“Where there is love there is pain” –Spanish Proverb
I’ve known and lived with many amazing dogs and cats in my life. Each animal I’ve known has been special and wonderful in their own way. But then there is Dalai. She is my lifetime dog. When we adopted that scared little dog all those years ago, I could never have imagined how she would change my life. She’s the canine version of my soul mate.
The problem is Dalai is growing old
We’ve shared many, many years together, and unfortunately the fact of nature is that our canine companions’ time on this earth is way too short. Dalai (pictured above) is somewhere between 16 and 18 years old now. Gone are the days when we would end our early morning walks by chasing each other outside of the Brookings Institution (you should have seen the security guards out in front of that stodgy DC think-tank laughing at us each morning!) or of overhearing people at the park say things like “Wow, look at that little rocket dog run!”
We still have our daily walks, but they’ve become slow strolls– sometimes it takes her 20 minutes just to get around the block. More frequently we simply spend time together with her curled up and snoring away beside me on the couch, perfectly content to let her younger adopted sister take over ball-fetching duty. And nearly every day when I’m walking Dalai or sitting with her on the couch, I feel a deep sadness in my heart. As I am with her I am constantly reminded that her time with me is getting ever more finite. And sometimes that sadness is so intense that I have the thought that I can’t bear the feeling.
But here’s the thing…
If I’m not willing to have those thoughts and that sadness that shows up when I’m with Dalai, I can’t actually care for her in the way I would choose to during this time in her life. The only way to get away from these difficult thoughts and feelings is to not be around her. In order to spend time with her, to care for her and love her as my constant companion, then I have to experience my sadness at her impending loss. It’s the price of admission to be in this relationship.
My experience has been that those things that I care about the most, that are most meaningful in my life, are also the things that come with the most pain.
Check that out with your own experience. Are there areas in your life or relationships that you care about so deeply but that also bring a great deal of pain? Is it perhaps the case that the more you care about something, the more you’re opening yourself up to feeling pain?
Here’s an exercise I often do with clients around this struggle…
Step 1: Find some activity or relationship in your life that you value, but from which you find yourself pulling away. Maybe it’s a relationship you care about deeply but in which you’ve noticed you’ve been less engaged. Maybe it’s an activity you care about but you aren’t taking much action on.
Step 2: Now take out an index card or piece of paper. On one side, write down what you value in that relationship or area of living. Who do you really want to be to that individual? What are some descriptors of how you would like to be in that area of your life? Now turn the card over. On the other side, write down what difficult thoughts and feelings might show up for you when you start taking action toward that value. For example, for my card with Dalai it might look something like
Front of card
Being a caring steward and loyal companion to Dalai for as long as she lives with us.
Back of card
Step 3: Now take that card and put it in your pocket, wallet, or purse. For the next week, take it out and ask yourself: “Am I willing to have that card, both sides of it, in its totality or would I choose to walk away from it?” Because, it’s a package deal, you can’t have one side without the other.
Values are freely chosen; we get to decide whether we will pick up the card. What we don’t get to choose is what’s on the other side of the card. Those things just come along for the ride.
Dalai and I are in this together. So Sadness, strap yourself in because Dalai and I still have a ways left to go on this ride together!
Author: Jenna LeJeune, Ph.D
Jenna LeJeune, Ph.D. is co-founder and President of Portland Psychotherapy Clinic, Research, and Training Center in Portland, Oregon. As a clinical psychologist, Jenna specializes in working with clients struggling with relationship difficulties, including problems with intimacy and sexuality, trauma-related relationship challenges, and struggles people have in their relationship with their own bodies. She is the co-author of the forthcoming book, “Values in Therapy: A Clinician’s Guide to Helping Clients Explore Values, Increase Psychological Flexibility, and Live a More Meaningful Life.” Jenna is also a peer-reviewed ACT trainer and provides ACT trainings to professionals around the world.