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Hope Forward: Surviving and Thriving through Emotional Pain

Monday, August 11, 2014

In the Now

"The time we have here is so short..." ~ an 80 year old colleague of mine who is still practicing

I recently had the good fortune to spend some time with a colleague of mine who is in well into her senior years.  She was talking about her experience over the course of her lifetime in both her private practice and in her personal life.  She is healthy, mentally and emotionally and physically, and grateful for all.  And she has, too, some regrets.  But she carries them with her in a nostalgic tone - and she tells me that even with so much emotional pain during different stages in her life that have come and gone over the years both with her clients and in her own life - that one thing that has always helped her has been to be open to being "in the now" of the good and quiet nature and  the universal pace of life.

What she meant by that is this: that even in emotional pain, in anger, anxiety, in grief, in loneliness, there are still moments in the day that are quiet, that are calm, that are accessible.  And that perhaps especially in the midst of all the feelings and all the noise in our heads when we are in all the feelings, it is so important to allow all the feelings and then too, it can be so helpful, to just turn our attention to the blue sky, to the warm sun, to the gentle breeze.  To just be in the moment, even if for a moment.  

It helps us to step out - even if just in our mind - of the circumstance, of our thinking and step into the other part of the story, into the part of life that is just the movement of the day, the nature of life, the gratitude of having air to breathe, clean drinking water, eyes that can read.  And to tap into the knowledge that we can make our human efforts to continuously work on and know ourselves, to deepen our consciousness and work better with difficult people and difficult situations but too that being in the now is where we are supposed to be, even when things are confusing, or they hurt.  Things pass; they shift.  And when we have the idea that we do not always have to be in our thinking or in our feelings, we can get in touch with a quieter, instinctively healthy and calmer voice, a peaceful self and some much needed reprieve and relief.

When we are in pain emotionally time can seem to go so slow.  We wait and wait for it to pass, for something new to present itself, for the feelings to lift.  And they do, usually, if we let them come and go and if we have the idea that we can't hurry things or push them along, but we can be in the now, and in the "other" now, of the universal nature of living life.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014


Sometimes doing no work at all is doing work.

In the middle of our busy lives, it can seem counter-productive to just stop and do nothing.  Many of us do not have the idea that doing nothing is actually doing something.  In fact, when I suggest just sitting around, sitting still, and really doing nothing most people tell me that they feel guilty.  That they should be doing something. The laundry, the cooking, the bills, the lawn, the closet that needs cleaned out.  Something. 

But here in the middle of a summer's week, especially, I think, its a good time to just practice doing nothing.  Just for a few minutes.  Take a quick time out and just be.  Don't meditate, or contemplate, or ruminate.  Walk away from the electronics and just sit quietly for a few minutes. 

It is actually something.  It is the practice of just being in the moment, in the day, in your self.  It is the work of slowing down, and stepping out, even if just for a moment or two from the daily rush, not just of the busy-ness of the day, but the busy-ness of your mind. 

Especially for those who are in some kind of emotional pain, have some kind of decision to make, are confused, feeling lots of feelings at once, or in rapid succession.  Just taking a breather can feel like work, it can feel like too much too do, to just sit.  But it is the work of taking good care of yourself, the work of leaving your mind alone for a minute or two and that counts.  It counts because when you pick back up again you might find that you are somewhat, slightly, subtly, just a bit more able to do what is the next on the never ending list of things to do. 

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Worry Train or Hang Gliding on Feelings (the stories we tell ourselves)

I have often written about how our thoughts are like lightening during the day.  I think this is especially true for anxious thoughts that cause worry feelings.  Many people feel some sort of unease in their life, and experience the unease in their bodies as well.  For some the experience is a  very big and obvious feeling of discomfort and for others it  feels more like a low, but  uncomfortable vibration just underneath the surface.

We all have so many thoughts all the time, many of which we are not consciously aware of - that is the nature of thought and of the human experience. But understanding how and why we attach ourselves to those thoughts and can go a long way towards influencing our experience of each other, of life, of ourselves. 

