Vulnerability is the essence of connection and connection is the essence of existence.

– Leo Christopher

Life is truly about connection in relationship.  We long to connect and feel seen by others.  This starts early in life with our first attachments.  We are social beings and we need one another.  Yet, it will not be a news flash to anyone reading this to state that relationships are difficult.  In all forms: from romantic relationships, work relationships, parenting relationships, to friendships, they all come with a certain level of challenge.  How we navigate these challenges in relationships has much to do not only with the quality of those relationships but also the quality of our life in general.

Why are relationships such a challenge? It starts possibly with the fact that to enter into a deep connection with another, we first have to be in that same type of relationship with ourselves.  Intimacy with another requires the ability to know and maintain who we are as we enter into that relationship with another.  One reason this is central in healthy, deeply connected relationships is its relationship with vulnerability.  Connection requires vulnerability.  Our ability to be vulnerable depends on our ability to handle the anxiety related to vulnerability.

Family therapy researcher, Murray Bowen, called this ability “differentiation”.  Differentiation is essentially our ability to remain connected to ourselves in the presence of others.  It is the ability to have a developed solid self which allows an individual to navigate the difficult emotions present in relationships.  It allows an individual to act and think for themselves while being able to connect and interact with others.

“A person with a well-differentiated ‘self’ recognizes his realistic dependence on others, but he can stay calm and clear-headed enough in the face of conflict, criticism, and rejection to distinguish thinking rooted in a careful assessment of the facts from thinking clouded by emotionality. Thoughtfully acquired principles help guide decision-making about important family and social issues, making him less at the mercy of the feelings of the moment. What he decides and what he says matches what he does. He can act selflessly, but his acting in the best interests of the group is a thoughtful choice, not a response to relationship pressures. Confident in his thinking, he can support others’ views without being a disciple or reject others’ views without polarizing the differences. He defines himself without being pushy and deals with pressure to yield without being wishy-washy.” (https://thebowencenter.org/theory/eight-concepts/).

This idea of differentiation interlocks with our ability to be intimate in relationships.  Brene Brown has written extensively on the concept of vulnerability and its correlation to belonging and connection in relationship.  In her most recent book, Braving the Wilderness, she states, “True belonging is the spiritual practice of believing in and belonging to yourself so deeply that you can share your most authentic self with the world and find sacredness in both being a part of something and standing alone in the wilderness.  True belonging does not require you to change who you are; it requires you to be who you are.” This is a difficult prospect and it demands action on our part.  When we are able to do this, we can hold onto ourselves and allow others to do the same.  We can tolerate the unique thoughts, feelings, and needs of others because we can tolerate those within ourselves.

How do we accomplish this? How do we find a way to be able to stand in our authentic self and bring that self to others in relationship?

This process starts and ends with us.  One key to the differentiation process is being able to own our stories.  If we are cut off and disconnected from parts of ourselves and our own stories it is difficult to connect to the same in others.  To be authentic, we have to first know ourselves.  For generations, stories are the fabric of our lives.  From movies, to books, to family history, stories help us heal, encourage us, and help us make sense of ourselves and the world around us.  When I was in graduate school, one of our tasks was to write our family story.  This required sitting down and interviewing family members and letting them tell their part of our family story.  I still have pages of written parts of these stories from family members, some who are no longer alive.  I treasure these pages.  While a challenge, the assignment was invaluable to my understanding of my own personal story.  Often we struggle with our own stories because they are frequently filled with pain, trauma, loss, and unfulfilled dreams.  Yet, all of what happens to us shapes us.  Dr. Dan Siegel calls this process, narrative integration.  It is the process of making sense of our stories and our inner world.  It is central in the attachment process with others.  Brene Brown stated that, “Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.” (Brown, 2010, p. 6).

