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Why Mourning for the Self Is a Necessary Part of Healing

It's not about self-pity.

Key points

  • Anxiety and depression are symptoms of buried core emotions.
  • Healing involves processing emotions caused by childhood wounds and traumas.
  • Mourning for the self is a healthy part of recovery and not self-pity.
  • Mourning for the self honors the pain of what we went through and often precedes access to the openhearted state of the authentic self.

Robert, an adult in his 50s, had been processing the early emotional neglect and abuse that led to his low self-esteem and a decade-long depression. Using the Change Triangle as a guide, we had processed his rage, fear, and disgust. With my support and his courage, he felt his way through each emotion: naming it, validating it, sensing it physically, and allowing it to flow up and out through his body. As the wave of each core emotion rose then fell, Robert experienced relief, mastery, and newfound clarity.

The most surprising part of this process for Robert, however, was the deep sadness that spontaneously emerged alongside relief, lightness, and growing confidence. In accelerated experiential dynamic psychotherapy (AEDP), we call this phenomenon mourning for the self.

Mourning for the self is healing in action. Fully feeling the core emotions that stemmed from his past traumas, Robert developed a profound understanding of how much he had suffered. With that acknowledgment came deep sadness for what he went through.

Some people confuse mourning for the self with self-pity. Merriam-Webster defines self-pity as “A self-indulgent dwelling on one's own sorrows or misfortunes.” That is not what mourning for the self is about. Self-pity stands in stark contrast to AEDP’s definition of mourning for the self which is "grief for the self, a painful but liberating experience of compassion for the self."

Processing core emotions the way we do in accelerated experiential dynamic psychotherapy (AEDP) requires a compassionate stance towards ourselves. Many people struggle with self-compassion. When I first met Robert, he had disdain for his inner children. When I coached him to approach himself with radical compassion and acceptance, he said things like I hate that part of me for being weak and I blame myself. I should have been able to escape.

I asked him, “Would you ever blame your son if a teacher or adult relative mistreated him?”

He retorted with an emphatic, “No!”

“Why not?” I asked.

“Because he is innocent and just a helpless child. He deserves to be seen, loved, and treated kindly.”

“Exactly,” I said, “You know just how to be a good parent. Can you turn all that love and compassion inward to the little boy you once were?”

And then, an epiphany. He got it.

Mourning for the self is about not only understanding what we have been through but feeling for ourselves. The consequences of our traumas are huge. Years of life may have been compromised by false beliefs that we were not good enough or worthy of being loved. Beliefs that others could not possibly accept us for our true self, flaws and all, led to loneliness and a feeling of disconnection. Unsatisfying relationships were the norm because we lacked trust in others. Many of us never had the pleasure of being in our bodies, feeling vital and authentic.

I love being an AEDP therapist because I see it as a healing model with predictable results. Over and over again, I have witnessed my patients process emotions and heal from their traumas. They recover their true self. A key part of this process involves acknowledging losses and mourning.

Tears poured down Robert’s face as one hand covered his eyes in embarrassment. “I hate crying,” he said. Feeling deep love and admiration for this man, I gently whispered, “Your sadness is beautiful. It comes from your strength. This is your love… for yourself… and it’s good to let it come.”

References

Fosha, D. (2000). The Transforming Power of Affect: A Model for Accelerated Change. New York: Basic Books

Fosha, D., Siegel, D., Solomon, M. (2009). The Healing Power of Emotion: Affective Neuroscience, Development & Clinical Practice (Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology). New York: W.W. Norton

Hendel, H.J. (2018). It’s Not Always Depression: Working the Change Triangle to Listen to the Body, Discover Core Emotions, and Connect to Your Authentic Self. New York: Random house

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