Elisabeth Kubler-Ross is well known for her groundbreaking work with the dying and for helping to launch the hospice system. She is often referred to as the ‘death and dying lady’. But few have heard of her pioneering work in the healing of emotions, the quadrant most neglected in our society and our schools. This work changed my life.
I’m not into gurus, especially the ones who say they are infallible and have all the answers. People who inspire you or provide a key – now that’s a different matter.
Elisabeth Kubler-Ross is one of these people. A Swiss-born psychiatrist, she became famous in the 1960s for helping transform the care of the terminally ill. She also went on to document many stories of near-death experiences, which convinced her that there was life after death – something her medical colleagues baulked at. Even more controversial, she became involved with (but eventually disassociated herself from) a spirit channeller called Jay Barham whose method included psychodramas, sex, trances and séances.
However there is another area in which she is scarcely known: her work with emotions. Her method of ‘emotional externalisation’ is both simple and profound and out of all the techniques (yoga, meditation, psychotherapy, etc.) I’ve explored in the last 30 years, this more than any other led to real lasting changes in my life.
Elisabeth Kubler-Ross taught that emotions are natural and healthy and need to be expressed. When we suffer loss, we need to grieve. If we are hurt or our boundaries violated it is healthy to feel anger. If we are threatened, it is natural to feel fear. Even jealousy and envy can be acknowledged and transformed into emulation.
I have met very few adults in my life who are able to express their emotions appropriately, in the moment – without hurting others or themselves. Usually their emotions are distorted or misplaced. Who hasn’t known someone who has ‘gone over the top’ with their anger – all their stored and unspoken resentments suddenly coming to the surface and spilling out? Or someone who shuts down, becomes depressed?
And is it any wonder? How many times were we told as children to ‘stop crying’, ‘don’t be angry’, ‘ignore the bully’, etc? Even where there is trauma, loss or abuse we learnt that it is not safe to express emotions; instead they go underground or else are acted out in inappropriate ways.
I don’t remember ever expressing anger while I was growing up. It was safer for me to run and hide down the back paddock and collapse into tears. I don’t ever remember my mother standing up to my father when he was bullying or ordering us around. I remember her tight grimaces, cold glares and never-ending sadness. Looking at family photographs, even though we are all smiling, we were not happy. The strain seeps through. My mother and I coped by turning our anger inwards. My sister and brother acted out theirs and I was often their target.
I left home as soon as I could, only to struggle through my late teens and early twenties. There was no name then for the depression or loneliness that would creep up on me. I kept moving from flat to flat, house to house, endlessly packing and unpacking my possessions hoping that a change of environment would make me feel better, make a difference. At the same time I was hauling along an ever-growing load of emotional baggage! And fast becoming an emotional cripple.
Elisabeth Kubler-Ross calls this baggage ‘unfinished business’. “Unfinished business isn’t about death. It’s about life. It addresses our most important issues, such as ‘Yes, I made a nice living but did I ever take time out to live?’ Many people have existed, yet never really lived. And they expend tremendous amounts of energy keeping a lid on their emotions. Since unfinished business is the biggest problem in life, it’s also the primary issue we address as we face our death. Most of us pass on with a great deal of unfinished business.”
Her method of emotional healing grew out of her work with the terminally ill. When she moved to the United States in the 1960s, death was a taboo subject. In her 1997 autobiography ‘Wheel of Life’ she wrote that she was appalled by the treatment of dying patients, claiming they were shunned and abused. Doctors even lied to patients! And so she began to hold seminars in which the terminally ill could talk about their experiences and feelings in the presence of medical students. Even though some of her colleagues were appalled, she became a national celebrity after Life magazine did an article on one of these extraordinary sessions. She followed this success with her best-selling book, based on over 500 interviews, ‘On Death and Dying: What the Dying Have to Teach Doctors, Nurses, Clergy and Their Own Family’.
From 1970, hundreds of ‘Life, Death and Transition’ workshops were held all over the world. Initially these residential retreats were for those dying, their carers and family members but eventually were made available to everyone. They were places where people could safely express pent-up emotions of grief, anger, fear and rage – their ‘unfinished business’. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross often described her workshops as getting in touch with ‘your Nazi monster symbolically speaking and getting rid of it so that you can indeed become a Mother Teresa’. She regarded the Mother Teresa part the best and compassionate in us while the Hitler the worst in us – our negativity and smallness.
At the end of World War II, she was profoundly affected by a visit to a Nazi concentration camp. She could not comprehend how men and women could kill thousands of innocent children and the same day perhaps worry about their own child at home who has chicken pox. She decided then that she was going to make it her life’s work to try to understand why people who once had been beautiful and innocent children turned into Nazi monsters.
Specific techniques were used in the workshops for the safe externalisation of distorted or repressed emotions. Elisabeth or a member of her staff would sit alongside a mattress on the floor. If a person felt like doing ‘a piece of work’ (there was no compulsion to do this) he or she could move on to the mattress. This mattress was regarded as a safe or sacred space where a person could scream, yell, howl, swear, cry and rage or simply talk – tell their story.
At one end of the mattress would be a pile of neatly stacked telephone books. For rage and anger, a reinforced hose could be used to bash these books. Even bare hands to rip them up. And when tears came – lots of boxes of tissues, pillows or teddy bears at hand. People sitting around the room, watching, would often identify and even be triggered by hearing or listening to a person’s story or pain.
Can you imagine a place where you can scream at the top of your voice at someone (from your past) who may have terrified or terrorised you? Sob deeply at a loss that has never been grieved fully? Rage at someone who may have violated or mistreated you? And not be judged or analysed.
During the ’90s I did a number of workshops in Australia and New Zealand led by facilitators whom Elisabeth Kubler-Ross had trained. (By that time she had stopped giving workshops herself.) I leapt onto the mattress many times. Working though my childhood, traumas I had experienced in India in the ’70s and several relationships since. Unburdening myself and beginning to honour that part of me that is vulnerable. The little girl inside me that was not allowed to be herself, finally expressed herself.
I also realised I wasn’t alone. Others have had harrowing lives, a few have experienced unbelievable torture, and all of us have suffered in various ways.
This work changed my life, and had an enormous influence on they way I brought up my two children. It helped me break the cycle of abuse that was part of my family heritage. From then on my focus was on providing a safe home for them, a place where they could express their emotions, tell me how they felt, let out their fears and frustrations etc. Be vulnerable. This work changed their lives too.
Of course, there are many ways to heal traumas and losses and this technique is not for everyone. And even in the field of ‘emotional externalisation’ there are other methods besides the one Elisabeth Kubler-Ross developed. Regardless, I believe that in our society and especially our schools out of the four quadrants – physical, intellectual, emotional and spiritual – it is the emotional quadrant that is most neglected.
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