A second key to differentiation is our ability to self-soothe or emotionally regulate.  Being in relationship with another is difficult but also deeply rewarding.  Navigating this process requires us to be able to manage our internal emotional world.  This is the process of emotional regulation.  Emotions can be challenging to navigate, particularly emotions such as anxiety, anger, fear, and frustration.  The process of regulation simply means that we are able to name these emotions and manage them instead of acting out of them.  We all know what it feels like to be overwhelmed by our emotions and the impact on relationships when we act out of our emotions, doing and saying things that we regret.  The process of regulation, or self-soothing, allows us to ride our emotional waves without being lost in them.  We are able to make healthy decisions about how to manage our emotions until they settle and we can re-engage in whatever needs our attention.  These are habits that require time and attention to develop because when we feel deeply, it is often difficult to think.  Practice these when you are not in crisis or emotionally overwhelmed.  The more differentiated we are from those around us, the easier it is to hold onto yourself when all of the feelings come and to self-soothe.

Tips for self-soothing:

1.  Going on a walk
2.  Talking to a trusted friend
3.  Listening to music/playing music
4.  Writing in a journal
5.  Mindfulness practices
6.  Therapy
7.  Yoga
8.  Artistic pursuits
9.  Taking a bath
10. Spending time with a pet

Each of these are simple activities that we can engage in to help us soothe when we are feeling overwhelmed emotionally.  When we learn this process, we learn to navigate the tricky waters of our emotional world and we are able to enter into relationships from a more solid foundation.   When we learn to hold onto ourselves we are able to hold onto others.

In our next blog post, we will focus on how differentiation applies to couples and healthy sexuality.

 

Brown, B. (2010). The gifts of imperfection: Let go of who you think you’re supposed to be and embrace who you are. Hazelden Publishing.

“Who is the only person in your life who is available 24/7 to provide you with care and kindness? You.”

Kristen Neff, Self-Compassion

In the last article in this series, I focused on negative self-talk. Initially, that piece was meant to cover self-talk as a whole. However, as I wrote, it became clear that this topic couldn’t be given justice without separating it into two parts. I started with the negative side of the coin because, unfortunately, I think many of us are more familiar with it than the positive side. What I certainly do not want to suggest, though, is that it’s only the negativity of our self-talk that makes it so compelling. Our positive self-talk can be equally transformative and, quite frankly, a lot simpler.

Much like the inner critic, positive self-talk as a concept also garners a lot of attention in a variety of forms via many different perspectives and traditions: modern psychology, meditation, mantras, affirmations, etc. The most recent mainstream perspective that aims at shining a light on the significance of our internal world is positive psychology. In his highly entertaining 2011 TED Talk, Shawn Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage, states, ”We’re finding it’s not necessarily the reality that shapes us, but the lens through which your brain views the world that shapes your reality.” He posits that, as the adage says, we should work smarter not harder. We’re better off spending our energy remaining positive in the present moment than striving for the next thing that will make us happy or successful (which probably won’t work). In his work with businesses, Achor (2011) reports, “What we found is that only 25 percent of job successes are predicted by IQ, 75 percent of job successes are predicted by your optimism levels, your social support and your ability to see stress as a challenge instead of as a threat.” Near the end of his talk, he gets more practical:

“We’ve found there are ways that you can train your brain to be able to become more positive. In just a two-minute span of time done for 21 days in a row, we can actually rewire your brain, allowing your brain to actually work more optimistically and more successfully. We’ve done these things in research now in every company that I’ve worked with, getting them to write down three new things that they’re grateful for for 21 days in a row, three new things each day. And at the end of that, their brain starts to retain a pattern of scanning the world not for the negative, but for the positive first” (Achor, 2011).

