A few years ago, as my internal world shattered into a million pieces and my life irrevocably changed in ways which made me feel hopeless and helpless, I reached out to a friend and told him: “I need to say a few things, I need you to listen, and I need you not to tell me that everything is going to be okay. Is that okay?”
The amount of people in this world to whom I could ask this are less than the fingers on a hand. Particularly in times of crisis. And asking this is particularly hard to do, no matter what you’re going through. To clearly, directly, and honestly tell someone what you need. We are not taught to do this at any stage of our lives. We are taught to hide emotions, to not bother others with our problems, to get on with it, to keep smiling, to put it aside. We are taught to do everything with emotions, except to feel them. How fucked up is that?
A few months prior, I had had to sit my family down and tell them something similar: “I’m going to speak and only when I finish speaking, will you be able to ask questions, okay?” Maybe I get a bit braver in times of crisis. But what both of these examples represent is a deeper and more assertive cry for directedness, clarity, and yes, vulnerability. Both of them implied: “I need to be vulnerable right now, okay? Please don’t interrupt me. This is hard enough.” If only we could do that more often!
When I asked my friend to refrain from consoling me and try to make the world around me a better place, what I was really saying was this: “I’m in pain, I need to talk about it, I need you to listen, and I need you to accept that I’m in pain, and to just be with me, whilst I feel this pain.” You’d think that this would be easy enough to understand and do with those closest to us, and even the odd stranger. However, more often than not, what ends up happening is that the listener, doesn’t, in fact, want to listen. They don’t want to listen because it might be painful to hear certain things. It might be painful to acknowledge and accept the pain in someone else, because that will mean acknowledging and accepting the pain in themselves. When I finally found the courage to reach out to my friend and ask him not to try and make me feel better, I was so sick and tired of people in my life telling me that everything would be okay, and that I didn’t need to worry. I mean, I kind of knew that things would get better, but the point is, in certain moments of my life, I didn’t feel that. Not only was I unable to feel that, I also couldn’t even conceive of better moments.
Ultimately, there is nothing more damaging than ignoring pain. It will only increase, create endless suffering, and permeate all areas of life. Sometimes, we can’t fake it until we make it. Sometimes, we shouldn’t even try to fake it until we make it. Sometimes, the only thing we ought to do is to feel the utter pain manifesting in our lives. It will eventually make its way out, if we don’t stop it.
This topic has been quite present with me this week. Every year, I give a lecture to first year Dramatherapy students at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, on the theoretical, practical, and emotional aspects of working with adults recovering from substance-based addictions. The idea behind presenting different theories around addiction, and how different practitioners may approach treatment interventions, is to simply say that, at the end of the day, it is extremely important to ask the client what they think addiction is. What is their experience of addiction? How do they see themselves within that context? Do they think they have a disease? Do they think it’s about genetics? Do they think it’s about trauma? It doesn’t matter what scientific theories say, I find it important to work with the client’s own understanding or definition of their problem. I mean, they will know their life experiences much better than I will! Who am I to tell them otherwise? Who am I to tell them that yes, it is a disease, or no, it’s not a disease?
Similarly, I also had to encourage and empower one of the therapists I supervise at work, to not disengage from a client’s presentation of pain, or dismiss it by trying to make them feel better about themselves. If someone is telling you that they are in pain, let them share. Work with, and through, the pain. Don’t dismiss it! Don’t try and stop them with some kind of Annie “the sun will come out tomorrow” statement. Maybe the sun will come out tomorrow, maybe it won’t. Not every day will be a sunny day, just like not every day will be a cloudy day. Emotions are transient, not permanent. They may take their sweet time, every now and then, but they eventually go away. And if they stick around for longer than normal, it might be in direct proportion to the time that they spent being supressed.
Pain exists and we need to accept that. “Pain is a warning that something’s wrong”, as Madonna sang in ‘The Power of Goodbye’. It’s telling us to change something, often to let go of something. We can see it as a helpful sign, redirecting us, or making us stop and look. No matter what the message or lesson to be learned might be, don’t ignore it. Don’t dismiss it. Let it be – in yourself and others. If someone is telling you that they are in pain, try not to immediately jump into rescuer mode and make them feel better. Let people feel what they need to feel. Even if you don’t know what to say, just say that. Say that you don’t know what to say, but that you’re there for them, in whatever they need, even if they don’t know what they need yet.
There’s no perfection, so we might as well stop trying to reach it. Be present, don’t look away, don’t pretend the pain isn’t there. Even when it might feel overwhelming. Reach out, make eye contact. Let people know they’re not alone. No one is alone. We are all in this together. We just need to connect to that little bit of courage inside of us, in order to reach out and share our vulnerability with others. That is where our true strength lies. That day, when I reached out to my friend, I knew I was not alone, that I was listened to, that my pain was real and valid, that I was allowed to feel it, and that I was loved. And ultimately, that made me feel better, in my own natural pace.