“Mary, tell me again why you cheated on your husband.”
Mary looked at me, a bit confused. We had gone over this several times in the past two years, but Mary was stuck and she knew it, so she answered my question.
“I had caught him with porn so many times and he just never seemed to put me as a priority in his life. I hadn’t felt important in years and then ... Jim just made me feel so special. So cherished.” She said as she covered her face with her hands.
Mary was stuck in her shame. She felt her scarlet letter disqualified her from anything good in life. Her brain knew there was a difference between her behavior, which was wrong, and her soul, which was incredibly valuable, but her heart was stuck believing she was completely worthless in light of what she had done. Mary berated herself for being so stuck. She believed, as most of us do, a very quiet lie: Information should be sufficient to move our heart and heal our shame.
The truth is, while accurate information and understanding are important, they are always insufficient to cause lasting change. These truths must be experienced in our soul. We must feel the truth, not just know it. Mary knew I didn’t judge her, but she would remain stuck until she let herself experience my acceptance — and that was about to happen.
“Your husband made you feel worthless and Jim made you feel precious. For decades you lived in the middle of the desert and all of the sudden water appeared,” I affirmed.
“That’s right,” Mary replied. “I wouldn’t even consider it at first, but then it became so irresistible.”
“Exactly.” I smiled softly. “Even though you knew the water was filthy, like drinking out of a dirty toilet, the thirst drove you to throw your face in there anyway.”
Mary laughed. “I suppose so, yes.”
“Mary …” I began. “You were desperate for someone you could trust with your whole self, and then this guy shows up. You knew it wasn’t right, but the thirst pushed you forward until you gave yourself to him. That makes a lot of sense.”
Mary’s smile vanished as she looked at the ground.
“And he was so good to me,” she said weakly. “He was safe ... and kind.”
“You needed someone to hold you, after all these years — and he did. You trusted him. You gave all of yourself to him because he was safe.”
Mary’s tears started to fall.
“And then, in an instant, he dropped you,” I continued. “You put the most fragile and tender parts of yourself in his hands and he dropped you, without hesitation. The second things started crashing down, he disappeared, and you fell ... hard. Nothing and no one was there to catch you, so you shattered.”
Mary’s tears flowed harder.
“You can’t help but say, ‘I will never trust again. I will never let someone in and make me their fool again. Mary ... who wouldn’t feel that way if they were in your shoes?”
I could see this was tearing at Mary’s heart, so I gave her some space.
“How could I have been so wrong?”
Mary wept quietly. Bitterly.
In that moment I wanted nothing more than to let up, to give Mary a break from this desperate pain and tell her she was precious and the pain wouldn’t last forever. But simply holding this pain with her was infinitely more important and healing.
“Mary, even in this space, this overwhelming and wretched darkness, you still make sense. It’s my honor to stand with you, right here,” I said.
This time the face under Mary’s tears was like a young girl who was just told she is beautiful. She had brought her worst pain into the room and felt held, instead of abandoned — completely free from judgment or shame … and her soul felt it.
This is the true purpose of our emotions. A heart remains stuck if it cannot experience the truth of life. Emotions — all of them — are what connect us to what happens in our life.
You feel happy and proud when you see your kids stand up for what’s right. You feel devastated, lost, and angry when you lose your mother to cancer. Those emotions are in alignment with what actually happened.
When we don’t feel our true emotions, we get stuck. When we’ve been stuck for a while, we experience misaligned emotions (i.e., we feel anxious when we are given a compliment) or we just stop feeling altogether, which promptly sinks us further.
Feeling emotions that match reality, no matter how difficult or socially stigmatized, is mental health. You are having a real connection with real life. Remember that.
— Scott Nuismer is a licensed professional counselor in Holland. Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. For more, visit UpgradeYourMarriage.com or on Facebook at Hope Heals Counseling LLC.