If you’re anything like me, you’re thinking, “Nope. Sorry, I just can’t believe it could be that easy. Something that affects so much of us so deeply can’t shift significantly with an intervention so simple.” I hear you, and I, by no means, want to oversimplify a profound topic like self-talk. As I mentioned in the last article, many different factors play into our self-talk, many of which are the stuff of therapy. However, I do believe, again, that the jumping off point can be as simple as a small consistent habit, such as practicing gratitude. This concept, though, applies across the board well beyond the scope of gratitude specifically. As Achor mentioned, a daily practice of noticing and acknowledging something shifts how we operate on a subconscious plane. We can change our thinking on a fundamental level in whatever category by sheer force of focus. That focus is changing our internal world over time in a way that can bring more lasting change than any amount of in-the-moment conscious white-knuckling.

One of the biggest real-life examples of this for me came from an experience during my college years. One day, a friend of mine invited me to a weekly small group she had been attending for a while. She explained that they weren’t studying anything and the group didn’t have a specific agenda. They simply spent their time together talking about the ways they had seen God show up in their lives over the past week. Looking back, I’m sure I went to this group to prove that nothing good can come from warm-and-fuzzy share time without some intellectual bounty involved. What I found, though, surprised me. Never at any other time in my life have I been more aware of daily divine intervention in my life than when I was attending this group. Do I believe now that God was moving more at that point in my life than others? No, not at all. What was different was merely the fact that I was looking for it and paying attention. So I found it.

For those of us who need, perhaps, a more research-based example of this, keep reading. This topic also significantly shifted in my journey while working at a residential addiction treatment center soon after finishing my counseling degree. It was a small facility, and I was the rookie therapist, so one afternoon I  found myself scrubbing some graffiti off one of the bathroom walls next to my office. Apparently, I was using my outside voice while saying “I love my job” over and over to myself (sarcastically, in case you missed that). At this point, one of my supervisors walked past and said: “Hey, you know that actually works, right?” After he took a second to take in my blank and probably more-than-slightly exacerbated facial expression, he proceeded to tell me about an article he had read about a common practice of Navy SEALs. I found after some fact-checking that Navy SEALs have used positive self-talk as a part of their training curriculum for years, which has resulted in significantly higher passing rates in their training program. Eric Barker, in his book Barking Up the Wrong Tree: The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything You Know About Success Is (Mostly) Wrong, claims that we should pay close attention to what Navy research has shown us about the impact of self-talk:

“A Navy study revealed a number of things that people with grit do—often unknowingly—that keep them going when things get hard. One of them comes up in the psychological research again and again: ‘positive self-talk.’ Yes, Navy SEALs need to be badass, but one of the keys to that is thinking like ‘The Little Engine That Could.’ In your head, you say between three hundred and a thousand words every minute to yourself. Those words can be positive or negative. It turns out that when these words are positive, they have a huge effect on your mental toughness, your ability to keep going. Subsequent studies of military personnel back this up. When the Navy started teaching BUD/S applicants to speak to themselves positively, combined with other mental tools, BUD/S passing rates increased from a quarter to a third.”

So, let’s sum up some of the practical pieces of positive self-talk. As I mentioned above, there are elements of our internal world that create barriers to the simplicity of what I presented here about changing our self-talk. This is where a wise, trusted friend or counselor can help you navigate what gets in the way of harnessing the power of the positive potential of your mind. As discussed in the last article in this series, when trying to help a counseling client understand what our self-talk should look like I try a few different avenues by asking questions that challenge the internal beliefs that function as the cogs of the internal self-talk machine. If you force one gear (the negative) to stop turning and instead focus your efforts on movement of the positive gears, your mind machine will automatically begin moving in the direction of wellness. Even our simplest intentional daily actions change our brains. It really is that simple. Try it out and see for yourself.

 

Achor, S. (2011, May). TEDx Bloomington. The happy secret to better work. Video retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/shawn_achor_the_happy_secret_to_better_work

Barker, E. (2017). Barking Up the Wrong Tree: The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything You Know About Success Is (Mostly) Wrong. New York: HarperCollins.

Neff, K. (2015). Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself. New York: HarperCollins.

