A mentor of mine has a saying, “Humans are the only mammal that, when wounded, lays down immediately to become prey.”
Like every person alive, I’ve known my share of pain. No, it’s not necessarily worse or less debilitating than another’s. I mean, who’s to say when I tell my toddler “No” and he BECOMES rejection (it is so melodramatic and cute) that my mommy wound is any harder to handle?
It’s all relative, in the end.
But, even though I’m almost 40, my two-year-old and I face the same challenge: How to process emotion without allowing it to control and dictate behavior. Don’t judge me.
Perhaps, this challenge actually exists beyond our household.
The specific emotion that was hardest for me to process was pain. Anything painful had a tendency to paralyze me, then send me into a desperate self-soothing mode. My heart rate would speed up, tears would fall, sinuses fill, and my thoughts would spiral into a cacophony of hurtful memories, analyses, comparisons and projections.
Then that same dysfunctional brain would throw a last-hurrah of unhealthy solutions at the cacophony. I mean, you’d think there was enough to do in all that confusion, where would you find time for bad ideas?!?!
Here. In my mind. That’s where.
Shortly after, I would act on my thoughts and a big physical mess would materialize to memorialize my pain and what it was causing in my life. Great.
Then I’d have pain and a mess. The pain was enough. Why did this need to grow?
Essentially, I would lay down immediately and become prey to a dysfunctional mind.
Last year, I stopped laying down for pain as though it defined me and instead, started responding to it as something that had happened to me that I could manage in a healthy way. What does that even mean?
Well, if laying down and wallowing in pain is one dysfunctional option, what does an alternative, healthy option look like?
We’ll return to the animal kingdom since my toddlers can’t yet offer any great examples of emotional mastery.
Most animals, when wounded or in pain, flee defensively to find a safe place to heal, aggressively fighting anything that stands in their way.
This, with a little complexity added back in, is actually a wonderful way for us to process pain. And that’s exactly how I approached it through a very challenging, but rewarding and healthy experience.
Here’s what happened.
Around November of 2017, I realized I hadn’t been honest with myself about some of the darker parts of my life history, and how I felt about them.
Basically I was hurting badly, and lying to myself about it.
Initially, this showed up as my thoughts traveling to traumatic experiences, and me crying in pain about it. After a couple times of this happening, I sought privacy and in my own way, prayed about it: Explained what was happening, and asked for clarity. My answered prayer was enough clarity in that moment to give me peace and some instruction. I didn’t feel like crying any more.
The instruction was to set aside a time to deal with this pain fully. I chose the upcoming weekend.
Now, this didn’t make much sense. I thought processing emotion meant you give in to the feeling, and let it wring you dry. It was worrisome that “setting a time for it” may somehow be suppression or avoidance. Turns out, because I acknowledged the feeling, and committed to dealing with it, that pain no longer had me under its thumb.
As the days counted down to my pain-processing date (so wack, really) I was able to explain to my husband and friends as we checked in casually: “You know, I’m dealing with a lot of pain right now and it’s difficult, but I’m going to be okay.” Without any emotion or expectation of advice, or intervention, or fixing, that statement felt so vulnerable. But it was so freeing to share.
Already, by recognizing, naming the emotion, getting spiritual advice, and setting a time to face it, this thing was manageable.
When my pain-processing date came, I went to my favorite place and after settling in, began to pray again.
This time, all that came out was a string of forgiveness prayers.
There were probably pigeons and ants nearby who felt forgiven by the time I was done.
It was so surprising to me. Surely, if something’s hurt, the traumatic incident should be revisited, or corrected, or someone contacted, or something fixed. I believed emotional processing and healing is like physical healing and rebuilding: You watch the broken part get fixed, or add something new to cover it up.
But just forgiveness?
The power in it was not like any physical healing or repair, which takes an old material and adds to it, manipulating, discarding and replacing until it’s something functional.
This process transformed my pain into a different substance altogether. The ache, shame, trauma, and bad memories were changed into vulnerability, strength, gratitude, acceptance, and depth.
And like that, the pain was gone.
Now, I can look forward to painful moments because of this experience, knowing the process is not intimidating, and I will be better for it.
This series is not your typical musing but the hope is, exploring this together helps us grow more healthy: Inside and out.
I don’t have all the answers.
I know the way.