Yesterday, I was given an assignment by my counselor to write about the painful emotions that I felt as a child that crop up as an adult at adult at times when I do not want them to.
Most of us avoid pain any way that we can. Some of us numb it through drugs, alcohol or sex. Some us talk ourselves out of believing that it’s really that bad. Some of us never slow down enough to feel it.
I’ve tried in every way possible to avoid pain, and I still do not want to deal with it now. I’d much rather binge watch Netflix with a large bowl of popcorn, however I know if I do not deal with my pain when it comes that sooner or later my pain will deal with me.I have learned from a lifetime of stuffing pain that the day always comes when I cannot do it anymore.
Ten years ago, I had been strong for so long, pretending I had it together, that God was taking me to a happier place away from all of my childhood memories. That He had given me a new victorious Christian life. But I discovered I was wrong. I could not control my pain anymore. It controlled me.
I started watching the show Rectify last night on Netflix. It’s the story of a man, Daniel Holden, who was on death row for 20 years. He is released on a technicality and to be retried for the murder. But while he is awaiting retrial, he goes home. In one scene, the main character hugs his sister in law for a brief time. Daniel becomes overwhelmed with emotion at the loving touch of another human being. He doesn’t want to let go. The desperation from not receiving touch for so many years is clear. He clings to her for dear life unleashing the powerful force of grief he felt from being untouched for so long.
My emotions were locked away for most of my life. I desperately longed to be heard as a little girl, but it was clear that my parents were not equipped to deal with my pain. I’ll never forget the night my parents were upset with me when they caught me talking to an ex boyfriend who they did not like. They jumped the gun believing that we were getting back together. My mom left the house devastated, leaving me alone with my adopted father. It didn’t matter how many times I tried to explain that I was just trying to keep a peaceful relationship with this boy, my adopted father would hear none of it. He got angrier and angrier at me and my ex boyfriend. He eventually got a handgun out and put it down on the coffee table. He screamed that he would kill him if he came to our house. I was so upset that I began screaming I wished I could die. My adopted father said he didn’t care and continued to rant about how he’d kill my ex boyfriend if he came. It was clear that I was not being heard and that telling him my pain would only continue to escalate the situation. I called my cousin and asked her to come pick me up. When she arrived at my house I stood out in the yard screaming into the darkness, but I knew if my adopted father heard that he did not care.
Even after I got married and had my first child, my adopted father was still letting me know that my pain was not safe with him. A week after having my first child, I was in the hospital with an infection. He came to visit and I was crying. He actually got angry with me. He declared that I’d better hold it together or they might send a psychiatrist in for me. He then said I should be grateful, because my mom was stuck at my house with my baby. I was crushed. Not only had he made me afraid to cry but also guilted about my mother babysitting while I was in the hospital. When I look back on these times, it’s clear why I learned to bottle my emotions up. It was the only thing that kept me safe. And it became a pattern of life into my adult years.
But then I met a pastor who was a father figure to me. He encouraged me to open up to him about my feelings and he responded with concern. When he hugged me for the first time I was like the character in Rectify and clung to him like a person who had been locked away for decades without love. His hug gave me life like I’d never experienced before. But if you’ve read my story, you know it didn’t take long before the lack of boundaries turned my relationship with him into an abusive one that lasted 10 years.
It’s clear looking back today on my life that my pain and finding a safe way to express it is crucial to my life. The older I get the more I realize that I’m less able to stuff it anymore. It is more likely to come flooding out at time when I don’t want it to, and if I overreact around others I’m left feeling ashamed and responsible once again for not being in control of my emotions.
My counselor told me yesterday that responsibility is the ability to respond. But when we feel ashamed we feel stuck and unable to respond well. I realize for a large part of my life I’ve been ashamed of my emotions because of the way my parents reacted to them. I learned at an early age that allowing myself to feel what I was created to feel produced negative results. Therefore, I learned to stuff emotions that would not be acceptable. I learned to behave in ways that kept others happy with me even if those ways were not a true reflection of how I felt. Therefore, I also took responsibility for their bad behavior, too!
