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 tremendous 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 sorrow. 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 kids 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 when you bury your more difficult emotions? “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 the concept of hurting her. But now in middle age, he was restless and wanted to make many big changes.
Here’s one of the most poignant conversations we had..
Roger: “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.”
Me: “What would keep you from doing that?”
He paused then replied, “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? As a very successful adult?”
Again, another pause. His words showed no emotion, “I don’t know how rich I’ve got to be to actually feel successful. All I know is that it’s not enough now.”
“What do you feel when you remember being screamed at like that?”
“Oh, I don’t talk to my dad anymore.”
“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.”
Roger could have no compassion for himself, then or now.
He stayed in therapy for two more sessions. He ultimately made some changes; he divorced his wife but then 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 made even more money.
Many of us are like Roger; we’re emotionally paralyzed. That’s what a lack of compassion in childhood can do; you’re living out choices that are connected with old hurts that you don’t even realize. You’re left stuck.
I’m obviously not sure what would’ve happened if Roger had been able to feel empathy for that child he once was, or if he’d been more willing to accept and experience the painful feelings lurking in his present-day life. But I do know his decision-making would’ve been less chaotic and far more clear if he’d granted himself some self-compassion.
What are the steps in developing self-compassion?
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? Or maybe you were one of those kids, dodging rocks. Why wouldn’t you be as important as every other human being? Why wouldn’t you deserve protection, advocacy, understanding, comfort, and care?
The answer is that you do deserve those things as much as the next person. Grant yourself the same level of compassion that you’d offer others.
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 in order to cope.
Maybe you’ve become so good at coping in that way that you rarely feel sadness, or perhaps even actively hide it from yourself or others. You may not be comfortable at all with even present-day vulnerability and perhaps are perfectly hiding depression.
What is critical to understand is that those emotions aren’t gone, just hidden, and to begin to see that there’s a price to pay for a detachment from darker emotions. They’re having a silent effect on your choices, and your life.
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 and 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.
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.”
Human being’s work in a very similar way. We color our lives by expressing diverse, unique emotions that range from enjoying a good old belly laugh to mild irritation, or from a peaceful contentment to an indignant anger, giving a spectrum of options to express feelings.
Self-compassion makes all feelings available — it expands your available emotional palette. You can claim and express emotions that were first experienced and then suppressed as a child; this can be a greatly healing process 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, on the other hand, may feel like it’s an external force that’s going to kill you. Yet recognizing that pain, working through it, challenging your own denial and avoidance, owning your own vulnerability?
That kind of emotional work can truly free you.
You can hear more about mental health and many other topics by listening to my podcast, SelfWork with Dr. Margaret Rutherford. Subscribe to my website and receive one weekly newsletter including my weekly blog post and podcast! If you’d like to join my FaceBook closed group, then click here and answer the membership questions! Welcome!
My new book entitled Perfectly Hidden Depression has arrived and you can order here! Its message is specifically for those with a struggle with strong perfectionism which acts to mask underlying emotional pain. But the many 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.
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Originally published on October 8, 2017; updated and republished April 10, 2020.