Creating a Home for Pain Within
How can you create space for something if you do not first acknowledge its presence or the way it feels in your body? Perhaps you feel an emptiness in your chest, sharp pain in your stomach, a lump in your throat or radiating pain akin to the loss of a limb. What happens when we ignore this pain or numb ourselves to it? There are so many ways, readily available at our fingertips, that offer distraction from the felt sense of pain. Corporations have made a large fortune on helping us invent ways to distract ourselves from pain. Somewhere, a very wealthy person is profiting off you being distracted from your pain. If we can learn to acknowledge our pain, rather than giving into the knee-jerk pull to distract ourselves from it, we have done a great thing for ourselves.
I would like to challenge the philosophy of “pushing through” as a concept marketed to us to keep us from acknowledging pain such as grief and loss within us. Often when I work with clients who are grieving relationship pain, they struggle to acknowledge the presence of their pain as valid. They may say something like, “I should be over it already,” or “I don’t know why this is such a big deal to me.” I can promise them that almost always, even if they choose to avoid or ignore it, their pain will catch up to them eventually. It might come out in their next close relationship, or in the loss of something else big in their lives like a job opportunity or their bodily health. When pain arises, it needs our time and attention. We need to create space in our lives to acknowledge and respond to these experiences of pain when they arise.
So we must be intentional in creating time and space for processing our pain because other people, and especially our culture, will not do that for us. Another large obstacle presented by our culture is that it doesn’t give us the right to this time. We only have so many sick days, vacation days and time to spare. We are struggling to feed ourselves, to feed our children, to pay our rent. Making space and time for processing pain often comes with the economic privilege of time to spare and yet, I hope we are able to find a way somehow.
Herein lies the intersection of our own well-being, mental health and the radical changes needed in our society so that everyone has access to the resource of time needed to heal. I recognize that many individuals do not possess the power to stop and stand still because their jobs and the economy won’t allow it. We still have to pay rent every month whether we were just obliterated by a break-up or unexpectedly lost a loved one. Again there is great profit made from a culture of “doing” which does not allow us time to stop and feel our pain.
Imagine we lived in a society where there was no currency. Everyone had enough food and shelter and worked in jobs that were chosen based on an individual’s strengths or interests that served the common good of a community. What would your role in this society be? I know I would like to be a gardener, or someone who helps with childbirth or caring for animals. Imagine what you might do with your day in this society when you complete your daily work in three or four hours rather than the arbitrary 8-12 hour work days that currently monopolize our lives. Would you read more? Spend more time outside? Spend more time with yourself?
The reason I propose this thought exercise is to inspire the idea that these changes in our society are possible. Even with all the pain and loss associated with the current global COVID-19 pandemic, we may have also seen that there are ways to live life at a different pace. We have a long way to go and we have to be willing to give up a lot of the dopamine-inducing activities that come with a society that anesthetizes us to our pain in the process. Maybe we wouldn’t need shopping, alcohol, nicotine, caffeine, cocaine or screens as coping mechanisms if we got what we really needed: which is time to be and to heal as well as time to genuinely connect with ourselves and with others.
If we look closely, we will find that a lot of the dopamine-inducing activities we cling to came about early in our lives when we were told what we were doing or who we were wasn’t good enough. Maybe we didn’t have the tools and the guidance to really face and work through our emotional pain, so we had to invent secondary pathways to survive. Human beings are a resilient and adaptable species. Our ability to survive and move past great trauma is both a great strength and hindrance, depending on your perspective and values. Again, I urge you to think about the difference between moving past and moving through pain. Can you imagine what the difference looks like in your own life? What obstacles to moving through pain exist for you?
So, we need to come to terms with the problems of our culture that prevent us and discourage us from sitting with our emotional pain. Once we do this, we are tasked with figuring out the ways in which we can move through pain that are within our control. Even if you can spare just 10 minutes a day to create a space for sitting with your emotional experiences, it is enough. This process can be as simple as taking a walk or lying on your bed without the distraction of another person or your phone to occupy you. Simply notice what comes up when you’re alone with your thoughts and feelings in a non-judging way. Many of us are scared to do even this because we are used to moving so quickly that we are afraid what it might be like to stop and sit with ourselves. We will never learn to trust this process and ourselves if we don’t try.
For example; my clients will often express fears of falling into depression when I suggest these intentional time exercises. I ask them if they are basing this assumption on experience or what they have been told by the culture they live in about the dangers of “doing nothing.” They generally express fear of what I like to call “productivity guilt” or the anxiety that one did not accomplish enough during the day. Productivity guilt is fueled by the same cultural values that tell us making space and time for sitting with our pain is a bad thing. These are all heads of the same great hydra that dominates our culture and profits from the absence of our pain and emotional processing.
If you can find a way to make this space and time to sit with your emotions and allow whatever feelings or thoughts come up, what then? I need to stress that nothing I’m proposing here is about making you feel better or solving your problems. Likely, if you allow suppressed thoughts and feelings of emotional pain to come up, it’s going to feel very uncomfortable and, well, painful. Trust that these feelings are there for a reason. They are serving a purpose and, if nothing else, they are creating the bandwidth and internal trust needed in order to navigate future emotional distress. If you find that your emotions are so overwhelming and your thoughts so distressing that they are uncontainable, I urge you to seek help through therapy so that you can learn how to create capacity for these distressing emotions and thoughts when they arise and have support through this process. There is absolutely no shame in any of it.
I use the title “creating a home for pain within” as a description for this process with intention. The idea of a home implies that there is a space that is readily available, secure and consistent. There is a space you know that you can rely and count on to provide what is needed in the present. This space may or may not be tangible and may exist internally or externally. For folks who thrive on structure, journaling is usually a good guiding tool through the process of sitting with emotion. Guided imageries/meditations on moving through grief and emotional pain available on YouTube or Spotify may also be a helpful way to navigate this process and bring structure to this practice. You may find that you possess spiritual beliefs that already lay a pathway for emotional processing. Adrienne maree brown recommends a pendulum exercise in her podcast, “How to Survive the End of the World,” as a guide for emotional connection. Sheryl Paul suggests creating an altar in your home that you might visit when needing space for grounding. There is no right or wrong way for this space or this home to look for you.
This home can be there for you through any emotional experience whether it is grief, sorrow, anger, joy, excitement, anxiety or gratitude. For example; I can often find myself feeling ungrounded on days when I get really good news or when I unexpectedly find myself under the influence of some good fortune and need to create some intentional time to sit with these overwhelming emotions of joy and gratitude. This home within you is able to adapt in order to serve whatever purpose is needed from moment to moment. It is a home because it provides a space and because it provides a container. Again, whatever you imagine that looks like for you is what is right. The important part is that it is intentionally created.
Creating this home within helps us connect authentically with ourselves.
This practice says, “I insist on making myself a priority in a life where so many forces tell me that I’m not.” I am speaking of pain very generally in this section because this practice can be used for many different kinds of pain as well as emotions of joy, excitement etc. Relationship pain and loss is only one of the great pains that touch the lives of every human in existence and it happens to be the one I have the most experience working with in a professional capacity. Here is another gentle reminder to take from this section what feels most meaningful and important for you.
I am a counselor and psychologist in northern Colorado working with clients virtually through attachment and relationship pain in my private practice; Chelsea Twiss Counseling Services. I am based in Fort Collins, Colorado.