The Big Happiness Interview: How to heal your past to have a happier future

‘I knew my life had to change when I found myself face down in the ladies loo,’ says Donna Lancaster, author of The Bridge: A Nine Step Crossing Into Authentic And Wholehearted Living.

‘I couldn’t understand why my heart was beating so fast. My breathing was shallow and my palms were sweaty.

‘I haven’t got time for this, I thought. But I just couldn’t stop crying.’

Donna’s breakdown led to a breakthrough to finding a new way to process heartbreak and pain.

Donna has worked as a coach and therapist for more than 30 years where she has discovered ‘what best supports people to heal from their past and live fully in the present.’

Formerly the head of teaching at the Hoffman Institute UK, Donna co-created The Bridge Retreat, a six-day personal development experience endorsed by the likes of Fearne Cotton and Thandiwe Newton and has created a practical n-step process to releasing pain, fear and anger.

She explains: ‘It’s about asking questions like: “Where in my life am I still hurting? Where in my life am I still facing repetitive negative patterns?”’

She adds: ‘It’s about being willing to ask those challenging really difficult questions and how it relates to your past.

‘And then it’s about making a map of your losses and heartbreaks and asking questions like “where does this hurt live in my body?”

‘The Bridge process helps people believe that healing is possible as well as necessary for all of us.’

Here Donna talks to Metro.co.uk about how to heal our past heartbreaks so we can enjoy our future.

What is the secret to happiness?

The secret that nobody tells us is that grieving is the secret to happiness.

Grieving can bring us back to where we began, which is back to that feeling of childlike joy, and feeling wonder at life.

Originally, I was going to call the book – ‘the secret bridge to joy’. This secret bridge is the practical application of the grieving process. Because essentially that is what lightens our load so we can feel happier.

When you talk about ‘grief’ you’re not just talking about a bereavement?

People often associate grief with bereavement but the true definition of grief is the natural emotional reaction to any significant loss.

We have a range of feelings that are related to losing people or losing aspects of ourselves or losing connection to others through the end of a relationship, divorce etc.

So when I say grieving, I’m talking about those natural emotional reactions.

When we experience loss, we experience heartbreak, and we have feelings about that. But whether we allow ourselves to feel those feelings or not is another matter.

But most of us do not want to feel that heartbreak because it’s too painful.

Everyone will experience loss and our lack of preparation in how to deal with life’s inevitable losses is a serious disadvantage, given that they are coming for all of us.

Instead of dealing with the loss in a healthy way, we exhaust ourselves by keeping busy and working so hard that we are too tired to feel anything at all. We self-medicate, abusing food, alcohol or other drugs. We scroll Instagram or watch Netflix for hours until we’ve completely zoned out. We do almost anything to ease or numb the pain of the past. 

Above all, we do not go looking for the reasons that we feel so bad. In fact, we will often go to any lengths to conceal our hurt from our friends, partner, doctor and family. And, crucially, from ourselves.

The secret that nobody tells us is that grieving is the secret to happiness

How do you know that you’ve got unresolved issues?

Like most of us, you may not have been shown how to express your emotions healthily, or how to heal, you may still be feeling stuck and hurting in some aspects of your life. You might feel you’re not good enough; you might feel angry or afraid. You might feel disappointed, disconnected, numb or just plain sad; others will suffer from anxiety or depression.

Or perhaps your heartbreak speaks through your body in the form of chronic back pain, IBS, headaches or skin problems.

Rather than pay attention to these distress signals, many of us develop coping mechanisms to allow ourselves to ignore them and carry on living our lives.

We distract ourselves by pursuing relationships, sex, money or status.

So what can we do instead?

Learn a kinder, gentler, more effective way to process our emotional pain. And to do that you need to start at the beginning.

So often people will focus on, for example, a very recent heartbreak. A client might say ‘I split up from my partner after six weeks or six months’ and they find the reaction to that loss is disproportionate to what happened. I invite clients to follow the ‘timeline of heartbreak’, to follow the trail to the past and explore when did they first felt abandoned and rejected (which is one of the core wounds for so many of us.) And then clients will talk about when a parent died when they were five, or when their mum and dad got divorced when they were eight.

