My youngest son has always been a fighter when he’s in pain. Whether he stubs his toe or gets his feelings hurt, his initial reaction is to get mad. When he was younger, that often meant a barn-burner of a temper tantrum. Sometimes I’d let him wear himself out, and other times I knew that he needed help sitting with his pain. I’d pull him into my lap and wrap my arms around him. For a moment he would thrash and push against me, but very quickly I would feel him soften and melt against me. His breathing would slow down and his crying would ease. One time he looked up at me and, with eyes still red-rimmed, said “It still hurts, Mommy, but it doesn’t ‘scary hurt’ anymore.” His toe or his feelings were still sore, but once he stopped thrashing against the pain, his suffering eased.
What does it look like, then, for us as adults to sit with our pain? Well, it means exactly what it says it does. When we are in pain, we need to sit our ass down. Then we need to name exactly what it is, but not one thing that it might be or should be. We can say, “I am really hurt that I didn’t get the promotion at work,” we shouldn’t say, “I am such a loser. I am never going to succeed in this career!” I will use a real-life example of a heartbreak. A close friend and I were talking once about the process of grieving a break-up (we had both recently experienced the end of a relationship). She said to me,
“I have learned that the pain of this break-up will sometimes sneak up on me. It feels a bit like having a bucket of water dumped on me from above. There is nothing I can do to predict when it will hit. But I’ve also learned to say ‘There’s that bucket of grief again, but it’s not a faucet that can’t be turned off. This will pass and I will spend time tonight reading and spending time with my kids’ As much as I dislike the feeling of pain, I know that it means that the relationship was valuable to me and that I am a sensitive, feeling person.”
Even that simple self talk had three important steps to sitting with pain:
- She observed and named the emotion. It is important to name what you are feeling and how you are experiencing it. What happens in your body? Is it a knot in your stomach? A tightening of your throat? The burn of tears welling behind your eyes? Notice it, name it, but do not judge it. You can even say “Ok, this feels bad, but I can tolerate this right now.”
- She validated her feelings. She saw her pain as proof that she is a caring, feeling person who mourns losses. In the midst of pain, remind yourself that you’ve “earned your pain.” That’s not to say you’ve done something to deserve pain as a punishment. You are acknowledging your own right to feel your pain.
- She stayed in the present. She reminded herself that the pain was temporary and refocused on the present of what she was doing in the here and now. While it is imperative that we acknowledge our feelings, we also don’t wallow in them by ruminating on the situation that lead to the pain, nor catastrophize the future. Reminding ourselves of the impermanent nature of emotional or physical pain, increases our ability to tolerate it.
Sitting with pain isn’t easy and certainly is never fun. It takes practice until it becomes muscle memory. Like building actual muscles, start with small weights. Sit with the pain of the daily frustrations and disappointments of canceled plans or personal slights. Then, when the inevitable heavier weight of loss, challenge or trauma takes place, you are ready and resourced to handle it.