I shared with a friend recently that I had been feeling acute emotional pain. His reaction surprised me. It was as if I’d just disclosed that I had cooties. He wanted to distance himself from that pain as quickly as possible and for me to disavow it. I shouldn’t call it “acute emotional pain.” See it as something else. Anything else. In the good life we are adept at staying out of pain.
I disagree. What made the difference even more interesting is that we are both psychotherapists. I see the pain as sacred; he as the enemy—much as doctors see symptoms of illness as an enemy to conquer rather than as a messenger.
I have been suspicious for some time of therapies that seem to involve some sleight of hand. It is like erasing the door and saying there is nothing in that room. There are ways to “disappear” symptoms, but I have seen that sometimes more severe symptoms replace them.
I think symptoms require something different: attending to them, listening to them, responding to them. Sometimes the pain just needs to be heard.
I had another round with pain today. How will I know if I am just reinforcing an old neuropathway or serving a higher purpose, I wondered. I recognized that the pain I was feeling arose not out of a narrative (thoughts), but from body-centered awareness. I decided to notice whether I felt better or worse after allowing this emotional pain to be there.
So I stayed with it. I met it, sometimes placing my hand on my heart center where the pain seemed to issue from. I cried. I wailed. Eventually a stillness settled in.
Usually at this juncture I get up and go “back to work,” but I thought this is too hard-won for that. Getting to a more pristine “empty” space around my heart was too valuable for me to exit now.
Staying with it took me to a naked place, where my heart had been bared. No protections and no interference. This, in turn, took me to some deep insight and deep connection. So in my experiment, staying with this pain was a fruitful thing.
Staying with emotional pain may not always be the wise thing to do. Not if the pain is overwhelming, and we fragment because we cannot hold it. Not if we use it to simmer in blame (of self or other). It is not good to cling to pain or to make it our identity. And of course not if we need to be in our resourced self at that moment.
My message is this: Pain is not the enemy. Yes, we need to be discerning, and we need to be skillful in dealing with it, but it is not something to quick, put out of sight.
Often we need support to meet deep pain. Therapy is one good place for this, but as my story indicates, choose carefully. You might also feel support from the Upper World if you are open to that.
The pain itself may instruct you if you know how to listen. If you are experiencing emotional pain, ask yourself: What does this pain want to tell me? How does it want to be met?