In part one of this series, I started us out with some basics about thoughts by focusing on the power of words. For this second part, I want to shine a light on negative self-talk. As a therapist, there are a few different themes that I come back to often due to their relevance to a wide variety of presenting issues and goals clients bring to my office. Self-talk is one of my top five most-visited topics in therapy. I’ve found that the subject usually isn’t treated with the deference it deserves. Its impact on our mental health and general wellness is significant and, in my opinion, well worth exploring.

When I use the term self-talk, I’m referencing the voice in our heads- all the thoughts in our minds that sound like one or both sides of a conversation. The unmistakable reality is that we’re constantly talking to ourselves, whether or not we realize it. Much has been written on the topic using a variety of terminology. One of my favorite terms used is “inner critic.” I appreciate this wording due to its intent to externalize our negative self-talk to help keep us from making the mistake of over-identifying with it. Regardless of the label used to describe our negative self-talk, key themes emerge in our understanding of its origins, impact, and proposed remedies.

There are many different views concerning the origins of the nature of our internal dialogue. Peggy O’Mara, an author and editor whose work centers around children and motherhood, simply states, “The way we talk to our children becomes their inner voice.” Other authors and researchers, like Geneen Roth, also claim that our self-talk mirrors the way we were spoken to and dealt with as children. Roth (2011) explains that as children we learn to internalize the messages our parents sent us, for better or for worse, as a survival strategy. For example, as children it’s best that we internalize messages such as “Don’t run out into the street,” but those that sound more like “You’re only worthy of love and acceptance when you accomplish something” don’t do us any favors as children or later as adults.

When I delve into this topic with a counseling client, I usually tell the following story of an experience that forever shifted my view of the importance and impact of negative self-talk and served as the beginning of the end of my, then, thriving inner critic. While in graduate school, I was given the amazing opportunity to intern at an addiction treatment center where one evening I was invited to observe an eating disorders group. During my first visit to that group, the group therapy agenda was set to include the reading of a letter assigned to one of the members the previous week. After discovering the extreme nature of her self-talk and it’s connection to her disordered eating, her therapist asked her to write a letter to herself from her inner critic as she experiences it inside her head on a daily basis. During this group therapy session, she was asked to pick the person in the group whose voice sounded most like her inner critic (the one male in the group who she chose appeared to be a good friend). The friend was a champ, following through on what he was asked- to read the letter to her knee-to-knee in the tone in which it was clearly written. The scene was heartbreaking. Not only in watching the emotional reaction of the woman who was being read to or hearing the awful things written in that letter but also the friend who was tearfully reading those words of which he didn’t believe a single word. Though years have passed since witnessing this scene, I still can’t tell this story without tearing up. It was an incredibly powerful object lesson about what our unchecked negative self-talk can turn into and just how toxic it can be for us and for our relationships. I think, on some level, most of us can relate to this with a look in the mirror. I encourage you to take a second and imagine yourself in this young woman’s shoes. If others could see and hear your inner critic, how would that change the way you talk to yourself?

Let’s take it a step further then. Not only does this inner critic mirror something we likely have no desire or intention of reflecting but it is also self-sustaining. Imagine that you have the most healthy, robust self-esteem of anyone you’ve ever known, then you hire an assistant who is with you continuously and who never ceases to criticize you. Even with your world-class self-esteem, your assistant’s constant monologue about your work and your worth will eventually wear you down. Without anyone else there to defend you (which is the case when this is all playing out only in our heads), you’ll likely slowly move toward believing it, regardless of whether or not it’s true. Like a slow and steady gas leak, it will bring its toxicity into the way you think, slowly poisoning your view of yourself and the world around you likely without you even realizing it’s happening. In many respects, your self-talk is no different than this hypothetical third-person. Whether the messages are true or not, if you listen to it for long enough, you’ll eventually come to believe them. The more deeply we believe something, the more likely we are to see the world through that lens of self-fulfilling prophecy. Brené Brown (2017) illustrated this beautifully in her book Braving the Wilderness:

“Stop walking through the world looking for confirmation that you don’t belong. You will always find it because you’ve made that your mission. Stop scouring people’s faces for evidence that you’re not enough. You will always find it because you’ve made that your goal. True belonging and self-worth are not goods; we don’t negotiate their value with the world.”

