A couple months ago I read a book called “The Velvet Rage – Overcoming the Pain of Growing Up Gay in a Straight Man’s World”, by Alan Downs. It was one of those “life changers” for me.
Toward the end of the book, Dr. Downs has a chapter of various “Skills for Leading an Authentic Life”, which are not necessarily “gay life skills”, so anyone of any orientation could/should benefit from looking at these with me, unless you’ve already got it all figured out, in which case, “Well done, you!” For myself and the rest of us, I’m going to take one “skill” a day and blog about it. Some may be brief, some may be more protracted, who knows?
Here is today’s:
Obsessing about pain creates more pain.
When feeling distressing emotions, make a conscious effort to let the pain subside. Continuously replaying painful memories, talking about your pain with others, or exposing yourself to situations that keep the memories active only function to keep you in distress. Deliberately and intentionally take action that distracts you from continuing to reinjure yourself with painful thoughts and memories.
I feel like this one needs some caveats right off the bat, at least in the way I have learned to free myself from past pain:
- LET THE PAIN SUBSIDE does not mean IGNORE past pain
- Avoiding the REPLAYING does not mean DENY you’ve been hurt
- DISTRACT does not mean PUSH DOWN and NOT FEEL past pain
If there is one thing I’ve learned in my years of therapy, denying that pain ever existed or keeping myself from feeling pain DOES NOT WORK. In fact, it just exacerbates the situation. It gives the pain a life of its own that never, ever goes away. I found that denying or refusing to feel was the OPPOSITE of NOT obsessing about pain. It became an even greater obsession. I don’t know if that makes sense. Let me try to unpack that…
Ignoring and denying pain turns into a haunt just the same as constantly reliving it. You THINK you are neutralizing it by pretending it isn’t there and refusing to feel it, but you are really just giving it a new and different life of its own.
And that life sucks.
Sucks a lot.
But, in order to move from denial/suppression, you DO have to actually pull it out into your consciousness and let it do its work, which SORT of feels contrary to what this “skill” is saying.
But here’s the thing:
- Discover it
- Acknowledge/Validate it
- FEEL it
- THEN Move on
Some of us get a morbid “high” out of feeling it over and over and over.
The recurring feelings of hurt, abuse, neglect, failure (fill in the blank) begin to define who we are, and we fear we won’t know who we are if we become someone BEYOND or WITHOUT that pain.
Who am I if not the boy who always felt like he didn’t measure up?
Who am I if not the boy who grew up afraid of his shadow?
Who am I if not the boy who assumed he was forgettable and unlikeable?
I’ll never know as long as I cling to that false identity I created for myself.
And yeah, remembering those feelings and dragging them up hurts. But the key (not an easy one, and it may take time), is to pull them up, FEEL them, let the feelings do the work, and walk into a new reality.
At least for me, walking into the “new reality” felt/feels like a lie, because the old lies are so LOUD and deeply ingrained.
But you/I/we have to challenge those lies.
And walk forward.
I also want to take a second and key in on the “let the pain subside” phrase in today’s life skill. Again, speaking only for myself (but I suspect for others as well), I assumed if I allowed myself to”feel”, it would destroy me. That it would take me into a place I wouldn’t be able to navigate and be lost forever. And that fear was paralyzing to me. Anyone familiar with ‘better the devil you know than the devil you don’t’? Yeah. That was my life.
I found (and keep finding) that the opposite is true. Feel the feels. Let them run their course. Let them DO THE JOB THE FEELINGS WERE CREATED TO DO. Did you know those feelings are there for a reason? Our brains are pretty clever things, and they do quite a bit apart from our bidding. When fear, anxiety, or anger arise, it’s our brain trying to protect us from something. Sometimes it’s an out-evolved response (I mentioned this before – we really don’t need “fight or flight” anymore unless we’re being chased by a bear), but sometimes it’s something that REALLY NEEDS TO BE FELT in order for your brain to continue on with normal bodily functions.
Run into the unknown.
Don’t fear the feels. You (probably) won’t die.
And you’ll be free to move on in growth towards peace and contentment.
And now it’s time for my n-teenth reprint of one of my favorite poems:
Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.