I have felt that learning to deal with painful emotional states is one of the most important aspects of growth. It affects our love relationships and how we deal with the inevitable disappointments, losses and rejections that life brings. It also determines our ability to find ourselves and discover our depth as a human being.
Many of us were raised in an environment where people did not have a healthy way to deal with their emotions. All too often, those who raised us ran away from their fear and pain into some sort of addictive behavior such as substance, sex or food abuse, working compulsively, becoming aggressive or hysterical, distracting themselves in one way or another or holding to rigid religious beliefs and morality. Today, we may find ourselves with a tendency to mimic these dysfunctional patterns or pick lovers and friends who do.
I would like to share a simple method for learning to deal with painful emotions. It has and continues to help me in these situations and it is also an important part of what Amana and I teach in our seminars. Basically, the healing is to get in touch with the pain and fear that we carry inside. That is what lies behind our painful emotional states. That may sound simplistic, but it’s true. And by “getting in touch”, I mean feeling it, understanding where it comes from and seeing how it shows itself in our body, in our behavior and in our thinking. And part of this exploration is also to see how we habitually run away from it – our compensations. When we are not choosing to feel our pain and fear, we will find some way of running away from it in the ways I mentioned above.
When I am triggered and feel rejected, inferior, inadequate, unnourished, stressed or unappreciated, I have had (and still do although less so) a habit of reacting in some way. We can react by: blaming, judging, complaining, or getting irritated, angry, moody, petulant, restless, depressed, listless, silent and withdrawn or spaced out, to mention a few. We each have our own favorite mix of these emotional states and behaviors. My favorites are spacing out, judging, competing to prove myself, getting angry or complaining. (But actually, as I look over the list, I can react with anyone of them.) It is human to react in these ways. After all, fear and pain is disturbing and who wants to be disturbed. So, we compulsively try to push away the fear or pain in some way.
But instead of stopping there, as most of us might do, we can go further. We can say to ourselves, “Okay, I am disturbed, let me just feel this.” A few tools can help. “Let me take a moment to feel how this feels in my body – perhaps I have contraction in my chest or solar plexus, perhaps my breathing is shallow, maybe I feel restless, confused or paralyzed.” “If I notice that I am angry, instead of compulsively acting out from the anger, let me see how this anger actually feels in my body.” “Let me feel the agitation, the tightness, the restlessness and my desire to strike out.” It helped me immensely when I started to look for these body sensations.
Another tool is just to notice how we normally react when we are disturbed and say to ourselves, “Ok, I am reacting this way because I am disturbed. Instead of judging myself for being disturbed and for reacting, I am going to observe this behavior in a nonjudgmental way.” “I am also going to notice how the disturbance affects how I think.” I have judged myself horribly for reacting and even for getting disturbed. My inner dialogue goes something like this, “You idiot, after all these years of working on yourself, and you still go into this stuff!” “You call yourself a meditator! What kind of meditation is this?” “You are impossible! How can you expect anyone to love you?” “Get it together, after all, you teach this stuff, remember?” When we have a point of view about what we should and should not be experiencing, it makes it very difficult to just be present to it. So it helps to become aware of what our attitude is. It is hard to accept and explore something that we judge and reject. When I am able to see my self-judgments and opinions, I can stand back from them a bit. I can even question if they are really true.
No matter how much we may have worked on ourselves or no matter how much time we have spent sitting on a meditation cushion, we are going to get disturbed in certain situations. Life has a way of bringing up whatever is still unsettled inside of us, whatever is still unhealed. And the more we open to life and to love, the more it surfaces – deep spaces of feeling unsafe, unloved or insecure. When we get disturbed, it has been triggered by something. When we take some time to examine the trigger, we learn a great deal about ourselves. The trigger can be:
• The way someone talks to us or treats us.
• Not getting the attention, love, recognition, approval or respect we would like.
• Feeling disrespected and feeling that we didn’t stand up for ourselves.
• Feeling like a failure or anticipating feeling like a failure.
• Being frightened or anticipating being afraid.
• Feeling that we are not fulfilled the expectations we have on ourselves.
• Feeling judged or expected upon by others.
• Feeling not content with our life or with our choice of friends or lover.
• Feeling unfulfilled in our work.
• Feeling that we are compromising in our life.
We get triggered when it opens a wound. If it is the wound of shame, the trigger can be some kind of failure, criticism, judgment or rejection. Or the trigger can open our wound of abandonment when we suffer a loss or feel unloved or uncared for. Our wound of not feeling safe and secure can easily be triggered by any situation or treatment from someone that makes us feel threatened.
