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After one of my closest friendships unexpectedly ended, I popped my big-girl undies on and employed some grown-up strategies for dealing with relationship grief.
Due to the nihilistic brain fog that often accompanies grieving a relationship, it can be difficult to put words to the feelings. While pictures remind you of a thousand words; the following visual articulates it:
To pay due homage to the raccoon, and indeed to the protagonist of any story of relationship grief, for the duration of this piece, the words “significant relationship/s” will be replaced with the euphemism “cotton candy.”
Having never lost a limb, it would be disrespectful of me to imply that losing cotton candy feels anything like that. But I think that losing your cotton candy can be likened to losing a cognitive prosthetic. You know the kind of person I mean. The person who easily finds the words to articulate your feelings when you can’t; the person who, during a crisis, offers to hang on the end of a phone line all night, just so you know that someone else is breathing; the first person to offer you their car when you lose yours in a head-on collision; the person who you know you can offload all your crazy onto, knowing that they’ll easily take it in their stride and make you feel less crazy by completely out-crazying you; the person you use as a benchmark to measure others against, because you still love them even when they’re behaving like a complete bellend.
Recently I lost my cotton candy. But I don’t want to write about that because it’s not useful. I want to write about what I did afterwards, because that’s what’s important.
I watched the raccoon clip a lot of times, and I asked a treasured friend who has an annoying propensity for optimism how they would deal with l the raccoon’s dilemma. They replied with the following:
You drink the damn water. Unless it’s actual candy floss. That shit is poison!
In my own way, I took this advice on board and decided to drink in everything I could from a situation that, if handled thoughtlessly, could have been pretty depressing.
I’ve used philosophy, meditation, exercise, meaningful occupation, and elements of more traditional psychological therapies, to create an a priori framework for coming to terms with losing my *cotton candy.
Cry, heart, but never break
Despite advances made in the cultural shift away from “keeping a stiff upper lip” and toward embracing uncomfortable thoughts and feelings, irrespective of your gender there’s still quite a bit of embarrassment attached to crying. When you lose your cotton candy, there’s shame entwined with an undercurrent of “well, I only lost my cotton candy, it’s not like someone died…” and therefore an impetus to pull yourself up by your bootstraps.
But I’m calling bullshit on that.
In many respects, losing a relationship feels worse than death because in the former situation, you know that the person is still alive for everyone else; they are only dead to you. This may serve to exacerbate grief and stimulate unhelpful thoughts about how undeserving you are of their love and attention compared with others.
We can often find helpful wisdom distilled in children’s books to help with grown-up problems. Penned to assist children with overcoming grief, Cry, Heart, but Never Break is an illustrated meditation on loss and life that sketches death as a part of life, rather than the end of it. Although the book deals with literal mortality, the lessons are transferable to losing your cotton candy.
In order to help the children of Cry, Heart, but Never Break to understand the concept of death generally, as well as come to terms with the death of their grandmother, the character Death explains to the children the symbiotic relationship between joy and delight with grief and sorrow. The lessons to be applied to losing your cotton candy are as follows:
- Irrespective of whether they are ended by death or separation, relationships are ephemeral.
- The human experience is riddled with unavoidable emotional extremes that add to the richness of human experience.
Despite understanding all that, losing your cotton candy is still sad. So, cry; grieve; let it all out, but understand that it needn’t break you.
How someone treats you is often more indicative of their relationship with themselves, rather than their relationship with you
Oftentimes losing your cotton candy can make you feel pretty ripped off, especially if you endured unfair treatment.
Frankly, I bristle like a hedgehog at pseudo-intellectualism, inspirational quote-y memes and new age-y things generally. However, one morning I happened upon the following image; it’s a strong reminder of the importance of backing yourself rather than tolerating bad behaviour and taking on disproportionate responsibility in a conflict:
This is not to say that due introspection and owning your behaviour is redundant, but too often in the aftermath of a conflict, we blame ourselves for why things went wrong – particularly if you’re not sure why things fell apart. All that ruminating can be very damaging to your mental health. Our propensity to try to reach a solid conclusion on a slippery issue can result in immense distortions of reason. Proponents of cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) describe these kinds of unhelpful thinking patterns as cognitive distortions; identifying yours and addressing them is a great way to build mental muscle. CBT is evidence-based and the research has told us that addressing cognitive distortions actually helps to build new neurological pathways, which can alter or completely reorient the way you perceive events.
