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Remembering Pain

Posted Oct 15 2012 9:10am

Occasionally I’m asked how I got to know so much about my work and I usually answer that I’ve been taught well by those I treat and try to educate. By listening to the deeply (but often mistakenly) held perceptions of clients, workshop attendees, and Food and Feelings message board members, I get a clearer understanding of what holds them back from greater emotional health, especially around food and feelings.

Take the issue of psychic pain. Many clients I work with suffered trauma, abuse and neglect or generic mistreatment growing up. Back then, the actions of others caused them pain—hurt, disappointment, shame, guilt, anxiety, loneliness, etc.—which they carry with them today stored in memory. Even as I attempt to help them keep the memories and shed the pain, they hold onto their hurt because it’s part of their history, their life experience, and often their identity.

Pain is the proof that they were wronged, that people hurt them. Letting go of it (yes, this is a volitional process) feels like tossing out the evidence of the crime. The problem is that many troubled eaters use their current pain to validate that emotional “crimes” did actually happen to them—they were humiliated, ignored, beaten, sexually abused, manipulated, shunned, bullied, teased, humiliated, and made to feel that they were defective and unfixable. They were also told that they shouldn’t or, worse, didn’t, feel this deep hurt so that hurting has been the primary way to prove to themselves that they did. Their current pain validates that they suffered.

But consider the paradox this generates: I must feel yesterday’s pain to know it happened, even though it hurts me today. Is there no other way to validate that people did bad things to you? No healthier avenue to verify such knowledge without re-experiencing it now? Choosing to continue to suffer is like taking the long way home.

The way out is to recognize that hurt and fear are automatic, evolutionary responses meant to warn you of emotional and physical threat. You don’t need to hurt now to know that you hurt back then. That's like still wearing the cast you wore on your arm in 7th grade to prove you broke your arm. You can recall the fact of the experience without having the affective response to it. Your memory record of the factual data is all the validation you need. It happened. Talking about your pain to others who believe you validates it even more. That’s why it’s so important to share your suffering. It was real and it hurt you deeply. Knowing that is why you can stop hurting now.



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