Source: Leland Francisco/Flickr; Headache
“Here’s part of what I love about spirit threads: words that once inflicted only pain can become a heart wound, which then becomes both guiding scar and guiding star, transforming a perceived enemy into a genuine, if accidental, teacher.”
David James Duncan, The Unbreakable Thread (The Sun magazine, November 2014; p.45)
When I first read the above quote, I was touched by the imagery and the sentiment. I talk with people every day, who wrestle daily with emotional pain. As we work together to understand the pain, we both come to appreciate and have compassion for their struggles. They often realize there are ways they view themselves, others, and the world that unintentionally perpetuate the pain. But by attending to this, they also learn what they need to heal.
Some of the lessons that adversity teaches are these:
Pain hurts. There is no way around this basic fact. So trying to deny or suppress it only won’t work well. It can even create additional suffering. You might find that you are angry or frustrated with yourself for hurting. You might even do unhealthy things to try to escape it – such as avoiding people you care about, drinking excessively, or overeating.
Pain is a sign that something is wrong. You can tell yourself a thousand times over that there isn’t a problem or you shouldn’t be upset. But that won’t change how you feel. It won’t change the fact that something is wrong enough to be upsetting you.
Painful emotions – as well as positive ones – are temporary. No matter what you feel, it will change. It will get more or less intense, and it will give way to other emotions. Knowing this not just in your head, but deep inside, can help you hold on through the painful times and truly appreciate the good ones.
Compassion helps to heal pain. People often work hard to shove down or keep their emotions contained because they fear being overwhelmed. However, when they feel fully appreciated and cared about even with intense negative emotions, they sense that they are bigger than those emotions – and they no longer fear being washed away by them. Instead, they feel compassion for their own pain and can let the emotions flow through them, making way for other feelings and experiences.
Much of the personal growth people make is prompted by pain. When faced with adversity, you have a choice. You can let your pain motivate you to build impenetrable walls around your heart. Or, you can choose to respond with self-compassion and with opening yourself to the care offered by others. When you do the latter, attending to your pain can guide you to the source of an underlying problem, if one exists.
Instead of simply accepting that a situation feels “bad” and trying to get away from it, let yourself really experience it. Be curious. Are you feeling sad? Hurt? Betrayed? Angry? Something else? Each time you identify an emotion, ask yourself, “What else am I feeling?” It can be surprising to learn what has been in you all along.
For instance, you may realize that someone “de-friending” you hurts so badly because you carry within you a sense that you are inadequate. Your head may tell you that this isn’t true, but your heart says otherwise.
By accepting this awareness, you can choose to work on healing the sense that you are broken. This is not a problem you can just resolve in a day, but you can do it. Talk with supportive friends. Attend workshops or therapy. Do some reading about developing self-compassion. (You might want to check out my articles: Overcoming Obstacles to Happiness and Success; Nurture Personal Growth with Self-Compassion; How To Be More Compassionate Toward Yourself).
In the end, if you choose to listen to the pain from adversity as a teacher, you will find truth in what Mr. Duncan so eloquently stated. It can be a “guiding scar and guiding star.” Though you may understandably not wish adversity on yourself, you can be better for the pain you have suffered.
Leslie Becker-Phelps, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist in private practice and is on the medical staff at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital, Somerset in Somerville, NJ. She is also a regular contributor for the WebMD blog Relationships and is the relationship expert on WebMD’s Relationships and Coping Community.
Dr. Becker-Phelps is also the author of Insecure in Love.
If you would like email notification of new blog postings by Dr. Becker-Phelps, click here.
Making Change blog posts are for general educational purposes only. They may or may not be relevant for your particular situation; and they should not be relied upon as a substitute for professional assistance.
Personal change through compassionate self-awareness