The young woman sat before me, shaking and sobbing. She had just finished telling me of how, a few years ago, she had been bullied really badly and had ever since fallen into a dark pit of depression. She spent the better part of an hour describing in excruciating detail everything that had been done to her. And it was bad. It was really bad. The student in front of me was scarred, was broken, and was still caught up in the trauma. She grabbed a notebook and said, “See? They even filled an entire notebook with mean comments and put it in my locker. Do you want to see? Just read everything they put in there!” She opened it up, and held it out to me.
I thought about this for a second, about how miserable this student was, about how she spent so much of her life dwelling on these horrible things that had been done to her, and about how badly I wanted to continue to comfort and commiserate with her. But, I decided to take a different approach.
“Nope. I don’t want to see it. And I don’t want you to ever, and I mean, EVER, look at it again. Even better, throw it away.”
She froze in place, and her jaw dropped open. Probably not the response she was looking for.
I continued: “Here’s why. What you see there in that notebook is unhealthy and will only cause you misery. Think of it as poison. Pure poison. Why would I want to purposefully ingest poison? Choose to jump into it? Rub it all over me? Let it saturate my pores and penetrate my skin? Poison kills, poison is bad for you and will only bring misery. So, why dwell on it?”
She looked down at the notebook, processing what I had said.
“Every time you open that notebook and read through it you are choosing to poison yourself. You are saying to yourself, ‘Hey, I’m just gonna take a dip here in this big vat of poison. Yep. I’m just going to marinate in it.’ Do you see how unhealthy that is? Why would you want to do that? What those kids did to you is horrible, and despicable, and yes, it hurt you. Poison does hurt, every time. But choosing to let it hurt you over and over again is like choosing to marinate in poison. You aren’t going to feel better until you stop. So, right now, I want you to close that notebook, and I don’t want you to look at it ever again.”
“Just….don’t look at it? Ever?”
I nodded. “Toss it, actually. I know it’s harder than it sounds, but in the end, it’s really that simple.”
She looked down at the notebook, at the object of her obsession, the object of torture and the source of her pain. She paused, thinking this over. The hand holding the notebook began to shake. She closed her eyes and with a tangible and visible effort, closed it. I could already feel her starting to detox.
I wish this student’s fixation on past hurts was the only example of this type of behavior that I could share; I wish I myself hadn’t engaged in this exact thing myself. But, it’s human nature. For some reason, we love to just sit in big vats of poison that life throws at us, instead of just walking away and leaving the pain behind us.
This poison can come in many forms. Sometimes, it comes from other people and life’s circumstances: bullying, insults, insensitive comments, offenses, stupid or mean remarks or treatment, abuse, the discovery of someone’s dislike of you, humiliation, loss, trauma, or grief. Sometimes, it comes from our own choices: mistakes we have made in the past, sin, weakness, or insecurities. You name any sort of negative or unfortunate thing that we deal with as humans, and right along with it will be us sitting right next to it, refusing to let it go.
And it poisons us. Each and every time we dwell on the pain and refuse to let it go, it damages us. It withers our soul; it creates darkness; it grows misery; it fosters bitterness. It takes root and flowers into a poisonous plant that will, eventually, control who we are.
This is not to say that feeling pain, that going through the normal grieving process is a bad thing. Actually, it’s good to feel hurt and grieve. We need to grieve—grieve our lost hopes, our lost friendships, our lost expectations of what others thought of us, our lost goals, our lost pride—and if we don’t go through that process we will be unable to, eventually, let go. So, it is not bad to feel hurt; pain shouldn’t be denied. However, there comes a point for each of us, after we’ve worked through the pain, where continuing to hold onto it becomes self defeating.
Say you are on a journey that branches off into two directions. One path, a path you have traveled many, many times before, is fraught with potholes, brambles, stickers, ankle-turning rocks, tangled forest and downed trees; poison ivy and oak are everywhere, and each and every time you have traveled it you have been stung, poisoned with the weeds and brambles. Old wounds opened, scars deepened, misery enhanced. The other road is well-lit and smoothly paved. After a bit of tangled growth, it is open, a fresh breeze blows, and it holds great promise to lead you to happiness and calm.
Which road do you choose? Well, many of us choose, over and over again, to take the poisoned path. To dwell with and relive the hurts, pain and injury.
Why? Why in the world would we choose to deliberately poison ourselves?
Well, because it’s not ALL bad. Keep in mind that there are many medicines and drugs that when first taken, actually feel quite nice; and are, perhaps, even therapeutic in small doses. It isn’t until we are addicted and eaten away inside that we realize how dangerous they are. But in the beginning, it’s nice. Receiving sympathy is one example that may fall under this category. Initially, sympathy can serve as a healing balm and a support. But, what if we take that balm and don’t allow it to help us move on? We keep seeking it, even after it is useful? After all, it just feels so good, so re-affirming, especially compared to the hurt. Unfortunately, it can also set us apart, and make us feel unique in some way; dwelling on the hurt in order to latch onto the warm companionship of a listening ear can become a way of life. There is something about retaining a victim persona that can be just appealing enough for us to begin to erect a thought prison of our own making.