You follow it back to the original heartbreak and then the healing begins. You also get to map the feelings and the beliefs that you have taken on as a result of each of those early unprocessed heartbreaks, which impact everything.

So you gain greater awareness of how the past is impacting your present?

Yes. You map your losses on your ‘timeline of heartbreak’ and you can see more clearly how those losses are affecting your relationships or how you feel about yourself.

But awareness is just the first step. It’s what we choose to do it with it.

It comes back comes back to the grieving process. We need to allow ourselves the space and the time to feel our feelings, related to the original source of that wound.

And of course, that’s not comfortable for any of us. But rather than constrict and suppress and shut down pockets of our heart, the Bridge process invites you to feel your emotions and allow yourself to grieve.

Then you are able move through it, and move on in our lives as we are meant to.

Where should we start on this journey?

Personal enquiry. Starting to observe, notice and reflect on how you’re feeling and start to get to understand why you may be reacting the way you are reacting.

For example, starting to understand that ‘when my boss talks to me at work like this and I react like that, it might be because I have issues with the authority because my father was very dominant’.

I end each chapter in the book with personal inquiry questions. So create time for a reflective practice, and that can be 10 minutes where you ponder questions like – why am I resisting looking at this area of my life? Or why do I seem to keep repeating the same relationship pattern?

Then you write stream of consciousness, and you see what it brings in terms of enhancing your awareness. Journaling is a wonderful tool.

What else can help on this journey within?

I encourage people to learn self-parenting tools, also known as self-soothing.

It’s learning to comfort your inner child or children when you find yourself triggered by the past. It’s finding ways to look after those younger, vulnerable parts of yourself and by self-soothing you are showing yourself your own positive attention, your own care, your own respect, and that enhances self-worth.

It also helps us to build emotional resilience because we know in future when we experience loss, we can self soothe and can look after ourselves.

I also recommend visualisation.

What is a good visualisation to try?

Visualisation will help you soothe your adult self and your inner wounded child. I ask people to imagine that five-year-old child that felt humiliated and full of shame and imagine her sitting in front of you. Split yourself off and imagine the wise adult you comforting that child. It’s very powerful.

Self-parenting is about having compassion. If a five-year old was sitting in front of you, you wouldn’t say: “For goodness sake, pull yourself together”. You’d say, “it’s okay, let’s sit on the sofa and relax”.

Instead of dealing with the loss in a healthy way, we exhaust ourselves by keeping busy and working so hard that we are too tired to feel anything at all. We self-medicate. We do almost anything to ease or numb the pain of the past. 

But that’s hard when your inner critic is haranguing you.

Yes. Start by banning derogatory language about yourself. Or running yourself down. You don’t have to treat yourself as you were treated as a child.

Let’s say you parents died or went away when you were younger, it can feel like abandonment but often we go on for years abandoning and betraying ourselves.

Language is such an empowering thing so you choose to talk to yourself and about yourself from a place of power. If you’re not sure what that looks like, get on YouTube, and look at people that you admire in the public eye and see how the Oprahs of the world hold and speak about themselves.

To do that, we need to do what I call ‘finishing our business’, grieve our losses, peel back the masks and look at the beliefs that we put in place to protect ourselves and then reclaim our power.

It is terrifying to ask – who am I if I’m not the strong one, the capable one, the achiever? By asking questions like that, you create space, which feels like emptiness at first.

But in that space we start to get to know the person we were before the world broke our heart.

Five questions to ask to start healing your past:

  • What impact did the events on my ‘timeline of heartbreak’ have on my life?
  • What negative beliefs have I taken on as a result of these experiences, about myself, other people and the world?’ (Examples might be: ‘I’m unlovable’. ‘People always leave’. ‘The world is a cruel place’.)
  • What masks have I worn in order to cope with or deny my pain? (For example, the coper, the helper, the goody-goody.)
  • What behaviours or substances have I used to move away from and/or soothe my pain? How have they served me and what have they cost me?
  • In what ways have I used relationships to try to ‘fix’ or soothe myself ? (For example, focusing on others’ needs rather than your own, blaming other people, sex and intimacy, etc. Include all relationships – intimate, family, friends and work.)

The Bridge: A nine step crossing into authentic and wholehearted living by Donna Lancaster (Penguin Life, £16.99) is out now.

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