Perhaps you’ve noticed that your deepest problems have become paradoxically more unmanageable, even as you try various ways to solve them. This is not an illusion. We are the only animal species who can think relationally.
Relational thinking is causing my client (who I’ll call Mindy) a lot of pain. She knows it’s time to move on from a four-year relationship with her partner, but she cannot seem to escape her emotional pain long enough to stay away. “We behave like a couple,” Mindy explains, “because loneliness sneaks up and catches me by surprise.”
Known in psychology as Relational Frame Theory -- our ability to use language to arbitrarily relate objects that are non-related –- Mindy’s loneliness is both real and imagined. For example, Mindy’s brain can take her present pain (I am breaking up with my partner of four years and this loss hurts) and relate it to an event that is absent of pain (the amazing sunset I am seeing right now would be so much better if my partner were here to see it with me.) This is why a beautiful sunset can be sad for a human. And why loneliness can sneak up and catch us by surprise.
If happy is the opposite of sad (relational thinking) than happiness can remind Mindy of being sad. When she experiences pain of absence, she layers pain on top of pain by relating a beautiful sunset with the loss of her lover. Furthermore, if this same sunset was associated with something frightening (like a car bomb) then Mindy experiences a trauma, from which her mind will extrapolate exponential relational frames. On and on this goes from age 14 months(!) until we die.
All humans are relational thinkers and this skill has allowed us to create tools, analyze our environment, and build fires. It’s our greatest asset and in turn creates our greatest suffering.
Over time, when hardship is sustained, we start to live our life in ways to accommodate the problem, and as a result, our life becomes narrower and less flexible. In other words, our mind forms more relational frames. When Mindy moved into her new apartment post-break-up she did not have any reference to her partner there. Today, because her hardship is sustained, her mind is thinking relationally and generating pain of absence.
Bottom line, sustained hardship depletes our resilience because the very thing we need to heal (time) is being used against us by our brain.
Life is a form of suffering. We all experience hardship. Examples of sustained hardship include: loss of one's health, loss of a relationship, divorce, loss of a job, poverty, loss of a home, loss of a loved one. Each of these hardships take time to heal, repair, rebuild, etc. Meanwhile our brain is thinking relationally, our left-over issues and unresolved childhood trauma is triggered, and our nervous system is being bombarded from a barrage of uncomfortable thoughts and emotions.
It’s like our nervous system is being hit by a battery of emotional gun fire. One minute we’re fine and then in the next minute we plummet in despair, sadness, overwhelm, grief, anger, anxiety, loneliness. This up and down is exhausting. And because it’s exhausting, painful, and uncomfortable -- we suppress.
Known is psychology as experience avoidance - we want to avoid our own experience. Thought suppression (I don’t want to think this) and emotion suppression (I don’t want to feel this) is experience avoidance at its best, and only intensifies our suffering and sustains our hardship.
Emotions link to thoughts in the same way. Research has shown that when we suppress thoughts in the presence of an emotion, eventually the emotion evokes the thought. What we resist persists and grows! Any situation can be arbitrarily related to pain and evoke it in new ways.
When we suppress our experience we suffer more. What can we do to diminish our suffering?
Psychological pain is normal, everyone has it, because it’s important to our development. Thus, to surrender means to accept, embrace, and even look forward to the pain and discomfort as it arises. Surrender is the opposite of suppression. Feel the emotion. Identify two sensations in your body. Let these sensations evolve. Identify your thoughts. Write them down. Question them. Your pain and uncomfortable emotions will be an informative ally on the path that lies ahead. Tune in rather than tuning out.
To surrender in a sustained hardship may mean accepting and embracing the discomfort 20x per day. Eventually, 20 will diminish to 10 and then to 5 and one day you’ll wake up and the persistent thought and emotional discomfort will be gone. This specific hardship will not last forever.
After each moment of surrender, nourish. Your self-care practice is one of the most important resources you have available to you during sustained hardship. Nourishment is the specific ways you give yourself kindness when you're in pain.
Here is a list of ways I have nourished myself over the last four months: walk in nature, acupuncture, listening to or reading a book by Byron Katie, calling a friend, crying, wailing, dancing, hiking, cuddling, journaling, gratitude list, meditating, yoga, hot bath.
I have learned that, for me, entertainment is not nourishing when I am in the throes of emotional discomfort. Watching a movie or reading a work of fiction created more relational absence of pain experiences. My nourishment had to be nurturing to my true nature and spirit. The point is to find what is nourishing for you while not avoiding, escaping or suppressing the pain.
The key to managing pain during sustained hardship is to use time to our advantage: surrender and nourish. When we continue to embrace the discomfort it will begin to dissipate.
Feel it to heal it.
Join the conversation: What are your favorite ways to nourish?