Don Miguel Ruiz (2008) in his book The Four Agreements posits that our acceptance of someone else’s abuse is contingent on the severity of our abuse of ourselves. He claims that we will only leave an abusive situation when the abuser treats us worse than we treat ourselves. In regards to a solution to this pattern, Ruiz (2008) goes on to say, “…we need a great deal of courage to challenge our own beliefs. Because even if we know we didn’t choose all these beliefs, it is also true that we agreed to all of them. The agreement is so strong that even if we understand the concept of it as not being true, we feel the blame, the guilt, and the shame that occurs if we go against these rules.” The process of seeing, challenging, and replacing these rules is often a core element of therapy. We can’t go back and un-send the messages we’ve received. However, as Ruiz alluded to, we can make the choice to face the blame, guilt, and shame that solidify our loyalty to these imprisoning messages. If we never make ourselves aware of these internal beliefs, we will likely continue to shoulder their burden unknowingly and to our great detriment.

So then what’s the solution? As with many truths, it’s simple but not necessarily easy. Roth (2011) in her excellent book Women, Food and God: An Unexpected Path to Almost Everything explains it this way: “Freedom is hearing The Voice ramble and posture and lecture and not believing a word of it…Listening to and engaging in the antics of The Voice keeps you outside yourself. It keeps you bound. Keeps you ashamed, anxious, and panicked. No real or long-lasting change will occur as long as you are kneeling at the altar of The Voice.” Roth sites “living as if” as the solution for silencing our inner critic- living as if we don’t believe a word of it. When helping a client move toward healthier self-talk, I take a similar approach: (1) name the lies that our inner critic is known to speak to us (we can usually boil it down to a few major themes), (2) label them as lies (some form of “Is this standard true for me but no one else?” or “Can I imagine speaking this ‘truth’ to a child?” usually does the trick), and (3) then treat them as a lie regardless of how we feel in the moment. Every time we act out of the truth rather than a lie we’ve been led to believe, that voice becomes a bit quieter until eventually, it fades into the background. Sure, it takes practice but starting down the path to a healthier internal world really can be that simple. We will, also, take this a step further in the next part of this series. Stay tuned.
Brown, B. (2017). Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone. New York: Random House.

Roth, G. (2011). Women, Food and God: An Unexpected Path to Almost Everything. New York: Scribner.

Ruiz, D. (2008). The Four Agreements. Thorndike, Me.: Center Point Pub.

Thoughts. The ever-present voice in our head that we often only pay much attention to when there’s a problem. Even then, we often hand the bulk of the blame to our emotions and don’t give much thought to our thoughts- the litany of words constantly running through our minds. In this series of articles, I want to highlight a few key points and observations I’ve made about our thoughts from my personal life and my work as a therapist.

First, let’s talk thoughts “versus” emotions to clear a little air here. Unfortunately, somewhere along the way thoughts and emotions, to some extent, have been philosophically pitted against one other- as if they’re enemies or on different sides and we have to pick one. This simply isn’t realistic. If that were true, we’d all have to choose to be either emotionless robots or puddles. We can easily look at people on either extreme- of over-identifying with thoughts (more on that in a later article) or with emotions- and clearly see that they aren’t interacting with the world around them in a balanced, healthy way. But, even so, often when I ask someone about their emotions, I hear claims about preferring to be a “more rational person.” To me, that seems a bit like your physical therapist asking you how your legs are feeling and you tell her you prefer to concentrate on your arms. Both thoughts and emotions are on the same team. We need them both and they work best together, assuming we can separate them at all. As I wrote about in another article- “The Truth About Pain”– we can no more separate thoughts and emotions than we can fully separate emotional and physical pain. I bring this up to clarify that in this series when I’m writing about thoughts I’m doing so under the assumption and understanding that thoughts and emotions are not completely separate entities.