When a thought or thought pattern comes into our head and we latch on, or start hang gliding on it, we close ourselves off to deeper levels of consciousness, of awareness about what we are thinking, and we close off the possibility of the thoughts and feelings passing without any action having to take place; we shut off the possibility of new, more relaxing, life giving ideas and feelings coming to us.
Deciding to be less attached to each thought or to turn the volume down on our thoughts by looking out for negative thinking patterns and not latching on so fast does not mean dishonoring our emotional pain or checking our brains at the door.  It means paying deeper attention to what we are experiencing and being open to letting it breath so that it can pass through if it's meant to pass and to open us back up again to new ideas and new ways of experiencing our world. 

It seems too simple at times, to say, lighten up or cheer up or chin up, or to tell yourself a new story.  Our old stories have meaning to us, sometimes we don't even know how much meaning they have or how much we believe that they protect us or serve us.  We can be afraid to see things differently or to let things go.  We can feel very entitled to our feelings, and we may very well be, but it's worth considering that being open to understanding more about how and why we think the way we do, or to letting our feelings and thoughts come, but also go, and not deciding to hang glide on one or two, can be very liberating.   The worry train can pull into the station, but we don't always have to get on.  We can notice it.  We can let it pull out of the station and keep going, and see if a better train pulls in.

You might be surprised at the outcome.

Monday, June 2, 2014

The Fabric of Pain

“Pain is like fabric: The stronger it is, the more it’s worth.”
John Green, The Fault in Our Stars
I'm not totally sure about this one, but it's good grist for the mill.  What do you think?
Perhaps in the deep end of emotional pain, it doesn't matter really what, if anything, the pain is worth.
On the other hand, if at least the hurt is worth something, it helps it to be more bearable.  If we can feel it, allow it, without acting on it in ways that hurt us or hurt others, if we can name it and say it and know it, and learn something from it, then perhaps it is worth something of value to us.
Not that you would sign up for it, but most people have some kind of pain at some point in life.  And if you can get curious about what the fabric of your pain is made of, you often find that there much more to it.  Most pain has mixed colors, mixed textures, old and new feelings, patterns, origins.  Pain teaches us about what we value, what we need, what we believe.  It teaches us to look  more deeply at life, and then, to not.  To give ourselves a break and a breather.
Sometimes there is not a clear way through.  There are lots of good therapies, techniques, principals, methods, theories to help us clear away the blocks to knowing more about ourselves, to changing our state of mind, our not-so-useful-anymore behaviors, our attitudes, our feelings.  But when it comes down to it, I think we have to trust our own process, our own innate sense of what we can take in and how we metabolize feelings and ideas. 
There is often an urgency associated with pain, understandably, and of course.  It can be very hard to tolerate.  Anger, frustration, hurt, loneliness, self pity, grief.  They can get overwhelming and the urge to "get rid of" or to distance ourselves from those feelings can seem full of charge.  But the process of being with ourselves and in our experience and getting through can and does have value if we look for it, and better can and does come, and we can turn around and use that to help ourselves further, and to help others, and that, I'm pretty sure, is worth something.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Lightening During the Day

Sometimes people come in to therapy and they tell me "I shouldn't feel this way."  Or "I know I should know better by now."  Or "I wish I was not so angry, or hurt or dependent or obsessed." 
Whatever feeling it is that is hard to bear, or feels shameful, or frustrating or overwhelming.  And especially if that feeling has been around a while and has not been tended to, not been talked about, explored, understood, validated or worked through.  And especially if there has been no relief or resolution.  And then, even more so, if there is a person connected to that feeling - and that person does not see the effect they have had, or does not understand, self reflect or participate in the healing.  And one more especially - especially if that person then blames you, or believes that you are the (only or real) cause of the feeling and the problem.

If difficult feelings sit for too long without being tended to, they tend then, to live in us in ways that cause us more bad feelings, and can effect our emotional, physical and spiritual heath.   Sometimes they go underground and then pop up suddenly when we least expect it.  Or they lay low, and we know something is wrong, something hurts, or is weighing on us, but we don't quite know what it is.

