When I was in the middle of the swirly mess of an eating disorder in my late teens and early 20s, I was an expert at avoidance. I had it down. I knew exactly how to hide from hunger, dodge discomfort, and evade emotion. I put my head down and ritualized every aspect of my life. I lived on a very straight and narrow road, in a prison protecting me from pain. I studied, exercised, obsessed about how and what to eat, and got really skilled at turning away from anything confronting. I remember distinctly the days I would go to Baskin Robbins and purchase a double scoop of my two favorite flavors of ice cream, in a dipped waffle cone or bowl, how much fear was present after I'd consumed it. I'd head straight to the basement of my dorm and stairmaster my way back to a sense of okayness. The maximum amount of time the machine was set for was 30 minutes. It would take at least 3 hours for the fear to retreat.
At what point, and how do we decide, that how we're living needs confronting? What happens that opens the doorways into the rooms filled with all the ways in which we skirt the surface of our lives, put on certain masks to avoid people seeing the truths inside of us, adopt roles that are misaligned with our values, and give up or shove down to the basement of our souls what feels real and genuine?
Will you recognize your reality and look it in the face?
I know that it happens at different times, in different places, in different phases of life, and as a result of different experiences, over time, for everyone. But the commonality that I've observed repeatedly is the recognition that pain doesn't disappear, no matter how good we think we are at avoiding it. The more we skirt its edges, treading lightly above its churning, murky undertow, the larger a tidal wave it seems to build into, threatening to drown everything of importance.
This was my experience. Outside of my academic accomplishments, I realized my life had become...empty. I'd left relationships behind. I spent time compulsively counting the hours I could go without eating. I didn't sing anymore. I didn't laugh. I counted the Lucky Charms I'd eat. I went right from class to my dorm, and right from eating to the basement gym. I did squats and calf raises while I brushed my teeth. I walked to class in a foggy haze, oblivious to the lives around me, to the unlived life inside of me. And all of that was its own brand of...
I'd adopted the belief that I could orchestrate and design a life without pain, and yet, here I was, drenched in it! It was all around me!
Many of you know the story of how I was confronted by my doctor at Student Health. Her words ("Kori, you're killing yourself!") prompted the collapse of the costume I had been wearing for a good couple of years and catapulted me into the pain that had been waiting for me. As athletes, we have a term to describe the space we will inevitably enter along our endurance journeys-- the "pain cave." In this sense, it's more physical pain that we're experiencing, but physical pain, as we all know, is often accompanied by emotional and psychological pain. Ideally, we enter the cave bravely and expectantly, with resilience, welcoming, presence, and a knowing that it's ripe with possibility.
Letting go isn't one step, but many. It's a winding, spiraling process that happens on deep levels. And we must begin at the beginning-- by confronting our ambivalence. ~ Sue Monk Kidd
In life, we often find ourselves facing the choice to open the door to the pain cave as well. We do so as a starting point for healing, self-awareness, and self-understanding. We could also choose to slam the door in its face and prolong the time it will take for the pain to send whatever message it has for us. When we slam the door, we keep doing what we've been doing, thinking what we've been thinking, and putting on the false faces that maintain the status quo.
While it's natural for us to gravitate toward happiness and comfort, profound discoveries can be mined from the depths of our discomfort.
Painful emotions serve as lighthouses guiding us home to ourselves.
Embracing the Uncomfortable
In our quest for happiness and contentment, it's common to try and avoid pain and uncomfortable emotions. We might bury our sadness, suppress our anger, or numb our anxiety with distractions. I'm working with a client who can freely and honestly meet his pain when in session with me, sharing the sadness he feels due to the disconnection between him and his wife; the burnout and exhaustion he's experiencing at work; and the helplessness he feels to change anything about either of those situations. He's facing the pain by personally acknowledging it, and this is a necessary step. However, the next step is to enter the cave, to understand the life of the pain and what it's there to reveal. He's standing outside of it right now. He sees it. But will he enter so he can fully understand what it's asking of him, and be in relationship with what will be required of him if he expresses it?
