Pain: Healing, Growth, and Awareness
Emotional pain often brings people into therapy and/or recovery. This may be the pain of depression, another relationship ending badly, or finally hitting rock bottom. Addiction, in a very real sense, is used to not feel pain. However, in the end, addiction creates more pain than it avoids. Entering therapy or recovery is often seen as a path towards no longer feeling this pain. However, true healing and recovery asks us to feel and accept our pain. It is through the experience of feeling our pain that we receive many of the gifts that support our healing and recovery.
Dave and his experience in healing and recovery is an example of how feeling pain is an important part of the healing journey. Dave sits in my office with tears sliding down his cheeks. We are exploring his childhood experiences and the reality of what growing up in his family was like. Through his quivering lips, he spits out "I've been working on this for so long. You start talking about my family and I'm back here in all this pain again. Why am I stuck?"
Feeling pain, especially pain connected to traumatic events from childhood, is often interpreted as "being stuck." After all, it is easy to believe that "if I was not stuck, I would not be feeling this pain." This is not the case! Pain is a normal and healthy human emotion. Pain is an emotion to be felt and understood. Pain is an emotion that helps to guide us in life. Pain is an emotion that has gifts to offer us: healing, growth, and awareness. Feeling pain does not mean we are stuck. Quite the contrary, it often means we are doing good healing work.
Dave originally came into my office struggling with addiction. He held tightly to his outward persona which he unconsciously used to hide his pain, shame, and core self from the rest of the world. On the surface, Dave's family of origin looked wonderful, nurturing, and loving. Dave believed that whatever struggles he had were surely about him and his own "defectiveness." He projected to the world the image of someone who had moved through life with seeming ease but about every 6 months or so, Dave would be overwhelmed by pain and spend hours crying to himself, unsure of where this pain was coming from. At the same time, his addiction was gaining momentum and the unmanageability of his life was becoming more apparent.
In therapy, we initially addressed Dave's addiction and helped him to create a support community. Then, we dug into Dave's history and the emotional pain that drives his addiction. Seeing his family and childhood experiences in the light of reality was not easy for Dave. Slowly, he started to see his parents as loving but wounded. He began to understand how their wounds impacted him and limited what they were able to offer to him. Dave started to see that he was not "defective" but wounded.
Dave initially dropped into his pain around his father. Over a number of tear-filled sessions, he explored, accepted, confronted, and started holding boundaries around his father's wounds. Dave had finally dropped into his pain and allowed it to guide him into his healing and growth related to his father. Issues related to his father still come up. At times, Dave feels accepting of his past and at others he feels anger. However, the awareness that Dave received by opening up to his pain and accepting the realty of his father set this process in motion and continues to solidify his recovery.
Dave still feels pain but it no longer seeps out every 6 months in overwhelming bursts. His pain, as opposed to signaling he is stuck, is a signal that he is healing. Dave's pain guided him to uncover and recognize the shame he had been carrying from his father. Feeling his pain and allowing it to guide him in his work has allowed Dave to be less reactive to his father as well as accept his father for who he truly is, a wounded man who loves Dave but is often unable or does not know how to show this. When pain comes up for Dave around his father, he is able to embrace whatever new understanding about his father and their relationship is being offered to him. He no longer stuffs his pain and acts out his addiction to avoid it; Dave now feels his pain, observes his reactions, and uses the tools he has learned in recovery to take care of himself.
Pia Mellody talks about the gifts we receive from all emotions, even the uncomfortable ones. Dave is experiencing and taking advantage of the gifts we receive from pain: healing, growth, and awareness. This process started for Dave when he started to FEEL his pain. Previously he had used his addiction to numb his pain, lived in a fantasy to pretend his pain did not exist, and stuffed his pain by putting on a "good face" to show the world. Now that he is in recovery, lives in reality, and allows himself to be known, he is healing, growing, and learning.
Pain guides us in our journey and helps us in our own self care. It gives us information about ourselves, our situation, and the people around us. Pain lets us know where our wounds are, when the wounds of others are being acted out on us, and helps us to slow down and truly understand the situation. When we stuff our pain or pretend it is not there, we unnecessarily handicap ourselves. Stuffing our pain is like walking around in a pitch black room with our arms at our sides. The chances of us walking face first into the wall greatly increase! With our arms out, we are better able to find the walls without hurting ourselves. Successfully finding the walls allows us to get an understanding of the room's dimensions or, in others words, the reality of the room. With our arms out, we can adjust to the situation. The same is true of our pain. As we feel our pain, we get an understanding of the reality of the situation and can adjust to it.
As we feel the wall, we stop walking to save our nose from a damaging encounter. Similarly, feeling our pain allows us to adjust our own interactions and self care. We may put up our boundaries. We may recognize the reality of another person and shift what we share and/or take in from them. We may leave the situation.
With our arms out, we naturally move more cautiously, keeping ourselves more balanced even though we haven't felt anything. As we open ourselves to pain, a similar experience happens. Even when we do not feel pain, we are more aware of how we take care of ourselves. Whether this is meditation, exercise, journaling, phone calls, meetings, therapy, or rigorous honesty, we keep our self care regiment in place more easily when we are open to feeling our pain. And when pain emerges to help us see more clearly ourselves or our situation, we can fall back on this self care regiment and add to it as necessary. There are many gifts we receive when we are willing to feel our pain.
As Dave sits in my office, feeling his pain, and wondering why he is stuck, I look at him with caring and love. With all the compassion I can offer I say, "You are not stuck. You are more open to your feelings, especially pain. And you are taking advantage of the healing, growth, and awareness that pain gives you. You have used all of this in exploring and learning about your relationship with your dad. But today we are exploring the more subtle wounds you have from your mother. You have opened yourself to this process before and you have developed tools to help you to do this type of work. I'll be here with you as your pain allows you to heal, grow, and understand your relationship with your mother. This pain is your guide - embrace it!"
Tim Stein is a Marriage and Family Therapist based in Santa Rosa, CA. His specialties include sex addiction and developmental trauma. Tim works with individuals, couples, families, and groups as well as providing presentations in the areas of sexual addiction, relationships, and developmental trauma.