Have you ever been stuck in emotional pain?
Something happens during your day that hurts you, but it doesn’t stop with just the initial pain. It avalanches into a huge ball of agony, with sharp edges and horns, maybe even a devil’s tail. It could be as small a thing as an inconsiderate remark from a colleague, or intense pressure from a job situation or even incredible pain of watching a loved one hurt.
I’ve been thinking quite a bit about emotional pain lately. Partly because I’ve had a long history with it and partly because after a relatively pain free period, I found myself smack in the middle of this kind of pain a few weeks ago.
I drowned in it. The waves of pain spiraled around me and with each turn pulled me deeper and deeper into the vortex. Every so often, I’d see some light, some levity, as if a lifeline was being lowered to me to grab onto and climb up; but I would lose my grip on it by the force of my own thoughts, my determination to stay in pain!
To make matters worse, I started treating myself with anger and contempt. Ha! Some coach you are! Look at you not being able to coach yourself out of this one!
This soon became a huge black blob; it grew arms and legs and walked around with me. What had happened here? Old pain and habits were triggered, old storytelling habits. I was hooked as the Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron would say, hooked in a chain reaction by sheer force of habit.
The thoughts and stories I added to this initial pain were hilarious in retrospect. She’s all about herself! Doesn’t even realize what she has done; didn’t even apologize; She used me and discarded me just like you know who! Last year, I let so and so do the same thing! And that no good boyfriend I had when I was nineteen! They all stabbed me in the back, betrayed me! When will I ever learn to consider myself first?
Every time I remembered the incident, another story was added to it.
First, I closed myself off, in a protective old habit of trying to repress the actual pain; then I noticed I’m being snarky in my comments about her to others and that’s when I PAUSED. I focused on my breathing and paused. Just like that, I was out of it, able to laugh at myself with great love and understanding.
Here is what worked for me: Nine suggestions how to get yourself out of this spiral if you ever experience it too.
- Breathe, several deep breaths with your attention completely on the breath going in, coming out. Did you notice how there’s a tiny little pause between inhales and exhales? Aah, tiny gaps where you can practice complete stillness.
- Stop the stories, stop the words and thoughts, and stop talking to yourself and others about it! Just pause for now and keep focusing on your breath.
- Sit with the initial pain. Feel it. Where is it in your body? In your chest, throat, stomach? What is the felt sensation? Burning, cold, squeezing, or just pressure perhaps? Allow it to be what it is with no stories attached. What I felt was a rock sitting on my heart. One of my clients complains that if she lets herself do this, it feels like she’s sitting in a huge fire. Sit in the fire, it will burn away the old habits and let the pain flow out.
- If it gets too uncomfortable, step out of the fire to a more comfortable place for a bit, maybe watch the birds, walk out in nature, or look at photos of loved ones. When you feel ready, come back to the pain.
- It might be helpful to tell a trusted friend or a coach about it, someone who will not let you build it up with your imagination, but will listen and witness your pain.
- If the thoughts become uncontrollable, jot them down somewhere to question later when you’re out of the spiral. You can approach them with curiosity then and analyze their truth and usefulness in your life now.
- Use kindness and humor with your stories- Well hello there darling! I see you, I hear you, and I know you. For now, I’m going to let you sit over there on the sofa.
- With each story, bring yourself back to the present moment, to NOW. What’s happening now? Is anyone taking advantage of you now? Is anyone betraying you now? Are you betraying yourself now? This minute.
- Lastly, every time you notice you’re being harsh, for whatever reason, bring loving kindness and compassion to yourself. If you’re berating yourself for not being a good person for having these thoughts; or not being a good coach for having fallen in the hole you help others not to fall in; or not taking better care of yourself, give yourself a big hug. You’re human and perfect in your imperfection.
Pause and give yourself the chance to choose a different reaction. Once you’re thinking clearly again, you can decide what to do about your trigger situation. As I’ve found out, it often dissipates by itself and there’s nothing left to resolve.
Leda Asmar is an endorsed Mind Body coach and a Certified Martha Beck coach. She helps people though transitions in life. She specializes in helping hardworking midlife women get unstuck, make authentic choices, and take charge of their lives by tuning into their inner voice and reconnecting with their true Selves.