) describes  the process of individuation for women like me as the “heroine’s journey.”   This journey entails (1) separation from the feminine (generally, the mother); (2) identification with the masculine and gathering of allies; (3) road of trials:  meeting ogres and dragons; (4) finding the boon of success; (4) awakening to feelings of spiritual aridity; (5) initiation and descent to the Goddess; (6) urgent yearning to reconnect with the feminine; (7) healing the mother/daughter split; (8) healing the wounded masculine; and (9) integration of masculine and feminine (Murdock, 1990, p. 5).

Murdock’s description aptly parallels my journey.  I separated from my mother to go to college to find a self-sufficient career.   I identified with my father as a successful professional, and gathered male allies during law school and as professional colleagues.  My road of trials entailed meeting ogres and dragons in the form of male bosses, competitors and back-stabbers.  I nonetheless prevailed and was highly successful.   However, this success became increasingly arid for me, and I descended into depression, yearning to reconnect with my nurturing, feminine spirit. In the process, the mother/daughter split was healed as I found my second half of life calling.

Conclusion

Therapists working with modern women can no longer rely on the traditional Jungian theories about the balancing of anima and animus to help those clients on their path to achieving personal and professional fulfillment.  For myself, I have known for some time that my anima and animus were out of balance, but the literature on the second half of life, emphasizing the development of the animus in women, did not fit my experience, and did not help me.  The heroine’s journey as described by Murdock is the first description I have found that validates my experience.  It is a valuable lesson for those working to assist women today in their search for wholeness and spiritual maturity.

References

Cooper, J.C. (2004).  An illustrated encyclopaieda of traditional symbols. New York:  Thames & Hudson

Crain, W. (1992).  Theories of development:  Concepts and applications (3rd ed.). New York:  Prentice-Hall, Inc.

Murdock, M. (1990). The heroine’s journey:  Woman’s quest for wholeness. Boston:  Shambhala Publications, Inc.

Singer, J. (1994).  Boundaries of the soul:  The practice of Jung’s psychology. New York:  Anchor Books.