I recently shared my theory that refuge – a deep rooted feeling of belonging, safety and attachment – is what creates the foundation for growth, maturity, and change with food.
I heard from so many tender men and women who resonated with that theory – and who wondered, Yes, but how?? How do I create that secure attachment? They shared how vulnerable and terrifying it feels to reach out to others when they’re hurting. They feel caught – we need loving interdependence to feel fully alive, and yet that very interdependence brings the risk of being hurt. They wonder, “Will I be judged? Loved? Accepted? Will I be seen for who I am?”
They’re speaking the language of vulnerability. And they’re also speaking the language of shame. They feel ashamed, embarrassed by their pain – which is one reason why they feel vulnerable in sharing it with others.. They feel ashamed that they hurt, as if the pain is their fault; as if the pain is something they should be able to control or eliminate. Something they “should” handle better. They’re in pain and they think it’s all their fault. They think they’re responsible for it. They feel guilty for hurting. They apologize over and over.
They hide. Isolate. They close themselves off from their fellow human beings. If they do reach out to others, it’s often from a place of embarrassment, of deep apology – as if they’re a giant nuisance for hurting in the first place.
It’s the shame of needing. In so many words, this is what they’re saying: I feel ashamed because I’m in pain and I’m needing human closeness and contact.
I find this so poignant and heartbreaking; how we take our pain as a sign that there’s something wrong with us and, therefore, as something we need to minimize, edit, suppress, eliminate, or hide. And so we close the door, literally and metaphorically, lest anyone see inside our hearts (or see the extra pounds on our bodies) and see how much we’re hurting. In her book Broken Open, Elizabeth Lesser put it this way:
One of the greatest enigmas of human behavior is the way we isolate ourselves from each other. In our misguided perception of separation we assume that others are not sharing a similar experience of life. We imagine that we are unique in our eccentricities or failures or longings. And so we try to appear as happy and consistent as we think others are, and we feel shame when we stumble and fall. When difficulties come our way, we don’t readily seek out help and compassion because we think others might not understand, or they would judge us harshly, or take advantage of our weakness. And so we hide out, and we miss out.
Oh, beloved, I gently invite you to consider two things:
1. Your need for human contact and closeness – especially when you’re in pain! – is normal. Natural. I look at it this way – pain plus powerlessness (a feeling of helplessness, despair, feeling alone, like no one’s there to help) equals panic. (I can’t bear this!) On a very simple level, “I can’t bear this” then becomes “I need to fight, flee, feed, freeze to care for myself.” We become very primitive, like a wounded animal. We are meant to bear pain in connection – to each other, to life, to our own hearts, to the Divine – not in isolation.
This is the attachment variable I wrote about here.
2. It’s not your fault that you’re hurting. Because pain hurts, we naturally resist it and judge it. We think pain = bad, so pain = punishment. We can even twist this into a spiritual/psychological test, as in, “If I’m more recovered/more enlightened/more evolved I won’t hurt so much.” So if we’re hurting, we see our pain as a judgment – as a sign of our lack of health, evolvement, or wholeness. This is spiritual shame and is incredibly wounding! It’s also punishment based thinking – the idea that only the wicked are punished; the faultless remain untouched; so if I’m hurting, that must put me in the wicked camp…..
I don’t believe our pain is a sign of judgment. It’s a sign of our humanity. We will hurt in this life. There’s no way around it. It’s not a sign of wrongness or badness. It just is. There is incredible freedom to be found in not taking our pain personally. There is incredible freedom to be found in being compassionate towards our pain rather than judging it.
Last year I read a beautiful book, Tattoos on the Heart, a collection of stories by Gregory Boyle, a Jesuit priest who works with gang members in L.A. While I loved the book – it’s one of my favorites, and I read a lot! – one story in particular stuck with me. He was speaking about the poverty in his borough, and said (I’m paraphrasing here), “Rather than judge how the poor carry their burdens, perhaps we should show compassion for what they carry.”
I found his words profound – and not just for those in poverty. When I read this, I paused and said to myself, “perhaps I should show compassion for what I’ve carried rather than judge how I carry it.” Just saying this out loud brings tears to my eyes.
This is a powerful act – dropping our judgment of our pain. That’s because when we drop the judgment, we also drop the shame. We respond to our hurt honestly – with the connection and closeness we need – rather than shaming ourselves for needing it in the first place. We reach out and receive the salve of other human beings, of the Divine, of our own hearts, when we’re hurting. We stop running and hiding and receive love.
This process starts internally, with ourselves. In my experience, one of the most healing things we can do for ourselves is to feel our pain. To truly feel it, to open to it, and to cry our tears. To bear witness to that which aches in us. I know this feels counterintuitive – Isn’t there an easier way?
While I wish I had an answer that feels good and quick and easy, my honest, heartfelt answer; the answer I’ve found from my own experience is yes, we need to grieve. To cry our tears, to reach the wall of futility – to feel and accept all the things we wish were different; all the things we can not change.
I think everything in us wants to be seen, felt, heard, acknowledged. I think of our pain as small children, very young parts of us that demand an audience. And I do mean demand. In my own life, I’ve humbly seen how I will (usually unconsciously) continue hurtful behaviors – towards myself and/or others – and perpetuate my pain until I turn towards it, grieve it, feel it, and acknowledge it.
I grieve by walking and crying. I feel safe outside, I feel held by nature, and there’s something about the gentle rhythm of walking that allows my emotions to flow. I walk, put my hand on my heart and feel my suffering. Some of the most profound moments I’ve experienced in my life – dare I call them mystical? – are during these walks and cries. I don’t think this is because of the grief itself, but because I am fully present. For once, I’m not running from my pain. I’m feeling. All of it. And in being fully present, I no longer feel detached, separate, small, judged for my pain. I feel fully alive, connected, held, attached.
Grieving is the doorway to maturity, acceptance, growth, healing, forgiveness, letting go, and yes, even attachment. It is a path to peace. It’s how we move forward and adapt. (I’ve long thought about writing a book titled something like, The Hidden Power of Grief, because I feel grief is unacknowledged, feared, undervalued, misunderstood and even despised by our culture. I can’t tell you how many times throughout my daily life I pick up on the subtle message of “Stop crying,” whether it’s directed towards a child or an adult; whether it’s in our spiritual communities, our families, our schools, or our workplaces. If only we had a deeper understanding that grief serves an important purpose!)
We need to grieve. We need to befriend our pain, to bear witness. We need to reach out and connect when we’re hurting. These things are our life blood, the water that nourishes our souls.
As we turn towards our pain in care, as we drop the judgment of our suffering, it also opens the doorway to each other. Instead of feeling like our pain is all about me and what I’ve done, it becomes a bridge to our shared common humanity – where all beings have their 10,000 joys and 10,000 sorrows. Instead of feeling alone, we realize, “We’re all in this together.” We feel – live – experience – the truth of Mother Theresa’s words about how “we belong to each other.”
We feel our belonging and we come home.