The Messages Within Your Pain
Each painful emotion we experience is a message from within, a signal that something in our lives or within ourselves needs attention. For example, the sting of rejection might signify a desire for connection, while the weight of guilt might point to an unmet moral or ethical value. Remorse tells us that we're disconnected from our truths. By acknowledging and welcoming these emotions, we allow ourselves to explore their origins and the underlying causes.
In so doing, we contact the stories we rely upon to hold up our ego structures and the identities that serve as the foundation for our lives. If my client opens the door to the caves he's standing outside of, what would he be asked to let go of? What masks would need to be removed? What might he recover that has been lost?
After stumbling through a difficult experience with her son, another client emailed me sharing the disappointment she felt and the ambivalence she was experiencing. In her message, she shared, "I can't win." My heart stopped. This statement, so profound and revelatory, was skipped over as she described what occurred the previous evening. Her pain was revealing what needed her attention. Here was a belief that was very likely operating deep below the surface and driving her behavior. If she can't win, why try? If she can't win, why commit? If she can't win...
This client grew up having to make decisions as a child that were not hers to make, that she should not have had to make, and that developmentally, she was not capable of making. As an adult, she feels the weight of the world on her shoulders to make the right decisions, to make everyone around her happy.
The Power of Self-Reflection
When we refuse to confront our pain, we inadvertently bury part(s) of ourselves. It's like living a fragmented existence, with the true self hidden beneath layers of avoidance. Self-understanding requires us to engage in honest self-reflection, and sometimes, that means confronting the uncomfortable truths we'd rather avoid. Embracing pain becomes an act of courage, a commitment to discovering the real you.
In a recent text conversation with a friend of mine, she started her reply with a disclaimer: "Please forgive this dull response..." With a quizzical look on my face, I typed, "Your response didn't sound dull at all! What are you thinking people (I) expect from you?"
She responded: "I suppose I think that I need to be funny, or interesting, or more feeling in order to hold anyone's attention."
😌 This is an example of an inner child part of her showing up, in her woundedness, with the belief that she needs to be someone or something different than who she is to be shown up for and to be attended to. It's a part I have inside of me too, and I know her well. I know she's present when I feel shame, fear of not being good enough, and frantic energy accompanied by thoughts of being abandoned. I know her well because I've gone into the cave to be with her, learn her story, and offer her the help she needs to heal.
A Journey Toward Healing & Transformation
By embracing pain, we embark on a journey toward healing and self-discovery. Rather than running from discomfort, we can choose to sit with it, observe it, and inquire about its origins. This process isn't about wallowing in suffering but about understanding it, so we can integrate it, and as such, transform it.
Just as the alchemists of old sought to turn base metals into gold, we too can transform our pain. In the crucible of self-awareness and acceptance, we can transmute suffering into wisdom, sadness into compassion, and fear into trust.
Prompts for Self-Reflection
1. What emotions do you tend to avoid or suppress, and how?
Take a moment to identify the emotions you find uncomfortable and that lead to avoidance behaviors (i.e., emotional eating, binge eating, overworking, overexercising, drinking, restricting, or control). Are there patterns or themes in your avoidance?
2. Can you recall a recent experience of pain or discomfort that you tried to avoid?
Reflect on how you responded to this emotion. Did you confront it or push it away? What did you learn from this experience? How did avoiding pain serve you? How did it rob you?
3. Consider a time when you faced your pain head-on. What insights or healing did this bring?
Share a story or reflection about a moment when you chose to embrace discomfort. What positive changes did this lead to in your life?
4. Are there any recurring painful emotions/memories/thoughts/body sensations that keep resurfacing in your life? You might identify them by whether you've said to yourself, "Why does this keep happening?!"
Explore those that seem to follow you. What might they be trying to tell you about your needs, values, or desires?
5. What practices or approaches would help you open to welcoming and learning from uncomfortable emotions in the future?
Share your thoughts on how you can create a more open and accepting relationship with your emotions moving forward.
Avoiding pain may keep us in the shadows of our true selves. Embracing discomfort, on the other hand, can lead us toward a deeper understanding of who we are and the potential for profound healing and transformation. By engaging with these prompts and exploring your own relationship with pain, you can take the first steps toward a more authentic and self-aware life.