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Hope Forward: Surviving and Thriving through Emotional Pain: November 2011

Monday, November 21, 2011

Were these said to you as a kid? Do you say them to your kids?

And if so, do you believe them? What kind of impact did they have? Do they have? Of course each of us receives messages differently, but it's always curious to me how much of an impact words and phrases do actually impact us. It may not in fact be true that sticks and stones may break our bones but words will never hurt us.

So here are a few phrases that many folks have heard as they were growing up:

"You made your bed...."

"You are not working up to the best of your ability."

"You can accomplish anything you set your mind to."

"You should have known better."

"You should be ashamed of yourself."

"Sorry doesn't cut it."

"You'll get what's coming to you."

"Chin up." or "Man up." or "Suck it up."

"Stop crying or I'll give you something to cry about."

"Don't let the bed bugs bite."

What to they mean? How to they play in our heads? Do we really have control over letting bed bugs bite? Does "chin up" mean we should not feel sad when we are sad? Should we pretend things don't hurt? Ignore our feelings? Will we really get what is coming to us? Does this mean that we deserve to be punished? That we should be frightened or worried? That mistakes are not allowed? Is saying we are sorry not enough? Ever?

When, and for what, should we really be ashamed of ourselves? And at what age should we know better? How can we know what we don't know? How much can children know anyway?

Can we really accomplish anything we set our minds to? If we can't, then what? Does this mean we are suppose to have control over things so long as we try? How do we know what the best of our ability is, actually? What if we don't want or need to work up to the best of it? Are we failing if we don't? How hard should we try? And what about that bed we made? Again, does this mean we are stuck with what we have? That if we've made a mistake we have no choices. That taking responsibility for our actions means we merit no empathy for errors or mess ups. Or no help getting to a better place?

I think that in the gentle study of human behavior, as we talk through our frustrations and fears, our hopes and longings, it helps to take a look at the words we have heard, to see what runs through our minds. It's a small part of the puzzle of our lives, but worth a look.

Monday, November 7, 2011

"I Should be Grateful...?"

Sometimes when someone is sitting here in the office talking about what's on their mind, talking about what's bothering them, they will stop and say, "I suppose I should be grateful, it could be worse." This always reminds me somehow of having to finish all the food on our plates because people are starving elsewhere in the world.

I think the statement raises some very good questions, such as where do gratitude and a true sense of what we "yes" have fit in with emotional pain and feelings of discontent in our lives? And can we be both grateful and unhappy at the same time? Can we appreciate our blessings and still honor our longings? And why is it that we often feel the urge to temper our feelings? Do we think we should not feel them?

I find these questions come up in the context of marital counseling as well. How do we manage to be appreciative of our partners while we are furious, or frustrated or disappointed with them as well? And also when we talk about our parents. Can we feel our difficult feelings toward them and appreciate the positives too?

How do we reconcile our values with our feelings?

I think the answers are individual of course, depending on our own unique character and circumstance, though there may be some common truths. While some of us are more comfortable feeling how we feel, letting our feelings rise and fall and be what they will, others are more hesitant. We get besieged by shame, or guilt or hopelessness, or the idea that perhaps we are not suppose to feel the way we do, or that there really cannot be any good outcome, or that since there are others who have it worse, our feelings should not be what they are. Except that they are. I have not found that denying our feelings solves much of anything. We can't always get relief as quickly as we might like, but keeping ourselves in the dark does not usually offer us good results. Neither does attacking our selves for the feelings we have. Nor does misusing gratitude.

That being said, I think that we can employ gratitude to help us with emotional pain without using it to invalidate our feelings. It does help to count our blessings, from the simple to the sublime. We can breathe clean air; We can see fall foliage; we can walk; even the basics, that are not so basic to everyone, can be starting points when we are in emotional pain; gratitude can certainly help put things in proper perspective and give us context. It can help us to feel better and see things differently.

But emotional pain is still pain. We still feel what we feel, and sidestepping feelings in the name of gratitude or using gratitude to avoid what is true for us usually just stalls our progress. So here's where the talking can help. We can let all our thoughts and feelings breathe; we can tend to them, see what they mean to us and make forward movement from there. The trouble, I think, is not feeling how we feel so much as it is attacking ourselves for feeling how we feel and then acting on the attack without having given ourselves a talking chance.