Sometimes painful emotions feel like they may kill you.
Perhaps J.K. Rowling of Harry Potter fame said it best.
“I DON’T CARE!” Harry yelled at them, snatching up a lunascope and throwing it into the fireplace. “I’VE HAD ENOUGH, I’VE SEEN ENOUGH, I WANT OUT, I WANT IT TO END, I DON’T CARE ANYMORE!”
“You do care,” said Dumbledore. He had not flinched or made a single move to stop Harry demolishing his office. His expression was calm, almost detached. “You care so much you feel as though you will bleed to death with the pain of it.”
Underneath the adventuresome battle for Harry Potter to vanquish the vicious Voldemort — was his grief. His parents had been killed when he was only a toddler, and although surrounded by wonderful friends and the guidance of caring adults, he was alone in that grief.
There were times he desperately wanted the pain to stop.
We do a lot of things to deny or avoid feeling painful emotions. We drink too much, work too much, gamble, dive into Facebook, Netflix binge — all efforts at escape. We avoid feeling anything at all and focus on control, organization, or order. We allow our minds to constantly turn things over and over, worrying about things that we cannot control. We deny the impact of hurts or actual trauma from the past. We discount and rigidly compartmentalize abuse that we suffered.
Nothing could be worse than being a whiner. Right?
What could you do about it anyway? You had a mom who was a roaring alcoholic or a dad who had multiple affairs. Your older brother fondled you or you got raped in college. You were bullied by other boys or you were in a terrible accident that took the life of a friend.
Why feel the emotions that those memories bring? What’s the point?
Because the very avoidance or denial of pain that’s yours reflects a lack of value for self. The message you send to yourself? “My pain, me, what happens to me, isn’t important enough to honor.”
That’s why. Plain and simple. And when you don’t value yourself, the rest of your life will likely reflect that choice.
Roger came into therapy because he was trying to decide whether or not to divorce. He’d been married many years, with no children, to a woman with whom he’d been relatively happy, and he felt tremendous guilt over hurting her. They’d both focused on their careers, traveled. He’d been extremely successful as an engineer. But now in middle age, he was restless.
“I’d like to quit my job. I’ve always wanted to do something to help other people — go to a much poorer country and volunteer my time and expertise.”
“What would keep you from doing that?”
“To be honest? I can still hear my dad screaming at me that I wouldn’t amount to anything.”
“And how do you feel about that now? In 2017?”
Again, another pause. His words showed no emotion.
“I don’t know how rich I’ve got to be to feel successful. All I know is that it’s not enough now.”
“What amount would ever be enough?”
“I don’t know.”
“What do you feel when you remember being screamed at like that?”
“I don’t talk to my dad.”
“But what do you feel? What would you want to say to that child — the child who was you?”
“I don’t know. Go be successful. Prove your dad wrong.”
He stayed in therapy for two more sessions. He divorced his wife, and quickly got into another relationship. He paid for his ex-wife’s therapy, and told her he’d always take care of her. He didn’t understand why she remained so hurt. He remained working as an engineer. And making a lot of money.
Many of us are like Roger. We’re emotionally paralyzed. That’s what a lack of compassion can do. It keeps you stuck. We’re living out choices that are connected with old hurts that we don’t even realize.
I’m obviously not sure what would’ve happened if he’d been able to feel empathy for that child. Or if he’d been more willing to explore other painful feelings that he was aware of. But I know his decision-making would’ve been less chaotic and more clear.
What are the steps in developing self-compassion?
1) See yourself as you might view others.
If you saw an adult throwing rocks at two children, would you ever tell one of those children that their fear wasn’t important?
Maybe you were one of those kids. Why wouldn’t you be as important as every other human being?
2) Recognize the defense mechanisms or strategies you used to cope with/detach from pain or trauma.
When there was no one to help — when no one stopped your parent from screaming at you, no one noticed the bullying, your brother told you he’d hurt you if you ever told, you’ve tried to forget the rape — you survived. You began detaching from the pain of what had happened.
Maybe you’ve become so good at it that you rarely feel or actively hide sadness — and have developed what I term Perfectly Hidden Depression. You may not be comfortable at all with even present-day vulnerability.
You have to begin to see that there’s a down side, a price to pay a detachment from darker emotions. They’re not gone, and they’re having a silent effect on your choices, and your life.
3) Actively challenge the habits and beliefs that fuel that detachment – get unstuck.
If you tend to escape, sit down and write about what you’re afraid to feel. “What am I trying to avoid feeling by eating? By drinking? By working too much?”
If you desperately need to stay in control, look for opportunities to allow others to be in charge, to take a back seat. to let go of all the responsibility. When you’re not hiding behind being busy, what do you feel?
If you worry, and thus stay “in your head” for most of the day, begin a worry journal. Begin noticing the patterns in your worry. Write about them all, and begin to notice how you feel as you write, and after you write.
If you deny the importance of whatever trauma you experienced, try telling it — all of it — to one person you trust — who you know has the capacity for empathy. Watch for their reaction. You’re going to see compassion. You’re going to see how important it was — how important you are.
You have to undo that detachment, that dissociation, in order to feel — in order to have compassion for yourself.
4) Realize the value of a rich emotional life. Confront your own fear of feeling pain.
When an artist paints, they often have a color palette they’re working from. Different artists use color, shading or brush strokes in diverse ways. It’s often how we identify their work.
“That looks like a Monet.”
We’re the same way. We color our lives by expressing diverse, unique emotions.
Enjoying a wide range of emotions, from a good old belly laugh to mild irritation, from a peaceful contentment to an indignant anger, gives you many options, many choices of how to feel.
Self-compassion makes all feelings more available — it grows your own emotional palette. You can claim and express emotions that were first recognized as a child, and can be greatly healed by understanding and empathy as an adult.
Depression is one thing. You can become so dark inwardly that death seems a welcome alternative. Please seek help if you ever get to that place, or are anywhere close now.
Grief may feel like it’s going to kill you. Yet recognizing pain, working through grief, challenging your own denial and avoidance, owning your own vulnerability?
It can truly free you.
You can hear more about depression and many other topics by listening to Dr. Margaret’s podcast, SelfWork with Dr. Margaret Rutherford. Subscribe to this website and receive her weekly blog posts and podcasts, as well as free downloadable ebook, “Seven Commandments of Good Therapy.”!
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My new book entitled Perfectly Hidden Depression will be arriving November 1, 2019! Its message is specifically for those with a struggle with strong perfectionism which acts to mask underlying emotional pain. But the self-help techniques described can be used by everyone who chooses to begin to address emotions long hidden away that are clouding and sabotaging your current life. More to come.