August 15, 2019
Just Stop It: I Can’t Take the Pain Anymore!
Do you remember this video? [ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ow0lr63y4Mw] In this comic spoof, Bob Newhart, a comedian, plays the role of a therapist whose advice was to simply “stop” doing the behavior that each of his clients came to him complaining about.
When I first saw this video, I laughed until I cried. I thought how great would this be if we could just have people “stop” doing the behavior that caused them and others pain and suffering. I even tried it out on myself and a few of the students I work with…. Of course, it didn’t work… It only created more aggravation among all of us.
As humans, we don’t choose to “just stop” the behaviors that cause us pain and suffering. Rather than stopping the harmful behaviors, Brene Brown explains that we often make it worse by choosing behaviors that numb our pain or allow us to escape from our pain. And as Professor Brown suggests, we can’t selectively numb, so we end up numbing what brings us joy as much as we numb what causes us pain. And when whatever we did to numb or escape our pain wears off or ends, we awaken to find that our pain and suffering is still present.
Every day, I awaken to feelings of pain and suffering; I also awaken to feelings of great joy and happiness. They exist in my life side by side, ebbing and flowing throughout the day. Almost every day, I sit across from students who are also in pain (emotionally and physically), and they also see the joy in their life.
Antonio Damasio (a neuroscientist at University of Southern California) suggests that human emotion plays a role in how they behave, whether they are aware of it or not. In other words, our emotions play a role in regulating how we make decisions, whether we are aware of our emotions or not. If we can learn how to turn toward our emotions with kindness and grace (and we can learn how to do this – just ask Jon Kabat-Zinn and Kristin Neff), then we can become more aware of our feelings and sensations, offer self-compassion for our experience, instead of avoiding them and having them run our lives without our knowing.
Yes, this training process is unpleasant and it isn’t fast, but with the guidance of professionally trained teachers, it is doable. It is a process of training attention to my life as it is, noticing sensations, breathing to soothe the physiological exacerbations of those lived experiences, and gently inquiring into what I am experiencing. And as I begin to inquire into the experience I am having … not in some morbid, sadistic manner – but with kindness, curiosity, compassion, and patience, I can then loosen the hold the pain has on me so that I can make empowered choices that are in alignment with what I want to co-create in the world with others. This decision to move away from “just stopping it” to exploring what “it” really is anyway and what “it” has to teach me and how I might transmute “it” opens up new possibilities to see something that I couldn’t see before.
The powerful part of this practice is that asI learn to be with my own pain and suffering, I can also be with others. I can listen to what I couldn’t hear before. I can notice defensiveness or anger arising and ask what is behind it, feeling what I am feeling, while I listen to another describe how my behavior created something that was other than empowering for them. This creates new opportunities for new choices and new possibilities for us to move forward creating something different than we had experienced before. How empowering and inspiring is that?
I am still learning this practice of being with my own pain and with others’ pain in inquiry and with compassion, but there is the benefit. Being able to be with my own pain and others’ (albeit emotional or physical) allows us to also enjoy the positive aspects of our lives. It also allows us to see solutions and different ways to approach alleviating the pain – if at all possible. If I just numb my pain and invite others to do the same (or worse, ignore it), there is no solution in that. Nothing changes… business as usual…Yuck!
We are in a lot of pain (emotional and physical) in this country that I love so dearly. As a woman wearing white skin, I am horrified by the atrocities that are caused in the name of the color of my skin. And I am heart-broken that I can’t fix that pain and suffering. I can’t “just stop” the behavior that is tearing us apart. But that doesn’t mean I can’t do anything.
There are so many people in indescribable pain who want to be heard. I can’t become a part of the solution until I learn about that which underlies the problem. My job is to train myself to be able to turn toward my own pain and the pain of others with kindness, without judgment, and with large doses of compassion, so I can hear them in their pain and be with mine as well. And this is done with a genuine desire to alleviate their pain without harm to anyone. This is a path to my becoming a part of the problem-solving team,especially when my behavior or someone who looks like me has caused the pain. My colleagues, friends, and family reading this know I don’t do this well all the time. Sometimes my own pain is so loud, I can’t hear theirs. Sometimes my own pain becomes so loud, I have to care for myself before I can listen. This is a part of the process as well. I am still learning and practicing.
Many humans experience significant pain at the hands of others who are in pain – and they may experience that pain just because of the color of their skin, their gender, their religion, their sexual orientation, their disability, I can go on and on and on… My grandparents moved to this country because they believed that here, in this country, everyone, regardless of what they looked like would be heard and would be given a genuine opportunity to thrive, to live in peace, prosperity, and happiness. I never got to meet my grandparents, but I am holding onto their belief. And every day, I am asking how I need to be, which I believe will inform what I need to do to make it a reality.
My role in creating this opportunity is to allow space for students, colleagues, friends, and family to show up as human – not creating excuses – but rather, giving permission to be human. As such, I must practice taking care of my own emotion in a way that allows me to hear theirs. I strongly believe that THIS is the place where we will find something different than what we have currently created.
How can we, each day, embrace the challenge of being human without marginalizing or normalizingthe pain experienced by those who are different than us? How can we learn to regulate our own pain so that we can hear and be with the pain of others as we do our work?
If you are reading this post and saying, “it is not my job to be with other’s pain,” then I encourage you to “just stop it.” Each one of us has a role in healing this country. If we learn to allow the space to be with our own pain and allow others to be with theirs with compassion and grace, then we just might learn something different from each other, we just might hear and see a shred of the solution. We might also discover how to be with what brings us alive and gives us joy as we co-create something different than what we have today.
Marilee Bresciani Ludvik is Professor of Postsecondary Educational Leadership at San Diego State University. She can be reached at email@example.com