Several years ago, when I worked as a bereavement counselor, I’d often receive puzzled looks at parties when people I hadn’t met before asked where I worked. “You’re a grief counselor?” they’d ask. “But isn’t that depressing?” Actually, I’d say, it’s just the opposite. One of the many things I enjoy about counseling those who have lost loved ones is that it brings a constant reminder of my own mortality. It’s a wake-up call, reminding me that time is fleeting and precious. Some may call this morbid (well maybe just a little bit!), but I consider it inspiring.
Last week, I discovered a blog called Inspiration and Chai, written by a palliative care nurse named Bronnie Ware. Ware recorded the most common regrets of the dying patients she worked with. One of the most common regrets was: “I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.” Ware writes: “Many people suppressed their feelings in order to keep peace with others. As a result, they settled for a mediocre existence and never became who they were truly capable of becoming. Many developed illnesses relating to the bitterness and resentment they carried as a result. We cannot control the reactions of others. However, although people may initially react when you change the way you are by speaking honestly, in the end it raises the relationship to a whole new and healthier level.”
As a couples’ counselor, part of my job is helping people get in touch with — and express — their feelings to each other. However, we are rarely taught how to stay in connection with our partner when our feelings, thoughts and desires may diverge from our partner’s views. How do we stay present for each other, even when our way of seeing the world may be so different? Couples often come to see me when they’ve reached a breaking point. Either they’re caught in a cycle of conflict, or have reached the point of total withdrawal. Through a process called the Imago Dialogue, they gradually learn how to reconnect with each other, even as they express what may be very divergent personal truths. This kind of safe, healing exchange is a different way of working through differences. So remember — the next time you stifle your feelings because you’re afraid your partner may disagree, remember: conflict is growth trying to happen. And there is a way to sort out conflict in a safe way, that raises the relationship to a whole new level.