The next part in this series will focus on the topic of self-talk so here I want to only touch on this idea as it relates to the power of our words. It is hard to argue with the fact that words have power. Words play a part in much of what inspires us. Speeches by charismatic leaders have started revolutions (think Hitler, for example) and have converted people to religions or ideas they never considered (think brilliant authors like C.S. Lewis). They’ve convinced people to change entire perspectives. We see this on both the positive and negative ends of the spectrum. Either way, it’s difficult to deny that words have power.

I see this present itself in a few different, very significant ways in my work as a therapist. First, there have been countless articles, books, and research studies since the dawn of the field of counseling about the effects of our thoughts and internal beliefs on our mental health. In fact, there is an entire model of counseling called “Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy” (CBT) that posits that our thoughts directly impact our behavior. To put it simply, you can significantly change behaviors by changing the thoughts that drive them. Without getting into a theoretical debate regarding Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, I believe most of us in the field of mental health counseling would agree that our thoughts (the beliefs we’re rehearsing and justifying in our heads) have a significant impact on our behaviors and our general well-being.

The second and probably most compelling way I see the power of words work in my counseling office is when they are spoken, often for the first time, by my clients. Sometimes I even feel a bit guilty about how much this continues to amaze me. As a therapist, I know that so much of the power of therapy lies in the clients’ courage to talk about and through things in a way they haven’t done before. I say I feel guilty at times because, deep down, I know this to be true- that there is something nearly magical about talking through something difficult and vulnerable in the presence of a non-judgmental witness (whether this is a therapist or a friend), especially for the first time. However, I’m still amazed each time I hear a client say, “Wow, I feel so much better/lighter/freer.” when I’ve essentially only sat as an actively-listening, empathetic witness. It’s such a beautiful part of how we are foundationally social creatures who, at our cores, are ready-built for relationships. Peter Levine (1997), the originator of Somatic Experiencing, speaks to this profound truth by stating, “Trauma is not what happens to us, but what we hold inside in the absence of an empathetic witness.” The opposite of this, then, also holds true. Hurt that happens in relationship can be healed in relationship.

Third, on a personal level, working as a counselor has changed my view regarding the impact of the spoken word. Before, honestly, I don’t know that I’d given a lot of thought to the topic. Yes, I was a sensitive kid so I was keenly aware of how others words could affect me but had never considered this on a more global level. I had given little thought to how my words affect others and, then even more so, how words have such power to heal, to harm, to stick to the insides of our heads, and to even lay the groundwork for lifelong beliefs about ourselves and the world around us. John Eldredge, author of Wild at Heart, speaks to the power of words by calling the detrimental words spoken over us, especially as children, as “wounds of the heart.”  He goes on to explain that if we hear a “message” enough times, we’ll eventually start to believe it to the extent that I believe my eyes are green (they are, by the way). We can come to believe it so wholeheartedly or so unquestionably that we accept it as fact. Once we then accept something as fact, the tint of our worldview lens tends to confirm rather than deny this “truth.” My colleague Allan spoke to this beautifully in his recent article about how these messages can play a part in our parenting. Some of the most powerful moments I’ve been a part of in my therapy office have been those in which I have had the opportunity to speak truth to obvious lies. Sometimes it’s the first time that person has heard (or better yet allowed) someone else to speak against their wounds masquerading as “facts.” From time-to-time, I think about that original moment(s) when the wound was first inflicted. I wonder whether or not the speaker had any clue the impact they were having on that person (often a child) and whether they would have said what they did if they had known. In his wonderful little book The Four Agreements, Don Miguel Ruiz (2008) writes, “The human mind is like a fertile ground where seeds are continually being planted. The seeds are opinions, ideas, and concepts. You plant a seed, a thought, and it grows. The word is like a seed, and the human mind is so fertile!” This is true whether the words spoken are harmful or affirming. I believe it is best for us to remain aware of just how fertile this soil is in ourselves and each other.

