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.
You are hitting me where it hurts, Karly (in a really good way, of course)!
A couple of years ago, my 93 year old grandfather died. When my mom called to tell me, I hurried to my bathroom where I could be alone because I didn’t want my kids to get upset when they saw me crying. Sure enough, huge gushing tears came forth and since I had forgotten to lock the door, my then-4 year old came bursting in (as she always does!) and saw me crying. She went and found my husband, who was in a different part of the house. He came to me and held me and said “why didn’t you come find me?” Honestly, it never occurred to me that I could go to him – that I could reach out and say “I’m hurting, can you help me?” I thought it was something I had to deal with on my own.
The old saying “God helps those who help themselves” was often quoted in my house growing up – I think maybe I have taken that to an unhealthy extreme. It is uncomfortable for me to ask for help – it feels very unnatural, but as you have pointed out before, what is good for me does not always come naturally.
Grieving is one of those things that I think I just don’t have time for – between work and caring for my family, I am rarely alone. Finding time to have a big ugly cry is difficult! But as you said, it’s important, necessary even in order to move forward, so that’s something I really need to think about.
Thanks for this – more food for thought. (I’ve got a whole buffet table of food for thought lately!)
Karly, your words always strike me as exactly what I need to hear. And like Jill said so perfectly, grieving is one of those things I don’t think I have the time for. But as I’m working through Untangled, I’m learning how to be compassionate and loving towards myself as I heal. And what is wonderful is I see it transferring to being more compassionate and loving towards those around me.
Yesterday my 5 year old son got a nasty scratch on his neck that broke the skin open and looked like a pretty painful “boo boo”. I told him it was okay to cry when things hurt and he said, “Mommy, it feels like it’s going to hurt forever.” Isn’t that so like our emotional pain? We think if we let ourselves cry and feel our pain, it’s going to hurt forever. I promised and reassured him that it wouldn’t hurt forever and that it really would feel better after a little while and I just comforted him. A little while later I asked him if it felt better and he said, “It doesn’t hurt at all anymore!” This was a beautiful lesson for me about pain. We had also cared for his scratch by cleaning it and putting a band-aid on it and then crying and comforting about it. And then he forgot all about it and went to play. I thought later, what if I had told him to just go play and forget about the pain? What would that have taught him (and me for that matter!).
I so appreciate you and your work.
I was in a marriage of 20 yrs with a person who was "avoidant" in attachment type. This was very painful for me, in my anxious attachment style. He would put me down for my wanting to connect and, from his perspective, I was wrong in wanting connection, that "I shouldn't feel that way". After hearing that for years, it was easy to start to believe it. Your words are healing and affirming. My second husband likes to connect and is very nurturing and affirming.
Great analogy, Nicole! I am also working through Untangled and leaning how not to just ignore my pain, which can be challenging for so many reasons, but as you mention, slowly seems to affect not only me but others around me. Thanks for sharing.
In my experience, those "shoulds" about our needs can be very painful. Caring for our needs feels validating and empowering. I feel happy that you feel understood and cared for.
Hi Nicole and Petra,
Thank you for sharing your experience – I love hearing your stories.
Nicole, I think the story of your son is beautiful and felt inspired and touched in how you modeled compassion to him. I love how he said, "It doesn't hurt at all anymore!" Pain feels so scary – it does feel like it will last forever. I appreciate this reminder that it doesn't.
Learning how to open to my pain and care for it has been a new pattern for me, for sure – and one that takes lots of ondoing of patterns like minimizing my pain, wallowing in it, suppressing it, and blaming myself for it.
I appreciate having kindred spirits along for the ride.
In love and care, Karly