Can Painful Feelings Be Helpful?
1. I walk down the street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I fall in. I am lost … I am hopeless. It isn’t my fault. It takes forever to find a way out.
2. I walk down the same street. There is a deep hole in the pavement. I pretend I don’t see it. I fall in again. I can’t believe I’m in the same place. But it isn’t my fault. It still takes a long time to get out.
3. I walk down the same street. There is a deep hole in the pavement. I see it is there. I still fall in … it’s a habit. My eyes are open. I know where I am. It is my fault. I get out immediately.
4. I walk down the same street. There is a deep hole in the pavement. I walk around it.
5. I walk down another street.
Autobiography in Five Chapters by Portia Nelson from the book There's A Hole in My Sidewalk.
Portia Nelson’s simple poem resonates with me right now. Why, as human beings, do we fall down the same pothole time and again before we learn to take another route?
You can read this poem at different levels. I can see how it might apply both at a meta level, for example involving life decisions, and also on a day to day level illustrating our familiar patterns of behaviour, emotions and thoughts.
Many of us have inner longings that are not expressed in our daily lives. A longing to be or do something that feels quite separate to the life we have chosen. It’s often creative or connected to nature. We long to write, to draw, to paint, to sing, to act, to dance, or to plant trees, to keep bees, to live on a ranch…..fill in your own penchant here….
Where we can, we might allow ourselves a small piece of the thing we love. A dance class. An art group. A writing circle. Trips to the countryside. But we confine it to a small part of our life and don’t let ourselves imagine what it would be like to follow the flow of the longing more freely.
I have a client who desperately wants to be a writer, and has wanted this for most of her life. She is articulate, witty and erudite but she doesn’t believe in herself as a writer. She tells herself that she can’t find the time and space to write what she would really love to write; that people wouldn’t want to read her writing; that she’s really not that good. And significantly, that it’s not a “proper job”. She only wants to do it if she can be guaranteed success and recognition which would in her mind, make it a valid choice in life. When we dig deeper, we also learn that she is fearful of the pain of rejection from those who may not enjoy her writing. For her to offer a raw, heartful piece of herself to the world and people not like it would be a searing experience. So she stays with her high flying role in finance, where she can stay emotionally and spiritually safe(r). And lives with a daily gnawing, as she pretends not to see the hole she’s fallen into.
At a personal level, I experience the pothole as that familiar feeling of being stuck in a relationship dynamic that I know so well but which no longer works for me. For example, when I meet new people, I work really hard to engage them even when (or especially when) they don't seem particularly interested. I’m charming, warm and friendly. I’m curious about them. I ask lots of questions and invite them to trust me.
Why does this matter?
What’s wrong with that, you ask? Surely that’s just being polite? (if you’re asking that question, your pothole may look a lot like mine). It’s a pothole for me because in the process of engaging the other, I often leave myself. I go so far over into the other person’s world and story, that I get lost. I stop sharing my ideas and emotions because I’m using all my energy to absorb and at the extreme, even cease to know what I think or feel. The relationship starts off in an unbalanced way and I can end up feeling resentful and worn out. It’s not sustainable. And it probably doesn’t feel good for either of us. But knowing this and changing this are two different things. I literally “forget” what happens and so with each first meeting, I go down that hole, recall the familiarity and try to climb back out again.
I recently went on a workshop to learn more about creating an environment to support quality thinking, based on Nancy Kline’s wonderful work Time to Think. Through the workshop, I was able to articulate, after much circular thinking, that instead of the imbalance, I want the kind of relationships that the Emperor penguins have in the dead of winter. They huddle together in massive groups so that they spend some time on the outside of the huddle facing into the ferocious winds and temperatures of -40 degrees, and some time on the inside where it can get as warm as +40 degrees. The point is, they all take their turns within the huddle and in that way, take care of each other. So this would be the new street in the fifth part of my autobiography. To look for, and to nurture those relationships where that is possible, instead of endlessly pursuing those where I do the caring (even when the other person isn’t necessarily looking or asking for that).
A.A. Almaas, originator of the spiritual therapy, the Diamond Approach teaches the following:
“Your conflicts, all the difficult things, the problematic situations in your life are not chance or haphazard. They are actually yours. They are specifically yours, designed specifically for you by a part of you that loves you more than anything else. The part of you that loves you more than anything else has created roadblocks to lead you to yourself. You are not going in the right direction unless there is something pricking you in the side, telling you, “Look here! This way!” That part of you loves you so much that it doesn’t want you to lose the chance. It will go to extreme measures to wake you up, it will make you suffer greatly if you don’t listen. What else can it do? That is its purpose."
I love this framing of what is happening when we feel blocked. So when it feels like things aren’t flowing, that relationships are stuck, and life feels hard, we’re actually on the right track. It might point us away from the thing we’re invested in right now, but it’s pointing us towards a whole new direction that may be more right for us. There’s an inner wisdom at work.
One intriguing aspect of this whole experience is that it’s the painful feelings that are likely to guide us to the places we need to visit in ourselves. When we feel lost, empty, fearful, angry or discombobulated, there is an opportunity for change. However, our culture isn’t particularly tolerant of these emotions. I hear so many people say that they don’t want to “indulge” in feeling any pain; that “there’s no point” and that they should just “get on with it”. There’s often a fear that they may cease to function and sink into something they can’t then get out of.
The reality is that, we may indeed find ourselves moving away from the known to the unknown, if we embrace these feelings. We may find ourselves making choices that take us off the linear path we have set in this life that demands such certainty. This may feel uncomfortable and unfamiliar. However, it may also be just what we need to return us to ourselves.
There's no whole without the hole
Almaas explains this as a "theory of holes". His belief is that we are born whole, but as we grow and develop, we lose conscious awareness of certain aspects of what he describes as “essence”. These aspects get split off and blocked from our awareness. We feel it as a “hole” inside of us. The pain we feel points to the hole and the missing part.
If, as I describe above, I feel like I have to care for others, then it’s likely that I don’t trust that I will be cared for. According to Almaas’ theory, this points to my compassion being blocked from my awareness. This loss is not “out there”, even though that’s what I experience, but is in fact, lost in me. If you imagine you have to be strong and reliable because others won’t be able to be, then ironically, it’s likely to mean you’ve lost awareness and access to your own essential aspect of strength. If you’re anxious and mistrustful, then you may need to locate the essential aspect of your will.
So, the work is to recover the compassion in myself, rather than to try to get people to care for me more. If I can allow myself to feel the pain of being alone and create space for and around that experience, then eventually, I will recover the essential aspect of compassion in myself and the hole will not be so great. So in the infamous words of Michael Rosen in the children's book, “We’re going on a Bear Hunt”….”we can’t go over it, we can’t go under it, we’ve got to go through it”.
This may all sound rather complex and difficult to grasp, which is not surprising, given we’re talking about lost parts. But think of it like this. When we hurt, we need to soften into the pain rather than avoid it, melt the barriers to the part of us that’s blocked off and sit and wait for the lost part of us to become known and available.
So, how do we do that?
You won’t be surprised to hear that there is no easy way. However it is simple. The main thing we need to do is to give space to the painful experience. Space in our mind, heart and body. It may involve therapy, coaching, mentoring, even good listening friends. Writing down our actual lived experience. Meditating. Walking. Being in nature. Any way you can find to truly be with yourself, either alone or in company. In the words of my wise supervisor, you need to experience the “hole” to recover the “whole”.
If you can allow yourself that, you may eventually find yourself walking down a different street leading in a new unfamiliar direction.
I look forward to meeting you there. Meanwhile, here are those beautiful creatures in the Emperor penguin huddle.