It’s gravely important to remember that human beings are complex animals, and that even if we’ve had fairly fortunate lives, we still carry the accumulation of a whole bunch of experience. Some of us employ strategies to carry our baggage as elegantly as possible despite its encumbrance; others choose to bludgeon other people with their baggage. If the latter describes what you’ve just been through, do your best to remember that although you may be involved in the conflict, you are not the sole owner of it.
Looking after yourself
Unless you are some kind of saint, the normal responses following the loss of cotton candy will probably manifest in a misuse of some combination of the following things: drugs, ice cream and sex.
Choosing coping strategies for dealing with losing your cotton candy is like choosing whether to eat pop tarts or porridge for breakfast. Choosing the first will be immediately satisfying, but not for long. Choosing the second, you may still long for the taste of the first option but ultimately, you have made a more sustaining and healthy choice that stabilises emotions rather than spikes them.
After some careful consideration, I chose work, good nutrition, exercise, learning and solitude as my comfort activities. I chose things that would assist me to be the best possible version of myself and achieve sustainable results. I chose work because I want to advance myself professionally and build on something for myself that has nothing to do with cotton candy; nutrition and exercise because I want to take care of my emotional and physical wellbeing whilst coming down from the sugar rush of the cotton candy; learning because I need to remember that there are many more important things in the world to think about besides cotton candy; and solitude because although I loved the cotton candy, I needed to remember that I was always, and still am a perfectly sufficient human being without it.
The way I’ve listed my strategies belies the difficulties I sometimes faced in employing them. The amount of times I considered engaging in self-destructive behaviour were countless but in the end, self-compassion won me over.
Practicing compassion toward self and others
Empathy is a revered quality and has been a buzzword in mental health for some time now, but when you’ve lost your cotton candy, empathy is not so helpful. If you’ve suffered because someone has behaved badly toward you, don’t force yourself to trudge around in their smelly old shoes. As previously discussed, a person’s negative behaviour toward you may be more to do with their relationship with themselves, and as magnanimous and altruistic as it might feel, no amount of your taking their perspective will help solve that riddle. Also, mollycoddling them will do nothing to aid their growth.
Instead, choose compassion: toward yourself and toward your cotton candy.
According to Karen Armstrong:
Compassion is aptly summed up in the Golden Rule, which asks us to look into our own hearts, discover what gives us pain, and then refuse, under any circumstance whatsoever, to inflict that pain on anybody else. Compassion can be defined, therefore, as an attitude of principled, consistent altruism.
Consistently with everything I’ve suggested thus far, I’m going to emphasise that practicing compassion is by no means the easier option. When confronted with unfair behaviour, my natural instincts are either to respond with aggression for short-term satisfaction, or submit and take the perspective of the other, to the extent where my own needs are suffocated (read: empathy).
Responding with compassion is to begin building a bridge to contentment. It still doesn’t come to me as naturally as I would like it to but that’s okay – values can be cultivated over time. The same homework principle for practicing CBT can be applied to practicing compassion. Make a conscious choice to respond with compassion, to yourself and to others, and new neurological pathways can and will be formed.
There is always more to be said on losing your cotton candy. Relationships are oft not finished with sharp, definite edges, and despite a relationship suffering seemingly irreparable damage, sometimes it can be repaired to become an even more beautiful version of itself than before.
The Japanese art of kintsugi is a kind of ceramic repair, whereby damaged pieces of crockery are welded back together with gold, thereby accentuating flaws and commanding them to be revered and respected.
That is my parting thought on cotton candy. Following a painful conflict, whether it is the relationship with yourself or with another that you are mending, make sure you mend it with gold, for there is no doubt that if it was a painful ending, everyone involved has a lot to learn, and therefore, to gain, from it.
*Renaming an upsetting thought or concept with a comical one is an evidence-based acceptance and commitment therapy technique used to de-fuse ourselves from unhelpful thoughts and feelings.