Pausing your Pain-killing Machine

29 June 2022 | General

I must admit, I’ve been easing my way into this one. Last month’s self-care edition provides some soft cushioning for this month’s sticky but essential topic. In previous posts, I have discussed that taking responsibility for saving ourselves is key to escaping The Drama Triangle. The other part of the answer is we need to get comfortable with vulnerability (our own and other people’s). Yikes, yes folks, this month we are talking about vulnerability and emotions. Stay with me – that thing you just remembered you must do can wait.

Feeling squeamish? That’s normal – when we are vulnerable, we feel exposed to potential emotional or physical harm. We, therefore, associate vulnerability with uncomfortable and painful feelings. Our natural response is to avoid or escape from painful feelings as soon as possible. We are pain-killing machines. Every action we take is an attempt to avoid or remove our own or other people’s pain. We employ a vast range of strategies to do this. These include keeping busy, a quick pleasure hit, numbing, positive thinking, problem-solving, taking flight or picking a fight (just to name a few). What are some of your favourites? You will probably find these techniques work temporarily, however, tend to mask the pain rather than address it.

No, you can’t keep masking your pain forever. I’m sorry to tell you that emotional pain is a non-negotiable part of the human experience. Unfortunately, our social conditioning tries to convince us otherwise. We are told that if we follow the right steps, we will arrive at our destination of happiness and settle in. In pursuit of this goal state, we look to exterminate anything that might get in our way. We don’t realise the pain-numbing methods we employ act like anti-biotics – they don’t just wipe out negative emotions but positive ones too. It is only through taking emotional risks that we experience the full range of emotions including the really good ones.

How on earth do I turn off my painkilling mechanism, you ask?! This is a good question, after all, it is an automated system. Awareness is always the first step. Becoming aware of your painkilling methods and then pressing pause between stimuli and response. This gives us time to examine pain and name it. This is the tricky part. You may need to learn a new language. Many of us are restricted to an emotional vocabulary consisting of happy, sad, angry, or stressed. Anger and stress are our favourite emotions to express our discontent because they place the problem outside of us. Someone or something else is to blame. The challenge is to look under the anger and stress to expose that part in you that doesn’t feel good enough.

I can distinctly remember the moment I realised that everybody experiences feelings of not being good enough. Up until this point, I believed that you were either confident or you were not. I was so envious of the people who I placed in the confident category (and there were quite a few). Then I found out that other people had me allocated to team confidence. I was dumbfounded before the penny dropped. I have mastered the art of keeping this part of me hidden. The Michelle the world sees is the most confident and happy version. I had no idea that in doing so I was feeding this false happiness facade.

Now that we have established that not good enough feeling is a shared experience, let’s do an activity to help you understand these feelings better. Think about the last argument you had with someone. How did it start? Look below the event and consider what version of not good enough you were experiencing. Can you identify feelings of disappointment, failure, rejection, shame, guilt, embarrassment, jealousy or another vulnerable emotion? Did you communicate this emotion? Or did you communicate a criticism/accusation or say nothing at all? I have my money on the latter.

For the first couple of sessions of relationship therapy, I often feel like a judge in a court. Both clients deliver their arguments and counter defence directly to me. While I do explain I don’t take sides, I can see the hope that I am going to deliver a guilty verdict to the other partner. What they don’t realise is I’m not listening out for evidence of fault, I’m listening for the emotion hidden behind their defence. My job is to help my clients identify and communicate this painful emotion. Being able to communicate our pain effectively helps build emotional connection, while criticism and blame break it.

On the other side of this is our ability to sit with others’ painful emotions. Nothing brings out our painkilling machines more than a loved one in distress. We look for the quickest way to stop the pain. We don’t realise that the greatest gift we can often give someone is just listening and being curious about their pain. Feelings need acknowledgement and validation and then often they will be on their way. Where taking action is required, hold back on making the action plan until after the emotion has been expressed. We are often trying to fix the expressed instead of the underlying problem.

To be honest, I feel like I have only just touched the sides on this topic. Hopefully, I’ve convinced you that getting comfortable with our painful emotions is a path to happiness. For further reading, I strongly recommend you read the work of Brené Brown. She is a social researcher who has put vulnerability in the spotlight. Her new book Atlas of the Heart is in my opinion essential reading for everyone. It is an emotional dictionary, that helps you understand the different emotions so you can identify them in yourself. Another good resource for this topic is The Happiness Trap by Russ Harris.

Prefer to talk it out? Therapy is the perfect place to safely start to explore your emotional world.

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