Befriending Ourselves When in Pain

By Laura Peters

So many of us have been taught to turn a deaf ear to our own pain, to toughen up, “bite the bullet” and soldier on. In Dr. Elizabeth Stanley’s groundbreaking book, Widen the Window: Training Your Body and Brain to Thrive During Stress and Recover From Trauma, she calls this “suck it up and drive on” culture. Certainly, survival requires this toughness from time to time, but when we make a lifelong habit of ignoring our own pain, we abuse ourselves. Many of us treat children and other adults with much greater kindness than we treat ourselves.

Think about your own self-talk. Would you ever say to another person, “Oh quit your whining and get with the program. Nobody wants to hear your sad story”? Or, “Don’t be such a wimp. Get over it”? But we say cruel, harsh things to ourselves. In my case, this was the voice of the family members who grew up during the Depression, when survival required toughness.

Stifling our own emotions is as cruel as stifling the emotions of a young child who is just learning how to use their emotional equipment, how to ride through a strong emotion and come out on the other side. As Dr. Jonice Webb so skillfully explains in her books on Childhood Emotional Neglect, shutting down feelings sends us the message that we don’t matter, that others always know better and that there’s something wrong with us. And when we shut down our own feelings, we don’t have room inside to accept or validate others’ feelings, so we perpetuate the injury, often unconsciously and unintentionally, but nonetheless, the damage is done.

When we validate our own feelings—not indulging them, not allowing ourselves to stay stuck in a rut, but simply acknowledging the presence of these feelings and listening for the message they carry—we gain self-respect. We feel worthy of care, attention and love, no more and no less than anyone else.

It has taken me decades to tune into my own feelings and allow them a voice. One meditation session at a time, I have learned to interrupt the spiteful, harassing voice in my head that shouts, “You’re crying aGAIN? What is the problem here?” and replace it with a kind, comforting message: “Something hurts. Can you tell me more about it?” In the presence of that loving, non-judgmental witness, my feelings can emerge like a frightened little mouse from her hidey-hole. In the light of day, they can provide valuable information that helps me heal and grow. Envy teaches me where I need to develop new skills or set new goals. Fear tells me how to take good care of myself, or where I need to reach out for more support. Sadness informs me that I need to grieve a loss before I can let go and move on. Even a positive emotion like joy can sometimes feel overwhelming; I learn simply to sit and allow it to wash over me, too, like painful emotions, accepting each one as it comes.

Skip to content