We feel how we feel.  But it doesn't end there, and it shouldn't.  Even with the worst of feelings, and in the worst of hurts, there are resources available to us and for us.  There are ways to take good care of ourselves, to help our thinking shift and help us out of the bad feelings and into better ones.  Even without the participation of the other person, when there is one.   Even when we want our bad feelings somehow, even if they keep us connected to something or someone, or are functioning somehow to protect us, there are often ways to use what we feel to give us insight, meaning and progress and help us stop repeating the same internal stress.

Many of our thoughts and feelings are like lightening during the day.... they are there, active, operating, lighting us up, influencing our actions, reactions and choices, but we cannot really see them unless we make a conscious effort to, and  to change the way we tend to them.

There are lots of methods for how to do this.  There are many different therapies, spiritual paths, systems out there, each with their own approach and appeal.  But in one way or another, they all require consciousness of ourselves and willingness to tend to our thoughts, perspectives, beliefs and feelings.    It almost doesn't matter which path you walk, so long as you are walking.  Wishing not to feel how you feel or having feelings about your feelings is natural, but, but there is more. 
There is more to the story and it's good to find out what it is.

Monday, April 28, 2014

April: Memory and Desire

“April is the cruelest month, breeding
lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
memory and desire, stirring
dull roots with spring rain.”
T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land    

It's almost the end of April and in the Northeast we are slowly inching toward better weather.  It is, I think, finally, getting warm.

The sunshine and good weather are definitely good news especially for those who suffer from seasonal affective disorder, depression, and anxiety.  The ability to step outside and tilt one's face toward the sun, absorb some Vitamin D and take deep breaths of fresh air can go a long way toward lifting moods and calming fears.

When I read this poem from T.S. Elliot I am moved by how much it conveys some truths of emotional pain.  Especially grief and longing.  The blending of remembering what was, or what was lost, or even the fantasy of what was, or what was lost, and longing for those good feelings, or that person, or for emotional relief and contentment to trump the hurting.

We are resilient.  It may not always feel like it, but I believe it's true.  Sometimes we need a lot of soul searching, a lot of talking, a lot nurturing and some rigorous but gentle honesty about what we really need, how we are behaving, what we hope for, expect and desire.  And we can't always push the process, move the months, the way we might like to, but relief comes, progress happens, I believe.  Things open up when you keep looking.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Mistakes, Motives, and "I've had three different marriages - to the same man."

“In case you haven't noticed, people get hard-hearted against the people they hurt. Because they can't stand it. Literally. To think we did that to someone. I did that. So we think of all the reasons why it's okay we did whatever we did.”
Elizabeth Strout, The Burgess Boys

When we have hurt someone, or have done something that does not seem right, it can be so hard to study it, to take a look at what all the moving parts were and are, and to take a deeper look at our motives.  And most of time humans have mixed motives.  And most of the time we are just trying to protect ourselves, get our needs met, cope with emotional pain, communicate something that we cannot exactly articulate.  Sometimes we are trying to get someone to understand something, or find a way to make sense of something, or get what we think we have to have in order to survive, in order to deal with something we think is unforgivable, or unacceptable to ourselves or to others. 

And often there is fear.  Fear and shame.  Fear and anger.  Fear and frustration. 

The irony is, when it comes to emotional pain and mistakes or hurt, that taking a look at our motives when it comes to our mistakes, and having them be understood, usually goes a long way toward healing.  Not just for the person we may have hurt, but for ourselves. 

It's like losing weight in our minds and in our hearts.

Understanding our motives does not necessarily mean that we are off the hook.  Sometimes amends need to be made, whenever possible. 

But it's a start. 

And sometimes we might be surprised that healing really can  happen.  And that new ideas, new hope, new chapters can begin.   I once heard a colleague of mine say that she has had three different marriages -  to the same man.  

It may sound cliche, corny even, but we grow from things, and we can learn from our mistakes.  Even, maybe, especially, the ones with unconscious motives.  And relief can come from taking a look, more, I think, than it comes from either ignoring, denying, or defending ourselves without a true knowledge of our motives, needs and shortcomings.  We all have them after all.   And I think it's easier to move forward and get relief, and have better all around when we take out the self attack and take in curiosity, responsibility and repair.