Words are powerful. As I said at the beginning, our thoughts are essentially the words we’re constantly speaking to ourselves. While I won’t argue that spoken and written words may differ in some ways than our thoughts, I think the backbone of the matter is the same. Words are powerful, even if no one but us hears them. In part two of this series, we’ll delve into the huge impact these specific types of words can have on our overall well-being.

 

Eldredge, J. (2011). Wild at Heart: Discovering the Secret of a Man’s Soul. Harpercollins Christian Pub.

Levine, P. A. (1997). Waking the Tiger. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.

Ruiz, D. (2008). The Four Agreements. Thorndike, Me.: Center Point Pub.

“You hate me”, my five-year-old says through angry tears. I’m caught off guard by his accusation. My heart knows it isn’t true; nothing matters more to me than he does. But a different message is written across my scowling face. I’m mad and any stranger in the world who walked up right now would see plainly that, in this moment, we are against each other. I’ve made an enemy of a five-year-old child.

This is not the parenthood that I wanted. I wanted to be a safe, calm, and secure father for my kids. On days like this one, however, that vision gets away from me. My son has misbehaved and all he needs is loving and confident correction. But often I’m surprised to find that, apart from actually having anything to do with my kids, there is something in their misbehavior which is deeply threatening to me.

More than just about anything else, parenting has a way of dragging your stuff to the surface. This is because to be a parent is to be out of control. When I’m alone, I can arrange my world in such a way that I don’t have to hear the hurtful messages that, for one reason or another, I’ve been running from (and carrying with me) my whole life. Those messages are different from person to person and depend on our stories, but for most of us they essentially boil down to “you don’t matter, don’t count, and don’t deserve to be loved.”

Parenting precludes the stagnating luxury of hiding from these messages. Some days more than others, something in my kids’ (or wife’s or friends’ or coworkers’) behaviors blasts those messages on the surround-sound system of my internal world and I see now that those are the days that I don’t really believe in love at all. They are the days that I see life and all of its endeavors as proving ground for my validity and worthiness. I get sucked into the struggle of trying to get it all just right so that I might finally live down the accusations against me and be worth something in my own eyes. On these days, even my own children are either for or against me, and my capacity to love a five-year-old depends on the extent to which he cooperates in this test I’ve devised for myself.

But even on the days I fall prey to this trap, I know in my gut that it’s wrong. I know that isn’t how love works. Even on those days I could answer without hesitation that my children are worthy of love just because they are. We have it on the authority of Christmas that to be a human is to be made for, and the object of, love. They can’t earn it and they can’t lose it. When I forget this it is my failure, not theirs.

It is here that I have to deal with a difficult but life-giving dilemma: I can’t defend the inherent worthiness of my children to be loved while simultaneously disqualifying myself. Truly loving my kids, or anyone else, necessitates and depends on my willingness to receive that love for myself. It is in the security and peace of this love that I have the capacity to be the father I want to be and that my children deserve. If, like me, you have dragons to slay to gain access to that love, I promise you it’s worth the fight.

I am blessed this week by Andrew Peterson who lives out this truth in a song he wrote for his children:

Overall, pain has developed a bad reputation. Even the word itself, for some of us, feels a bit sinister. In this blog, I hope to shift the perspective on this a bit and show that many people’s view on pain is missing the boat.

First, I want to clarify that I, in no way, wish to come across as calloused to pain and its effect. It is very real and it is formidable, whether more physical or emotional in nature. People in pain can feel driven to do things that normally they wouldn’t even consider just to escape it for even a moment. Gabor Maté in his book In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts points to pain as the source of all addictions. “Not why the addiction,” he says, “but why the pain.” (Maté, 2013) Throughout this excellent book on addiction, Maté illustrates how his years of work with addiction have helped him to see that, while addiction and destructive behaviors can present very differently, the deep root of it is always the same. Pain. As a therapist, I can attest to this as well. In my role as a counselor, I have developed the habit of immediately attempting to look past the behavior and look for, instead, the pain driving it.