It is helpful to become aware of our triggers. Each of us has definite trigger points – things that get us disturbed. And our triggers link directly (or sometimes indirectly) to traumas from invasions and abandonments we experienced as a child. When we are provoked today, it is because it echoes the way we were traumatized as a child. These are our patterns. For example, if we had a parent who was an alcoholic and not present, we get provoked today when someone close to us is not present. Or if we were disrespected in some way as a child, we will be highly sensitive to being disrespected today. We will actually attract these situations so that we can heal from them. As we become aware of our specific triggers and observe our patterns, it helps us to understand and to bring compassion to ourselves.
The traumas we experienced as a child had and still has a profound affect on our nervous system. It caused us to lose a basic trust in life and in love. It causes us to be reactive, defensive, withdrawn and irritable. It causes us to experience fear and even profound panic for seemingly no reason. Do we need to know the whole story of how we were traumatized as a child? No. But it is helpful to appreciate that our wounds and acting out come as a result of what we experienced long ago. Without this understanding, we easily judge ourselves.
When fear or pain comes up, it is helpful to know the wound that is being triggered. We call this, framing, in our work. Here’s an example. I am very, very, very attached to Amana. (In fact, I find it hard to imagine that anyone who is really in love with someone wouldn’t get as attached as I get. I see the world through my eyes.) And by attached, I mean that I get affected by all her feelings. I get frightened and anxious when we separate, at least in the beginning. I get disturbed when she gets sick or doesn’t feel well. I hate it when she gets mad at me. I feel horribly guilty when I get mad at her or when I am insensitive or even not available emotionally.
But there is something important that I also have learned. When we allow ourselves to get closer to someone, we get more and more attached, more and more affected by all those things I mentioned above. And the reason is the abandonment wound. The abandonment wound is the place of all our longing for companionship, safety, affection, love and warmth and the fear and pain of not having it or the fear or losing it. Until we create deep sustained intimacy in our life, it is hard to realize how much of this longing sits inside. But once we do have it, the fear of losing it becomes very strong. Being able to know that I am feeling these emotions because of the depth of the abandonment wound (framing) is so helpful for me not to judge and condemn myself.
Here’s another example. I am passionate about tennis. I like to think of myself as a pretty good player and I am very attached to how I play. But when I compete, I get nervous, and I fall apart. I can’t seem to settle my body and perform as well as I know I am capable of doing when I am relaxed. Now I know that what is happening to me in those moments of competition and pressure is called shock. It also used to happen to me whenever I took exams or even in sex (still does at times) whenever I felt or feel insecure. When we are in shock, the fear level is so high that our nervous system shuts down, everything gets tense, our breathing gets shallow and we become flustered. When we go into shock, our body does not function normally or as we would like it to. That is troublesome if we want to do our best. And shock cannot be remedied by will power - only by acceptance and gradual relaxation.
To use the method I am describing requires a willingness to contain uncomfortable feelings. And that’s a conscious choice, a conscious commitment and a clear insight that it is better to feel than to act out from the feeling. Acting out is what most of us do until we make this conscious choice. For sure, that’s what I did. But somewhere along the way, I could see that being reactive without going deeper, in the way I have described, was destructive. It was hurtful to those close to me and it re-enforced a childish self-image. Now when I act out, most of the time, I can feel the pain that it causes to others and myself.
I also discovered that I have the space inside to contain the feelings even when in the moment, it feels like I could die. We call that “allowing the burning.” Because often that’s just how it feels – like burning up inside with anger, frustration, impatience, pain and anxiety. Here’s something a bit esoteric that can help us contain those painful or frightening moments. We can open our palms and imagine that we are giving the pain or the fear up to existence (or to God). Rather than fighting with it, by opening the palms, we surrender to it. This is powerful and it helps immensely for the difficult experience to pass. But it will pass and when it passes, it leaves us feeling immensely empowered. It is nourishing to discover that we can hold pain and fear without throwing it on another or distracting ourselves with some addiction. It is also nourishing to notice that when we stop sabotaging our life in reaction, we invite our love and creativity to flourish. People respond to us differently because we are no longer pushing them away with our reactions. Or if we do react, we can apologize and heal the hurt we may have caused.
In a nutshell, here is the method:
1. Notice when you get disturbed.
2. Notice how you react (act out) from the disturbance.
3. Take some time to feel the disturbance in the body.
4. Notice how the disturbance affects how you think.
5. Notice any judgments you might have about being disturbed or reacting from the disturbance.
6. Notice your triggers – those things that provoke disturbance. (This is coming from your trauma of the past.)
7. Notice if there are patterns that keep repeating themselves in your life.
8. As you allow yourself to feel the fear and/or the pain, open your palms and give it up to existence.
Republished from learningloveseminars.typepad.com