I’m still on a long journey of allowing myself to feel the emotions God intended for me to feel. Pain lets us know when something is wrong. Pain also motivates us to ask for help from God and others. I realize my relationship with God is also lacking because even with Him I try to express what I think He wants me to feel rather than what I really do, but God knows my heart. He looks past all of my trying to hold it all together and His Holy Spirit prays for me even when I don’t know how to pray for myself. The thing that amazed me the most about God when I first felt His presence was that He heard my pain and He comforted me. He was a safe place to release my pain, however my efforts to try to be a good religious person caused me to lose sight of that. Also, painful circumstances in my life knocked me back into a self protective mode of trying to control things around me by not expressing what I really felt honestly to others. And it made me an easy target for a predator.
Certainly, after all the painful circumstances our family has been through, my tendency is definitely to hold my feelings in and protect myself and others from them. I saw how my desperate need for love took me to a very dark place. But I’m realizing these days that it wasn’t my feelings that were ever the problem. It was not being able to deal with my feelings in a healthy way that was. Of course as a child, I didn’t know another way to deal with my emotions. I could not help the situation I was born into. None of that was my fault. As an adult who had not learned a better way to cope, there were also certain elements outside of my control. I have learned like many of us do through brokenness that my way does not work anymore and I need to try another way. I realize my fighting to escape my childhood emotions are not working anymore and it is time to give them space in my life to be expressed in a healthy way.
I think the reason I have been so afraid of these emotions is that I think they will cripple me again. I fear that I won’t be able to function like I did when I first started to open up to my former pastor about them. But I’m beginning to see finally that these emotions can come out in healthy ways if I will allow myself to be honest about them with God and others who are safe to share them with.
When we are able to be vulnerable with God and with others, we find that our powerful painful emotions begin to lose their power in our lives. The shameful lies that we believe about how we should feel begin to die in the light with friends who understand and we learn to respond better. The shame we feel about our emotions are transformed into truth when can share them honestly with those who know how to listen. My heart breaks to hear that so many leave the church because no one understood their pain, and tried to fix them without even listening. When we do not know how to deal with our own pain, we can’t help others deal with theirs either.
I’m learning slowly to share bits of my story with friends who are not afraid to share their story with me. I cannot express enough how this has changed so much for the good for me. I no longer feel desperate like I did when I went to my pastor for help. I no longer feel so very alone. When others listen compassionately, it also helps to give me a glimpse of the compassion of God, and enables me to be honest with Him.
Even with all in learning about my pain, there is still a lot that is there that I haven’t been able to release. There are still memories stuck in my subconscious mind that I am afraid of how they will make me feel. So today I’m writing a letter to my pain (an assignment from my counselor), to give it permission to come out when it needs to, so that it won’t come out when it has to. More than anything else I want to stop feeling crippled by overwhelming emotions that keep me stuck.
If you can relate to some of what I’m writing here, maybe you can consider writing one of these letters, too or reaching out to a safe friend who will really listen.
Pain isn’t meant to be stuffed. It’s meant to be felt and motivate us to pay attention and get the help we need.
I know that you are there, because you come out at night when I’m trying to sleep and cause my mind to listen when things are finally quiet. I’m sorry that it takes this for me to actually listen.
I know I avoid you when I’m craving another donut or yearning to numb out in front of the TV. I don’t know why it’s just so hard to feel what it is that you want me to.
I am beginning to see lately that you really are not a bad thing. You help me see what I need. You help me understand the things that continue to hurt me.
You shouted no when my adopted father touched me and let others bring me harm. You knew I was just a little girl and that this was not supposed to be happening. You were not something to be ashamed of when I felt really bad. What happened was a terrible thing and dear Pain you let me know that it was.
I know I have allowed control to push you over and over back inside. It’s been bullying you around for too long. Control really is the adversary that I need to let go of because it’s what’s brought me harm. You have been the one who has consistently said that the harm happening in my life was wrong. So I thank you for that.
I also know I try to minimize what you make me feel as well. I tell myself that whatever it is it’s really not that bad, but you want me to see the reality of all that is going on before it gets any worse. Oh how I wish I’d listened to you when you tried to tell me things were really bad.
I think I’m figuring out you are more of a friend than a foe. I don’t like the way you make me feel but I know you are necessary for me to be healthy and whole. I invite you to continue to guide and direct me in the ways I need to go. And I will try to do a better job of cooperating with you.