How I learnt to turn towards my pain

May 1, 2020

"Emotional pain cannot kill you, but running from it can. Allow. Embrace. Let yourself feel. Let yourself heal." ~ Veronika Tugaleva

I consider myself someone who spends a lot of time looking inwards with the intention of healing and moving forwards with my life. I know that it takes a long time to move through pain and work on issues. I feel I'm doing all the ‘right things’ to make myself feel better. And up until very recently, I really thought this was true.

After a few really awful days of feeling constantly on edge, empty and worthless, I took myself out for a walk in the hope that some fresh air and nature would help me feel better. I was in a terrible mood, a band of tension across my forehead and my whole body aching. I began to try to feel better and force any bad thoughts and feelings out of my mind, somehow, anyhow. As I walked into the leafy-green woods, I gazed up at the trees in a desperate attempt to find some calm, some peace, anything to escape from the pain I was in. When I returned home, I was in a worse state than before I'd left - angry, frustrated, miserable and despairing.

Will I ever feel better? Why does nothing I ever do make me feel any better? When will the pain go away? 

What I was doing clearly wasn't working for me. It felt like I was just making myself feel even worse, and I didn't really understand why. Wasn't I doing all the right things already? I have a slow paced lifestyle to allow space for me to feel things, I'm in therapy and I read a lot of self-help. I also make sure I get fresh air, exercise, time to relax and socialise. I’m doing everything and more than what 'should' help me, so why wasn't it working?!

It quickly began to dawn on me that I’m not, in fact, following the wise advice given to me by my therapist, or any good therapist for that matter. I've turned healing my emotional pain and ‘feeling better’ into a full-time job, never switching off from my problems, always trying to fix myself. Not for one single minute do I accept the way I feel right now. If my emotional pain was a person facing me, I was spinning round and running away as fast and as hard as I could. I was turning away from my pain. I wasn't willing to feel it, not even for one minute of my day.

The truth is, though scary to admit, I'm suffering from a long-term emotional breakdown and have been for the last four and a half years. My traumas run deep. I'm angry. I'm depressed. I feel worthless and empty a lot of the time, and like I've let myself down rather than living up to certain people's expectations. I also know that deep down - underneath all the anxiety, the tight chest, the emptiness, the misery - is two decades of unshed grief for my mum's death. Too young to even begin to process what had happened, I've been running from my grief for twenty years. And it has caught up with me. The reality is, it's destroying me.

So, if you think about it, are all the 'right things' I'm doing really going to make me feel better? No, of course not! Because I wasn't doing the one thing that I needed to do...

I needed to feel the pain, the body-shattering grief, the uncomfortable, the distress, the heartache.
Because as the wise saying goes, "The only way out is through."

All this time, I've intellectually known I need to turn inwards to work on my issues that are holding me back from living the life I want. But that's just it; knowing something inside my head is not enough. To really understand it and move forwards I need to move it from my head to my heart and body. I've spent so much time numbing out from my pain, a lifeless shadow of myself. I feel like I'm going through the motions of my life like a zombie, without being able to focus on anything important.

I've got a long road ahead of me with a backlog of grief and two decades of bottled up anger, hurt and sadness. It's going to take time to build this new habit of feeling my feelings, instead of pushing them away. Sheryl Paul, a very wise and insightful psychotherapist, explains this brilliantly on her blog Conscious Transitions: when we feel our feelings and accept what is, we are flowing with the river of life; when we avoid our feelings and control what it is, we fight the river of life and feel stuck inside.

This reminds me of a moment of clarity I felt a few weeks ago whilst on a walk. There's a beautiful river connecting to The Thames that runs through my local park. As I took a deep breath and watched its gushing waters rush down the stream, flowing and constant, it reminded me of the forever changing impermanence of life, the impermanence of our feelings. The newly-bud blossom branches hovering above the water represent the resilience needed to embrace the difficult, scary, wild emotions we have to face, as well as the uncertainty and change in these challenging times of COVID-19. And how if we just let those feelings flow through our bodies, if we let them run their course, we will feel emotionally cleansed and less stuck, empty or numb.

So, how does it feel to feel? To know you're on the right path in letting any emotions out, no matter how scary and real they feel? In the moments I have managed it, which aren't that many so far, the first thing I feel is the initial anxiety, which manifests itself in physical symptoms - a tightness in my chest, a jaw-like clench around my heart, a churning in the pit of my stomach. I know if I feel like this, I'm often stopping something else from surfacing, a core emotion such as sadness, grief or frustration. I then take some deep slow breaths and imagine myself going towards the feeling, straight into it. Does it have a colour? If it was an image, what would it be? I let my mind explore the darkness and let it go where it wants to so badly go.

It's usually hard to connect to specific thoughts straight away and figure out what's going on with me, but within a few minutes of staying with the uncomfortable-ness, softer feelings of sadness and grief slowly bubble up to the surface. Sometimes it's OK not to figure out exactly why you're feeling this way. It's enough to just simply feel it. In the times I'm truly moved through my pain, I feel something profound change in my body. The tightness in my chest is relieved and it feels like a space has opened up in my heart. It feels raw, vulnerable, bare. And that's all it sometimes takes - just letting yourself feel whichever emotions or sensations are coming up for you, right in that moment.

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