In a recent BBC documentary about the Sandy Hook school shooting, Scarlett Lewis, talks movingly about consciously making the choice not to let the daily pain of he son’s death dictate her life. She comes across as fully alive, not in denial, nor de-placing her pain in other activities. Her book, and her project Nurturing Healing Love are an inspiration and a call to grace for all of us.
Life can be joyful, inspiring, uplifting, transforming, and sometimes even funny. These times we accept as our due right. But life can also be confusing, painful, frustrating, verging on the edge of being pointless. While we seem to expect life to be jolly we immediately think something is wrong when our lives are visited by pain, confusion, madness or frustration. Like a dog, trying to shake off a testy fly, we do everything we can to shake off the badness or the madness. But the great lesson that Scarlett Lewis shares is that we can learn to ‘have’ the pain, without ‘becoming’ the pain.
Physical is the same as emotional pain
Neurologists have found that pain, be it physical, emotional and/or existential, all register in the same brain patterns. Professor Irene Tracey, from the Oxford Centre for FMRI brain imagining says “Pain is a complex, multidimensional experience, which causes activity in many brain regions involved with things like attention, feeling emotions such as fear, locating where the pain is, and so on.” One area is responsible for ‘how much’ pain we experience. The rest is a neuronal dance between our primitive fear systems and our ability to ‘reason’ our way around pain.
Consequently, we might say that we respond with the same internal primitive mechanism to emotional pain as we use for avoiding physical pain; fight, flight or freeze. I call it fff-ing it. Taking your hand out of the fire is smart just as shooting into a flock of crazed and aggressive geese. Pain, or the anticipation of pain is there to keep us safe. But we can also stop ourselves from acting on the fff-ing it prompt. Think about the time you went for a flu jab, or a vaccination. You didn’t pull your arm away because you overruled your primitive fff-ing it response with your ‘reasoning’ mind. And what about the parent that takes her infant for a jab, believing that the short-term pain is for a long-term good. The old adage, ‘this hurts me more than it hurts you’ is applicable here! Our pain centres in the brain also light up when we see others suffer.
When it comes to emotional and psychological pain the logic goes out the window. If someone is making us hurt, or if we’re wounded by a random ‘life’ event, the primitive fff-ing it system will seek to kick in to stop the pain. Just like telling you to remove your hand from the fire, or to shoot the geese, you will feel prompted to fight the other, to run away, or to freeze to escape the pain. Research around severe emotional trauma suggests that humans ‘freeze’ or ‘play dead’ internally, resulting in a paralysed state of alertness that slowly but surely becomes the norm if the original pain impulse can’t be dealt with. You become, over time, more and more anxious and easily upset.
In addition, our impulse to remove ourselves from a painful situation may involve inflicting pain and discomfort on another. Emotionally that’s complicated because we get hung up on guilt, responsibility, expectations, etc. Is it better to fight than to freeze? Yes and no. Sometimes a ‘fight’ in the form of a good conversation or a campaign for better working conditions may have effect. But we can also get locked into relationships where constant attack and defence become the norm.
Fleeing then? Getting another job, another boss, or just another drink? Again, it may be the answer, taking yourself out of a painful situation – even temporarily – can offer some perspective and the ability to reflect. But the kind of fff-ing it running that our primitive survival brain tells us to do is more likely to lead to distracting yourself with alcohol, drugs, excessive exercise, or working even harder to get those moments of recognition from others that give a temporary dopamine lift.
Nurturing the pain
Failing to get back on my emotional feet after a second miscarriage, I was told off for ‘dwelling’ on the pain. I would have moved on if I could, but I was stuck, and actually, for the first time in my life, not trying to avoid the pain, but to just ‘be’ with the pain. Observing the pain-inducing situation means using your rational thinking mind to step back from the primitive fff-ing it impulse and accept that you ‘have’ pain. That’s a whole big stept away from ‘being’ pain, which is how the primitive brain experiences it. But be warned. Our conditioned mind tells us lies too; ‘It’s for the best’, ‘it’s better to be brave for others’, ‘we don’t do emotions, we’re too civilised’. As the Sandy Hook mother found out Nurturing, and Healing and Love also need to be present.
For a reasoned and reasonable acceptance of pain we need to nurture it and imbue it with the quality of hope.
In couples therapy we see couples at the end of their fff-ing it tether. They may make a constructive decision in therapy to stop blaming the other for their pain and start a mutual exploration for the source, dredging up whatever needs to be addressed. This process is very painful, but also filled with hope and the desire to get to a better place together. The same happens in individual therapy. You try to stay with the pain as see what it is ‘telling’ you. If the goal is to get to a place of clarity where new relations can be negotiated, then the pain is worth it. The difference between feeling the victim of pain and being the active participant in the pain process has also been called the difference between regressive and progressive pain. But it takes great courage to stop fff-ing it, to rise above the socialized ‘reasoning’ of the mind, and bring your pain into a quiet self-reflective space of clarity and compassion.
Progressive versus regressive pain
We can’t choose what happens to us, but we can choose how we want to respond. My ‘trick’ to accept painful life experiences is that I am a firm believer that everything can be seen as a life lesson. Other people will find their own motivations for staying with the pain. The Sandy Hook mum uses it to energize her to bring about transformation in a world hell-bent on destroying itself. Choosing to be the agent in your life is empowering, while continuing to believe that other people ‘do’ pain to you is dis-empowering and will keep making the fff-ing it response zap with new ideas for ‘making it go away’.
Ask yourself, ‘is this painful thing that is happening to me putting me in mortal danger?’ If the answer is ‘yes’, and the pain makes you want to end your life, hurt yourself, or hurt others, then stop reading now, contact the Samaritans and talk it through with someone who will be accepting and understanding. Outside the UK you can us their email service and they may be able to also point you in the direction of a service in your own country.
If not, then keep reminding yourself each time your primitive mind responds to pain by fff-ing it, “this is uncomfortable, but it isn’t killing me. I am choosing to be curious to explore what’s happening.” It still hurts, but because you’re curious and interested, you can stay connected and explore its meaning in your life.
Sometimes pain hits us out of the ballpark. Sometimes external life events impose a pain that seems unbearable. Scarlett Lewis found a way to bear it. For inspiration, read Scarlett Lewis’ book. Read about facing the impossible finding courage when you think you have none and choosing love instead of anger, fear or hatred.