I believe that how well we deal with
our pain determines how successful we are in our relationships (and in
our lives in general), that most of us know very little about how to do
so, and that people go to therapists' offices hoping to allay their pain
after many other failed attempts to do so.
When I speak of pain, I mean the entire
spectrum, from the physical pain of a slipped disk or a sore tooth to the
emotional hurts, frustrations, sorrows and scares of losing a loved one,
being put down or threatened.
Most of us have been taught that to
acknowledge, experience and express any of life's inevitable pain is a
sign of weakness, of cowardice, of unworthiness; and we have learned our
lessons well. We stuff it, swallow it, choke it down, hold it back, keep
cool, maintain, keep from losing control. We run away from the disturbing
meanings of our distressing events; we particularly run from the possibility
or actuality of experiencing significant emotional pain, especially from
someone discovering that we are imperfect and therefore unlovable.
When it comes to pain, we have only
two choices, either to acknowledge/express/experience our distress or to
pretend that we are not hurting even though we are. We seem to believe
that pretending will keep the distressing event or the pain of it from
happening. But we can no more flee from what we feel (i.e., how we are
affected by how well or badly things are going in our lives) than we can
ignore the need to empty our bladders. We can seem to succeed for awhile,
but not forever. In fact, the more we try to stop it, the more we must
struggle, suffer, and be haunted by what we do not want to feel.
I believe that all addictions (e.g.,
nicotine, alcohol, chocolate, running, sex) are actually strategies aimed
at evading pain indefinitely. However, there are no free rides, no short-cuts.
Addictive behavior always involves compulsion, tolerance-building, damage
to one's body, and despair.
After specializing in "primal" therapy
for more than 14 years, I have reached the conclusion that most of what
we call "pathology" is the outcome of these attempts to avoid experiencing
the pain of anticipating being, or actually being, harmed or abandoned.
These struggles, sufferings, and hauntings generally begin early in life.
(They start even before birth, during birth, or during the first five years
of life, depending upon which expert you consult.)
When we were young, most of us could
keep pretending that someday some success (e.g., an advanced degree, a
promotion at work, wealth or love) would deliver us from our unwanted pain.
(For example, people have approached me for counseling only to cancel before
beginning because in the meantime they had found a new boy or girl friend.)
However, as the years unfold, it becomes increasingly difficult for us
to continue believing that success at love or work will save us from our
distress: because having achieved these things, we still suffer or, having
not achieved them, we can hardly continue pretending hope.
Another problem is that, in general,
the longer we attempt to avoid experiencing our particular pain—for instance,
the embarrassment of being criticized in front of classmates—the less clear
and more mysterious it tends to become. At this point people fearfully
describe a vague but frightening and real troubledness in their lives.
Unfortunately, this is usually also the point at which others tend to try
to dissuade such people from their pain (e.g., "There's nothing to worry
about," "Don't cry," "Everything will be okay"), as though it were possible
for them to choose otherwise; it is not, which is why everybody simply
hasn't decided to be happy.
We can move ahead only by first accepting
where we are. While attempts to escape from pain are ultimately impossible
and disturbing, truly acknowledging/experiencing/expressing our pain is
healing, integrating and in our (and, really, everyone's) best interest.
Experiencing our pain clarifies what we're in pain about, thus enabling
us to minister most effectively to ourselves. It also validates, supports,
reassures our distressed selves by providing, for each of us, a sense of
"I can," "I am able," "although difficult, this is something I can do;"
and it provides relief and a sense of well-being." The considerable energy
that previously had gone to the painful process of holding things back,
is being released, is unburdening and pleasurable.
One caveat: Since we have learned our
lessons well, pursuing this course of action can be confusing and frightening.
It is a journey that takes time and often requires skillful help.
E. Linn, Ph.D. • Empowering People