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Was it Really THAT bad?

Minimizing the pain of our difficult experiences is a barrier to healing

After decades of trying to make the relationship "work," I recently stopped communicating with my mother. It's been excruciatingly difficult. No one makes such a move lightly. She and I have had a difficult relationship for most of my adult life. And, I have done everything in my power to prevent this from happening, to prevent complete disconnection. But I reached a point where the pain of staying connected became so great that I made that nearly impossible "choice."

Voices in my own head (and the actual voices of my sisters) protested vociferously. It's your family. Family is all we have. She means well. Why can't you just forgive her and move on? She's getting older - who knows how much longer she will be with us. She didn't mean to hurt you. She does her best. She had so much trauma herself. It's been really hard for her. Why make her pain worse? Why can't you just deal with it yourself? She loves you. You are causing her so much pain.

The effect of those words - whether spoken by someone else or by the voice in my own head - is profoundly confusing. They push me to minimize my experience, to obscure or override what I know in my body to be true.

Her "love" hurts. To be in connection with her is to be disconnected from myself. And only I get to say which pain, which disconnection, I'd rather endure.

Minimization of felt (embodied) experience is a hallmark of trauma. "It's not that bad" is what my mind says to convince me not to attend to the pain that my body feels when I am with her. Why would my mind do that? Because the mind fears the terror of disconnection more. As children, attachment to our parents is essential to our survival. We will protect it at (almost) all cost. It will trump any other need or felt experience. As adults, the attachment is no longer needed. But the part of us that believes we will die without it - the unhealed child part - still holds sway over our behavior. It overrides the pain caused by the relationship. That is, until it no longer can. Until we realize that the pain of staying connected is the bigger threat.

In her book The Body Never Lies, Alice Miller writes, "frequently, physical illnesses are the body's response to permanent disregard of its vital functions. One of our most vital functions is an ability to listen to the true story of our own lives." She goes on to say that the the Fourth Commandment, to honor thy father and thy mother, "frequently prevents us from admitting our true feelings, and we pay for this compromise with various forms of physical illness." I see my chronic pain story in her words.

Let me be clear that I am not saying we have to cut off the people in our lives who cause us pain. We just have to be honest with ourselves about what is happening. If we choose to stay in connection, that is a choice. There can be power in that choice. No one can tell anyone else what the right choice is. There is no right choice. But acknowledgment of pain is essential.

Pain (emotional and physical) is the body's language, its warning system. It says, "this hurts. Make it stop." Pain always speaks the truth, whether we can hear it or not. It's job is to get our attention. It wants to be heard and acknowledged. But we numb it, kill it, dull it, deny it, override it. And so it gets louder, or takes another form. It's like a small child tugging at her mother's skirts. If she's ignored, she will tug harder. She'll escalate until she get the attention she's seeking. When we approach our pain with curiosity and compassion, rather than aversion or denial, it eases. It's counterintuitive and counter-cultural to turn toward pain with love. But it is the way to peace and wholeness.

For decades I didn't fully acknowledge the emotional pain - the anger, the terror, the grief - in my family relationships. I couldn't do so without losing my attachment to them, which until now was unthinkable. So I minimized and kept trying to achieve repair. I was locked into a fantasy, a hope, of what could be, if only the love didn't hurt. But it did, and so the pain escalated - from the emotional to the physical realm. As long as I was not ready to hear my body's true story, the physical pain had to persist. "Listen," it insisted. "I will not give up on you. I am here to take you back home to yourself."

I am not sure where this journey with my family will lead. There is always hope for healing. Healing internally can be the catalyst for the healing of relationships. It starts with honestly seeing what is true, what was true, what happened, what is happening. From there, we can make free and empowered choices that lead us to wholeness.

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