PAIN. It is the number one reason why people come to therapy. Whether it is from feeling sad or anxious, remembering a traumatic experience or a heartbreak; everyone comes in to treatment wanting the pain to go away. “When will it stop?” “I never want to feel this way again!” “Why is this happening to me?” These are all common sentiments that clients express when describing what they want from therapy. My response is always the same and always met with the side eye: “what if you could welcome the pain?”
There are few things in life that are certain and the fact that you will feel pain is one of them. If you heard me on the TFBG Podcast Episode98: ‘Showing up When You Want to Lay Down,’ you will hear Dr. Joy and I talk about pain and how to use the PACT (Plan, Acknowledge, Compartmentalize, Time) method to be able to manage having painful experiences when you still have real-life responsibilities. If you haven’t heard it, check it out. In this blog, I want to give you another idea. I hope to encourage you to consider that instead of running from pain we can welcome it, understand why it shows up for us and use it to learn what we need to do to take care of ourselves.
Pain is important. Without pain we would not know when there are things that are hurting us. When you do not know what is hurting you, you will continue to engage with it until the damage that it is causing is irreparable. Let’s think about fire. One of the earliest lessons that we learn as children is that fire burns. We are told that and some of us have the experience of getting close to fire, feeling the heat or maybe even feeling a little burn and so we know not to get too close and certainly we don’t put our whole hand in it and just keep it there.
Do you remember that scene in ‘Soul Food?’ For those of you who don’t know, ‘Soul Food’ is a movie made in 1997 starring Vanessa L. Williams, Nia Long and Vivica A. Fox. In the movie, the matriarch of the family, Big Mama, has uncontrolled diabetes which has resulted in some numbness in her limbs. As they are cooking her hand hovers over a fire too long and she burns it. She could not feel the heat of the fire and so she did not know to move her arm and she was badly burned because of it. If she could feel the pain of the fire, she would have known to move and not have had an injury to her arm.
You see, we often focus on the pain and make the pain the problem. However, if we can treat the pain like an alarm telling us that there is something happening that we don’t want to happen and get curious enough about that, we can get to the point of understanding ourselves and make some real changes in our lives.
Let’s look at the most dominant cause of emotional pain that therapists see: relationships. Many of my clients sought care after the end of a relationship. They are most perplexed when they are feeling the pain after they ended the relationship. They do not understand why they feel the pain of a break up they wanted. Reactive behaviors may have them in such a rush to not feel the pain that they go back into the relationship. However, when they are able to engage with the pain they realize they are sad. The sadness is not about the person they were with, but a general longing to be in a relationship. The feeling they identify is often lonely. They understand that the relationship represents having someone to take care of them and to support them emotionally, when desired.
This understanding gives us so much information to figure out how to move forward. 1) Was this need met in the last relationship. If it was, is it worth returning to?. If it wasn’t, would you want to be in that situation again? 2) You understand what you need in a relationship and what is a boundary for you moving forward. 3) You can create a plan so that you are meeting these emotional needs for yourself and understand who in your life can support you so that this feeling does not need to show up for you in the same way again. You would not have been able to do any of this without the pain showing up for you.
There are many places that pain comes from. There are many reasons that pain shows up. There are many things that you can do about it to address the situation that the pain is calling your attention to. Here is a 5 point method to connect to the pain to understand what it is showing up to tell you.
Pause: When we feel emotional pain we tend to become very reactive. More often than not we go to a learned coping skill to not feel the pain. Overworking, having sex, exercise, excessive drinking, projecting the pain onto others are just some of the things that we tend to do. When we are reactive in stuffing our pain, we are not taking care of ourselves. We are simply disconnecting from the feeling, which will never result in resolution. Taking a pause to acknowledge the pain allows us to give credibility to it, you have to engage with it in order to understand it.
1. Pause: When we feel emotional pain we tend to become very reactive. More often than not we go to a learned coping skill to not feel the pain. Overworking, having sex, exercise, excessive drinking, projecting the pain onto others are just some of the things that we tend to do. When we are reactive in stuffing our pain, we are not taking care of ourselves. We are simply disconnecting from the feeling, which will never result in resolution. Taking a pause to acknowledge the pain allows us to give credibility to it, you have to engage with it in order to understand it.
2. Breathe: I always recommend a healing breath when we are pausing to engage with pain. For some recommended breathing methods, check out this article or this video. A calming/healing breath will allow you to reduce the fear and anxious feelings and thoughts that can come with pain. Breath connects you to your nervous system and tells it that it does not need to engage in fight, flight, or freeze. You can take the time to figure this out because you are not in danger.
3. Locate the pain: When pain shows up we feel it in some part of our body. Take the time to locate it. Does it sit in your shoulders, stomach, head? Where is it?
4. Identify it: What we call pain is more than likely an overwhelming, intense emotion. We assign the title ‘pain’ because we do not take the time to understand what emotion is there. We have been so reactive, by trying to not feel it, that we simply say it hurts and do that ‘thing’ we know will allow us not to feel. After you locate it in your body see if you can name it. Using the Feelings Wheel, developed by Gloria Willcox, gives us the language to name the emotion.
5. Talk to it: Once you name it, return to your chosen relaxing breathing technique to connect to the pain. See if you can take a curious position about why the feeling is showing up and talk to it. Here are some questions to ask: “Why are you here?” “What are you trying to tell me?” “You show up to help me understand something, what is it?” “’What do I need to do about that?” Talking to the feeling not only can give you some clues about what you need, but it helps you to realize that it is not so scary or overwhelming. In fact, most of us can manage our ‘pain’ by using these techniques to better understand and take care of ourselves.
In no way am I trying to minimize the experiences of those who feel overwhelmed by life situations. These techniques can require support and I will always recommend that you seek the support of a licensed mental health professional to assist you in your journey. If you decide to give this method a try, don’t hesitate to drop me a line tell me how it worked for you.