Exploring Unprocessed Hurt*

In Rising Strong, Social Scientist, Brené Brown says, “Depression and anxiety are two of the body’s first reactions to stockpiles of old hurt.” Further, according to Brown, depression and anxiety, although have “organic and biochemical reasons…unrecognized pain and unprocessed hurt can also lead there.”

There was a time, many years ago, where I began experiencing intense anxiety. Eventually I was having daily panic attacks, sometimes several a day. This was making life difficult to enjoy. I thought there was something seriously wrong with me, which only made the anxiety worse. In a way, the anxiety was fuel for me to figure out what was wrong. This led to years of inner work where I experienced sadness and pain and discovered patterns that were connected to my childhood. There, is where I dug deeper into my unprocessed hurt. The more I dug, the more I understood the unrecognized pain and released the unprocessed hurt, which eventually led to less anxiety.

So, what is unprocessed hurt and further, if it has anything to do with our childhoods, why would anyone want to go back there? Who has time, right? I think this might be a tough sell, but I am going to try anyway: go back there. And, here’s why: many of us are there anyway, especially emotionally. Let me give an example. We are at work, or in my case, a classroom. There is a large group discussion. We raise our hand or attempt to speak up, but our instructor or boss doesn’t listen or respond to us. We quickly put down our hand or shut our mouth and look down awkwardly. How are we feeling— rejected? Embarrassed? What are we thinking— no one cares what we have to say? My ideas aren’t valuable?

Now, it could be that the instructor or our boss just didn’t hear our voice or see our hand. Yet, we have a story that says we’ve been rejected. This story gives us certain thoughts and feelings, and very often, anxiety, which moves us away from the present moment where we might see that we just weren’t heard or seen because of a simple mistake by the person leading the discussion. It wasn’t personal. If this is relatable, maybe we can think of similar experiences as an adult where we felt rejected or ignored. Maybe we notice a pattern. What if we went deeper? Are there any childhood experiences where we felt this way? At school? At the family dinner table? Maybe we notice a connection to experiences now and experiences then. Maybe this connection makes us feel sad for the child that felt this way. What if we felt that?

This is inner work. And yes, it takes time. But more so, it takes a curious mind and the courage and willingness to go a little deeper beyond our stories, in this example, a story of rejection. When we begin to move our attention beyond our stories, the story of rejection being a common one, we find patterns and make connections and begin to recognize our unprocessed pain, and we begin to feel the unprocessed hurt. The more we do this, we might notice our anxiety dissipate. When anxiety dissipates we are more present. When we are present, we see more clearly and breathe more freely.

Now, this is just a theory of mine. It comes from years of inner work, along with years of learning and reading about self-help, psychology and social work. This theory does not discount the organic and biochemical reasons for anxiety, some of which are often treated with medications. It also doesn’t dismiss the varying environmental and social issues that can cause anxiety. It only serves to offer another perspective, one similar to the psychoanalytic framework, which considers unconscious forces that affect our behavior and emotions.  In this way, connecting current emotional and mental patterns to childhood experiences and other unconscious pain, gives another potential cause of anxiety and how it might be relieved.

To engage in more inner work, I suggest beginning to notice your thoughts and feelings in your day-to-day life. I would also suggest using a journal to record experiences in your day that brought up noticeable thoughts and feelings. After a while, see if you notice patterns or triggers, which prompt noticeable thoughts and feelings. Be present with your self-inquiry and see where it takes you. There is a passage from the poem, The Sunrise Ruby by the Sufi poet Rumi that can be used for inspiration on the path of self-inquiry and discovery:

Work. Keep digging your well.

Don’t think about getting off from work.

Water is there somewhere.

 Submit to daily practice.

Your loyalty to that

is a ring on the door.

 Keep knocking, and the joy inside

will eventually open a window

and look out to see who’s there.

~Coleman Barks, The Essential Rumi, p. 101

*Article originally published: The Volk, Fall 2017

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Practice your Inhaling.

