Imagine for a second that you and I are replaying an early moment in the history of Psychotherapy. Let’s use the original wording from that period and say that one of us is the analyst and the other is the patient. Our method for this pretend session will be word association: the analyst states a series of seemingly random words and the patient responds to each one by stating the first thing that comes up, sincerely if possible. Although we might engage this way for hours, the following pairing still stands out for us as one of the more haunting ones: when one of us says “growth”, the other solemnly responds “grieving.”
That pairing is jarring because of how we customarily regard these two ideas. We think of growth as something positive, implying gains, while grieving, because it is painful and involves major loss, more often figures as something negative. Except for that possible link between them as characteristic antonyms, why associate one with the other? Why juxtapose growth and grieving? Their apparent incongruity makes a good case against uniting them at all. The case in favor of uniting them rests on its possible higher alignment with common experience.
When people grow, they often grieve. I see it all the time in my psychotherapy practice. For me that timing for grieving gives a stamp of authenticity to the growth, as if sealing it in place. One explanation might be that a process we all understand and accept when we see it in one direction is simply happening in the other direction, but no less sensibly. That is, we expect grief to come first. When we lose something, we grieve our loss. Then when the grieving finishes, the inner space becomes available for expansion and growth to refill us. Does this process have to take place in that order? No, not really. When people start new relationships to get over a prior one or whenever they unexpectedly break down in tears while things are going very well, the process expresses in reverse.
But I think there’s more to it than sequence. I think growth brings out grieving because once we have grown in some way, we have moved to a new vantage point from which our past becomes clearer. When we then look back on who we were before the growth took place, we see how that former self painfully lacked what the new self now contains. For instance, when one of my clients gains greater capacity for setting personal boundaries, that new habit further clarifies for the client how he or she has been living without sufficient boundaries until now, and the costs. There is terrible pain to reckon with in that accounting of the past. There is typically a sense that a lot of time has been lost, that opportunities for deeper living have been missed or misused. Sometimes trauma surfaces, as if for the first time. Grieving such losses, actual or imagined, is one way we claim our new growth as something highly significant.
Take a moment to reflect on times when you have grown in some way. Maybe you graduated from a challenging course of study. Maybe you made a bold move to take your life to the next level. Maybe your heart opened more deeply to relationship and love. Maybe your spiritual path became more compelling in quality. In every case, one aspect of your expanded capacity will be its power newly to illuminate how you did not access that capacity before, and how painful it may seem in retrospect to have lived out of touch with it. The grief from that reflection need not be a problem or a strike against success. Rather, it usefully corroborates that personal evolution has taken place for you. It is simply part of being human that rich expressions of emotion usually punctuate our most expansive experiences.