Relating to Difficult Emotions

Many of us believe that the experience of emotional pain and suffering is an indication that something must be wrong -- wrong with us, with our lives, with what we are doing, etc. etc.  Suffering is bad, it feels bad and it means we've failed.  Suffering equals failure!  So we try to get rid of our suffering.  We try to not feel emotional pain.  We have lots of ways of doing this -- we deny our pain, we avoid our pain, we project our pain onto someone else.  We do drugs (legal and illegal), we drink, we exercise too much or we vegetate, we become workaholics, we get out of whack with our eating.  We stress out, zone out, freak out.  None of these strategies work.  We cannot make our pain go away because pain is normal.  It's not a sign of anything other than of our own humanity.  Our problem is not that we have pain, our problem is how we relate to our pain.  We can't make pain go away, but we can relate to it in a way that allows it to heal.  We can develop a healthy workable relationship to our pain! 

There is a misconception about psychotherapy.  It goes like this:  if I "process" my pain, then I will find "closure".  People who are caught in this misconception think that processing means talking and talking and talking about their suffering; reviewing over and over again how there were screwed, mistreated, misaligned, abused.  This incessant suffering review is not healthy processing.  It is rumination and it is very unhealthy.   It will never lead to peace and equanimity.  Rumination anchors the story deep into our brains and psyches and creates an identification with the story.  The story of our past becomes the story of who we are today.  We can even begin to feel a kind of attachment to the story and be very reluctant to let it go.

In my work, the people who come to see me are all struggling with their pain.  They have all developed unworkable strategies for processing their pain in the false belief that doing so will lead to some sort of closure.  It is my opinion that there is no such thing as "closure".  No matter what we do, even if we've been successful at healing our past, old stuff bubbles up.  So what.  We notice that it's bubbled up and then we feel our body's response to this bubbling and then we redirect our attention to something more wholesome.   This is the healing process.   It goes like this:  we notice a painful thought, we label it "having a painful thought".  We then feel our body's response to that painful thought -- the actual physical sensations associated with that thought: heaviness in the chest or nausea or tightness in the jaw for example.  We then allow ourselves to really lean into the uncomfortable physical sensation for a few moments or so.  We notice what happens when we do that and...maybe nothing happens, that's okay.  Then after a few moments of this experiencing we redirect our attention.  We do something wholesome like make a cup of tea, or take a walk, or weed the garden or wash our hair.  We drop the story and enter the body.  By doing this very simple practice of noticing, experiencing and redirecting, we begin to learn that we can actually feel our distressing painful experiences and nothing happens!  We don't die, our eyeballs don't fall out...nothing happens.  And yet, over time something does happen.  We begin to go through our days with a greater sense of calm and ease.  Stuff doesn't knock us off our seats so easily.  We are kinder, gentler, less judgmental.  We are able to do what needs to be done without much resistance and with a bit more equanimity.  This is called HEALING.  Old stuff will still bubble up, new stuff will still tweak us, but now we have a strategy that actually works.  We've learned that pain is normal; it isn't bad and we aren't bad for having it.  We've learned that we can experience it and that by doing so we grow; we are healed. Simple.