“There is the in-breath and there is the out-breath, and it’s easy to believe that we must exhale all the time, without ever inhaling. But the inhale is absolutely essential if you want to continue to exhale.” -Roshi Joan Halifax

Before I read this in Brené Brown’s book, Braving the Wilderness today, yesterday in the shower, I got irritated by the culture we live in. Equal to my irritation was concern for humanity. Brené says we are in a spiritual crisis. I’ve thought this for years and it’s origin is in the quote above.

This culture demands we exhale constantly, and continually. Are we healthier for this? Are we wiser? Kinder? Maybe we think we are more productive, successful and cool. But, so what. We are losing ourselves— and essentially killing ourselves with all the exhaling.

For a week now I’ve been inhaling. I have finished my fall semester of graduate school, and I am in a break before my final semester. I’ve been pushing for four years to earn a degree, and although I anticipate this experience giving me discipline, knowledge and growth I could not have had otherwise, academic learning only uses a limited part of my mind.

Believe it or not, there was a time, before these four years, where I probably did too much inhaling. I used a larger part of my mind for introspection and self-study. I dug deep into internal spaces, many of them dark. But, in these years of inhaling, I learned so much about myself— some of who I am, but mostly of who I am not. This kind of introspection is brutal, and also beautiful, and is absolutely necessary to our growth.

In these several years of exhaling, and holding my breath through graduate school, I have learned what the university wants me to learn. I have gained skills and knowledge from books, projects and papers. I have pushed myself beyond my comfort level to finish the readings, projects and papers. I have become an expert at organizing my time, or more accurate, obsessing about my time. And yes, I have been more outwardly productive, and I will see myself as successful and cool once I have two degrees on my wall. But— I am going to be working with people after I graduate. People who will be struggling with mental health issues, and essentially experiencing their own spiritual crisis. The books, projects and papers of academia will only take me so far. Those years of introspection is what will be the core foundation of everything I have to offer.

This past week, I inhaled again. Next week, I will do the same. That small part of mind gave way to the larger and time hasn’t mattered. Projects and papers and textbooks haven’t mattered. I’ve read books I want to read. I’ve worked on my projects and writings. I hear my inner voice again. She’s still here. I heard her in the shower yesterday. She is concerned.

Now, that I have experienced extremes on both ends of the exhale and inhale I see how important it is for balance. I see how I needed the long time of the inhale to dig through the past, to face my demons and come out the other side. I see how I’ve needed this long time to exhale— to throw myself into this external world and learn about it, and at times be horrified and frightened by it. Right now, as a culture we are off balance. We are doing far too much exhaling. Our focus needs to come back to the in-breath, the inhale. Winter is a perfect time for introspection. To take a break. To check in with ourselves: how are we feeling? What do we need? Who have we become? Where are we headed? What small shifts can we make to change directions? How can we love ourselves more? Love each other more? What is in our dark spaces that needs to see the light? 

sunset

One of the inhaling practices I did this week was to begin a new journal, and instead of venting through the pages as I often do, I pasted some images that expressed my intentions for the coming year. Next to the images I wrote in present tense about how these intentions will unfold for me. One of my intentions is to lean into, with full heart and vulnerability, two primary relationships. I have spent years blaming, resenting and essentially fearing them. I have put up my armor and said: you will not hurt me. I have used the weapons of self-righteousness, manipulation and victimhood. These once, so I believed, gave me power. Now, I see their truth— they only create more distrust, resentment and therefore, further isolation.

Over the past several months, I have added a small movement to my yoga/mediation practice. I open my arms, roll back my shoulders, look up and say, I am open. When I was a little girl, trick or treating with my dad, I took off my Cinderella mask and said to my dad: I just want to be myself. This has been my journey— twists, turns and tangles of unraveling all that I am not to become who I am. To open up my arms, roll back my shoulders and say, I am open. This is the wilderness Brené speaks about. It takes courage and a hell of a lot of commitment.

To know ourselves, we must inhale- even if it just starts with one deeper breath in. If we do this continually, we will tip the scales toward truth and light, and this spiritual crisis will transform into a spiritual revolution.

The Soul Reporter