As part of the collective community of human beings, we all share the same repertoire of emotions. The part that is different and unique for each of us is how we hold and express them. Through our experiences with our parents, friends, and lovers, we begin to shift the way we look and feel about particular emotions. Sometimes, a certain emotion can become so painful and scary to look at, that we decide we are done acknowledging it. We distract and avoid this emotion at all costs, choosing to keep busy with anything that will keep it far, far away from the forefront of our minds.
Through my daily work with people’s emotions, I noticed that by far one the most difficult feelings for people to acknowledge is vulnerability. In therapy, people will run circles around confronting vulnerability, like it’s a burning fire they are trying to keep a safe distance from. Admittance of weakness, fear, and sadness is very rarely done with ease, and mostly met with a whole lot of resistance.
So, why is it so hard for us to admit we’re in pain? Or that we are scared, lonely, weak, and sad? If these emotions are so common, so present in every single one of us, then why is it so hard for us to let our shield down and say, “I need help”?
One theory is that most of us grew up with parents from the pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps generation; the Baby Boomers who were used to hard work and getting their hands dirty to get what they needed. There wasn’t time to be sad — there was work to be done and a family to feed. The luxury of having time to acknowledge painful emotions probably wasn’t something most of our parents had. And if they did have the time, they might have been met with resistance to express it. As children of this generation, we may have been taught the same lesson: stop crying and get over it.
Those that are part my own generation were the first to experience the internet, the nuances of social media, and the expression of opinions in a way that reached the masses with one click. We grew up in the age of blossoming mass communication. With this progression, came a sharing of human emotion in a way that had never been able to reach so many people, so very quickly before. As a result of this wave of shared experiences, we began to acknowledge each other’s pain. We began to realize that we are not alone in what we are feeling.
Now more than ever, I see people embracing their emotions, seeking help for themselves or their loved ones who are in pain, and being able to admit and share their hardships with others. We are more open to reaching out and touching others with our stories, hoping that through this connection of the human experience, we might be able to help one another.
But despite this amazing progress in emotional openness, so many of us still struggle to admit that we feel helpless or lost. My clients know that their hour spent with me is safe and private — they are protected from outside judgement here. Yet some of the hardest work done in that room is helping people realize that it is okay to drop the armor, to let someone be witness to their pain. Some people have been holding their shield up for many, many years, and you can see how the weight is crushing them. This armor can take many shapes:
“How can I allow myself to love? I’ll only get hurt.”
“I can’t tell them how I feel. They’ll only judge me or use it against me.”
“I can’t let this person in. It’ll only end in pain, like it always does.”
“What good does it do to connect with others? They’re only going to leave me.”
“I’m fine. It’s only when I stop and think that these feelings come up. I just have to stay busy.”
“I don’t like to admit I feel this way. It feels pointless and like a waste of time.”
“I can’t tell them about my messy past. They’ll judge me and think I’m damaged goods.”
“It’s not a big deal — people breakup every day. I’ll get over it.”
“Being sad is a waste of time. What good does it do me to sulk and throw a pity party?
Any of those thoughts sound familiar? All I have to say to those responses is ouch. If I was hurting, and someone responded to my pain with any of the above statements, I would feel completely shut down and deflated. Wouldn’t you? So why do we approach ourselves with these responses? If a dear friend came to you in a lot of pain, asking for compassion or reassurance, would you approach them this way? I hope not. That would just be mean and pretty dismissive. So then why is okay to tell ourselves to “get over it” and “buck up” and “just forget about it”? Why do we not hold ourselves in a way that is understanding and loving, like we would our dear friend?
The mind likes to be dismissive of problems it can’t solve, and vulnerability is just that. Your brain sees sadness and weakness as unworkable and unsolvable, so it says, “let’s just go ahead and move onto something else!” Our brains our trying to be helpful, but in reality they are ignoring a growing infection that needs desperate care and tending to.
I often ask my clients this question: If you had a deep cut in your arm, full of dirt, bleeding and painful and stinging, what would you do to heal it? Most say they’d clean it out, put some sort of ointment on it, bandage it up, and then likely check on it later, replacing the bandage and ointments as needed. This is a pretty logical and healthy way to approach physical healing, right? Emotional healing works in just the same way. In order to even begin the healing process, we need to LOOK AT THE WOUND. How would we know if we need to clean it or what type of ointments to use or how big a Bandaid we need, if we are constantly looking away from it? This is what we do when we turn away from our painful emotions: we are refusing to acknowledge a wound is even there. We drink, smoke, eat, clean, browse the internet, work, exercise, party, do anything in a desperate attempt to not look at the damn thing. And we all know what happens when a wound gets ignored — it gets infected, more painful, and even harder to heal. This is why the first step towards our emotional healing is to really look at our wounds. You can begin by asking yourself these questions:
What is this pain I am feeling? Can I give it a name (loneliness, anger, depression, grief)?
Where is it in my body and what does it feel like physically (tightening, pressure, gripping)?
What experience or person may be triggering this emotion?
Have I felt this emotion before? How long has it been around?
All of these questions turn us towards our wound. By being introspective with our pain, we are exploring the wound, seeing what it needs to heal. Once we have a few answers about our pain, we begin the cleaning process. Just like with physical cuts, the washing out is the hardest and most painful part. The “cleaning” continues with more exploration into your pain — therapy, journaling, meditating, talking with friends, anything that helps you confront your damaged heart. This is where it becomes hard to stay present. It stings and burns and brings up memories of what caused the damage in the first place. But, if we are able to stay with this pain, we can begin to cross over to true healing.
This excruciating process may take months or years to complete. And even then, if the wound is very deep, we may have to come back and regularly clean it back out. But this is part of what I like to call our “emotional maintenance.” It’s just like the changing of a bandage. One day, the gauze may come off clean, and you may start to feel like that damage has finally left your soul. Or maybe the bandage will always come off with a tiny bit of blood on it, and that’s okay too. We can acknowledge that some wounds may always be tender. They may leave emotional scars that will feel a tinge of sensation when something arises in our lives that reminds us of what caused it. This doesn’t mean you are broken or damaged. This means you are a human being that has the strength to endure pain and come out alive on the other side. You are the opposite of weak and pitiful — you are strong, courageous, and had the power to look pain in the eye and say, “I refuse to live with this anymore.”
It all begins with vulnerability. It starts with saying, “I am not okay.” At some point in your life, you may begin to see that the barricade isn’t keeping you safe anymore — it’s keeping those who may be able to help you out. Drop the sword, the shield, the armor, and accept that pain is a part of this one-act show we call existence. Trust that opening this door and allowing help, love, and support in is all part of tending the wound. Seek out ways to heal, but most importantly, give yourself the same comfort and compassion you would give the friend in need. Pain is a common thread that is woven through each and every one of us. The more we come together by opening up and admitting we are hurting, the more opportunity for us to unite during times of deep suffering.
And after all, we could all use a little help to make this journey a bit less heavy and a lot more joyful.