It’s important to note here that we’re not talking strictly about emotional or physical pain. The reality is that attempting to create some significant distinction here is futile. After all, according to the human brain, there isn’t much of a difference. It’s been known for years that a brain scan will show the same activity when an individual is experiencing physical pain and emotional pain. While some of us struggle to admit just how devastating emotional pain is (a whole topic of its own), I believe most of us would probably choose physical pain if given the choice. Emotional pain hits us at a much deeper, more core level, and it’s a force to be reckoned with. It also generally includes other people, and our connection (or disconnection) to others carries serious power.

Not only are they experienced in similar ways neurologically, it can also be surprisingly difficult for us to tell the difference within our own individual experiences. Just ask someone who has ever experienced a panic attack, “Is it emotional or is it physical?” The answer is it’s both. In our culture, we tend to have this unfortunate habit of wanting to completely separate the mental/emotional and the physical. This is simply an uninformed, perhaps over “Westernized,” perspective. I understand it though. Things would be simpler, maybe even easier in some instances, if we could totally separate the psychological from the biological/physiological. We’re just not given that option. Even psychology 101 students are constantly reminded “Everything that is psychological is biological.” (Myers, 2015) The research in trauma therapy, among other branches in the field, is beginning to focus more and more on the vital connection between the mind and the body. Bring on the yoga!

So we’ve established that pain is real and it’s not all “in your head” or your body. Now I want to invite you to perhaps a newfound appreciation, even, for pain. When I introduce this topic to clients in the counseling office, I usually start with a metaphor. Let’s say we’re chatting in my kitchen and I accidentally lean against the stove and my hand lands on a hot burner. Luckily my slower rational brain goes offline and the automatic fight/flight part of my brain quickly sends a message to move my hand before I even have a chance to think about it consciously. In that moment, of course, I’m cursing the pain in my hand and would wish it away if I could. Let’s then imagine the same thing happens but this time I have some type of nerve disorder where I cannot feel pain. In this instance, it may take us a few seconds or a minute to notice that my hand is on the hot burner. By then my hand has likely been damaged beyond repair. In this moment, I’d most likely be upset for not feeling pain and would wish for it.

The moral of the story? Pain is good for us. Pain is always telling me something. Without it, I think I’d be in some serious trouble. For me personally, I have no idea what would or could stop me from taking on way too much or for trying to do it all alone if it weren’t for pain. Pain in the form of stress or sickness keeps us from trying to be a human doing instead of a human being. Pain in the form of loneliness keeps us from unhealthy isolation. Pain in the form of anxiety illuminates the fears we need to face or deal with. Pain in the form of trauma responses shows us we have memories or experiences we need to process, perhaps with a professional. Pain in our bodies works the same way. This list could go on and on but I hope you’re getting the picture.

As difficult as it may be to admit most days, pain is our friend. It’s consistent, it’s loyal, and it cannot be fooled by any level of mental gymnastics we use in an attempt to get around it. Pain also demands to be felt. Whether we’re dealing with pain by going to therapy or in other ways, we’re going to come out better on the other side of it. When we ignore it or pretend it’s not there, we’re always missing an opportunity for growth. From this perspective, I would confidently argue that pain is a blessing to be grateful for. As a therapist I get a front row seat to how pain can, and often does, serve as a catalyst. Often it is what brings people to seek professional help through therapy and, on a broader scale, how it is often the force driving us down the road toward healing.

 

We can ignore even pleasure. But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.
― C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain

 

Lewis, C. S. (1940). The Problem of Pain. New York, NY: HarperCollins.

Maté, G. (2013). In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction. Mississauga, Ont.: Vintage Canada.

Myers, D. G., & DeWall, C. N. (2015). Psychology (11th ed.). New York: Worth.