For example, many years ago I had a student who used to come in and talk to me for hours, fixating on something that a friend had done to her several years before that had really hurt her. Despite all that was wonderful in her life, the pain caused by her friend was all she wanted to talk about. She had built her entire reality and her entire emotional health around that incident. Any time I tried to encourage her to move past it, to let it go, she would get angry with me and accuse me of not caring about her. Eventually, I changed the subject any time she brought it up. Slowly, she stopped coming to talk to me. I discovered later that she had been spending time with a different teacher, hours upon hours, talking about the incident. I guess she found someone who was more willing to wallow in the poison with her.
With these examples, and many more I could identify, I doubt we are fully cognizant of what we are doing to ourselves; but, we tend to repeat things that benefit us in some way, even sub-consciously. And for some of us, the sympathy and concern people show us when we display our injuries is well worth the occasional trip down a poisoned path.
Additionally, when we dwell on the pain that others inflict upon us, it is sometimes because we have an innate desire for justice. Part of us is and always will be dismayed and insulted that such bad behavior from others can exist and go unnoticed and punished. If we don’t wallow in it, if we don’t show how much it hurt us, then how can the person who hurt us ever truly feel sorry? They’ll never know, and they’ll never learn their lesson. They need to pay. And the only way they can pay is if they see how much damage they’ve done. If we just bounce back and are happy, then how will they know how important it is for them to change?
Now, many of you at this point are completely on board with what I am saying, and agree on many counts. You make efforts to not be that person who is stuck, marinating in the poison, ranting to everyone you meet. But there are many of us who still unconsciously choose to journey down the poisoned path over and over again, but this time with just us and our thoughts, quietly simmering. We tell no one of our pain, and dwell on it alone. Though not blatantly visible to others around us, those bitter thoughts will eventually impact our behavior in other ways, leaving a trail of poisoned fingerprints on anything we touch. Our thoughts are where it’s at, people. All actions are preceded by a thought. Focusing on the negative—even if only in your own head—WILL affect your behavior and quality of life.
And sometimes, our choice to dwell in the negativity is so small and subtle that we don’t even realize we are doing it. Our days are filled with ample opportunities to marinate in poisonous thoughts. Sometimes I’ll find myself stewing over a negative Facebook comment someone made on one of my posts, or silently harboring hurt over the way that one person reacted to me at lunch, or over the fact that my husband didn’t notice me needing help with the kids that morning, or…..you get the point. And when we unnecessarily dwell on those things, it changes our days, our reactions to our families, our attitudes, our….everything. Every day, in every moment—life hands us moments, good and bad, and it is our choice what we do with them.
So, consciously or not, many of us keep propelling ourselves down the path of pain and misery over and over again. And each step we take, each time we choose to walk down that path, we lose a portion of ourselves. Is this what we really want? Why are we doing this to ourselves? Right now, I could give you example after example of my own personal poisonous experiences, of people who have hurt me, of mistakes I have made, of miseries in my own life: however, in even trying to come up with an example, I feed the poison within myself.
So, at this point, we’re thinking: sure, sure, you can SAY “just let go,” but it’s not that easy. Of course it isn’t. I know this personally. For much of my life I was one of those students that I could have easily used as an example in this post. I spent hours, days, years, dwelling and stewing and analyzing and hurting over...well, everything. It was part of my entire identity. And it has taken years and years, and constant vigilance to slowly wean myself from the addiction.
So, how? How do we let go? First, we must recognize how tightly we’re holding on to what can only continually hurt us. If there is any action we need to take to work through the pain, take it. Talk to the person who hurt you if it will help. Cry over the pain, the very real pain that you’re feeling. Fully feel the suffering—don’t deny it or stifle it. Hold a funeral for your dashed hopes. Work through those stages of grief. Then, after all of this, through sheer stubbornness and determination, refuse to dwell too much on it any longer. Distract yourself. Find a hobby that you cling to instead of the hurt. Find a great “reality check” friend who you can call to help pull you out of your toxic thoughts when they creep up. Practice eradicating unhealthy thought patterns and replacing them with healthy ones.
Finally, remember that you have divine help. You are mercifully invited to “Cast thy burden upon the Lord, and he shall sustain thee.” If letting go seems impossible; if yielding up the weight that’s been slowly crushing you all these years seems to require too much strength, the beautiful thing is that you don’t have to cast it off alone. On your knees, place that burden at the feet of Him who rose from the ultimate burden and suffering. And with your combined effort, He will help take your pain away. He will help you to seep the poison from your mind, and one day, you will wake up and wonder how you were ever burdened by those things. It’s liberating, let me tell you.
So, let’s stop. Let’s not let anyone, or even our past mistakes, determine our path or happiness today. Let’s gather light, marinate in goodness, and exude qualities that draw people to us because we emanate joy, not misery. Let’s stop choosing poison.