Counter-Steering Through Loss


Motorcycle riders call it counter-steering. When taking a turn, counter-steering is the process of pushing the handlebars in the opposite direction you think you should, and leaning your body toward the turn. Even when this accompanies the sensation that you could topple over with the bike, leaning into what feels like it might take you down is what actually allows you to execute the turn safely.

Navigating this life unscathed, unscarred, or unimpacted by the crushing sensation of heartbreak, the sting of rejection, or the raw and ever-present void from the death of a loved one is nearly impossible. All of these losses, among others, can leave us with feelings of loneliness and hopelessness. Can we learn how to move beyond the pain and into a state of renewed understanding, insight, and awareness? Are we able to bring peace and hope back into our heart after it has felt broken?

The key to resolving and making sense of our grief may seem counterintuitive. Our brains have been equipped with a complex network that has one ultimate goal… survival. Our natural instinct is a primitive, survival-driven desire to stay alive, whether that means to defend ourselves (fight), to run away (flight), or to shut-down (freeze).

When it comes to loss and heartache, the brain may experience this as a threat to survival. Many times our instinct is to run from the pain; to push ourselves onto a carousel of distraction. We may flee into work, exercise, social diversion, or revert to vices such as drugs/alcohol, food, sex, shopping, gambling, etc. If we find ourselves unable to escape the pain, we may feel overcome by it, leaving us frozen, disabled, or immobilized. We may try to fight our feelings and defend ourselves against the pain, reciting common refrains like “It wasn’t meant to be;” “It wasn’t my fault;” “This too shall pass;” “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” All of which may be true, but all too often these expressions do very little to comfort or console us when our heart is hurting.

So what can we do? How can we honor ourselves by acknowledging what we feel, recognize the validity of our emotional experience, and empower ourselves to move through it toward authentic healing?

As the laws of physics make counter-steering on a motorcycle necessary, the most effective way of fully processing a loss may also seem counterintuitive. Even if it means moving through fear and uncertainty, the combination of leaning into what we are feeling, and continuing to accelerate as we come through it, allows us to remain mobilized and stay on the bike, so to speak. There may not be a law of physics or an exact equation to cure heartache; we are each left to process it in our own unique way. However, by leaning into our emotional experience, even when it feels contrary to our natural instincts, we are ultimately more likely to recover from life’s difficult and dangerous turns.

Strategies to consider:

  • Cultivate and ensure a safe environment for processing your emotional experience. This may include inviting the support of trustworthy people in your life. Or it may mean giving yourself the time and opportunity to be on your own.
  • Create a space for what you are feeling, and gently explore the sensation of leaning in toward those feelings.
  • What do you feel in your body?
    ~What thoughts arise?
    ~How do your feelings shift in the process?
  • Maintain a sense of openness. Even if the instinct is to withdraw, make a conscious effort to stay open and available to your emotional experience.
  • As you come through the emotional experience, stay mobilized physically. This may entail engaging in a activity like taking a walk, making adjustments to your environment, or doing some gentle stretching.