Nothing Grows Without Discomfort
“You made my son uncomfortable,” the mom shouted in the PA meeting. The recent election results brought this usually friendly Parent meeting to the uncomfortable truth of divisiveness.
I was taken aback by the fervor in which this mom was defending her high schooler’s need for comfort and shielding him from the discomfort of emotional pain.
I was remembering when my toddler climbing with delight onto a large structure way beyond his capacity. His little body squealing in delight as he was reaching the top of the tower. His head turned with each achievement seeking the approving gaze of mom. This is an ancient ritual of maternal approval that gets neuronally wired into the mother child bond and becomes the base of how we trust ourselves in our bodies. My son searching in my face for traces of fear or approval, seeking the go ahead to taking risks just as biology was asking him to do. Yet the fearful glance of a mother can bring the adventures of a toddler to a painful halt. A scrunched face fearfully anticipating a fall of the climbing structure would have made this confident body loose the stride to keep going. Creativity and exploration interrupt when met with the non-verbal cues of a disapproving face.
How we emotionally grow, take risks or how we inhibit the drive towards new experiences are emotionally hardwired into the parent and child relationship. Through eye contact, body posture, facial expressions we powerfully communicate what we truly feel and fear. The young child is biologically attuned to the subtleties of these expressions, a biological warning system in which we and learn to differentiate what is dangerous and what is not. These early bodily imprints become second nature and the template from which we enact our emotional decisions in later life.
In my psychotherapy office I encounter these subtle seeking expressions of my clients daily. If I am warm and engaging towards a strong emotional expression the non-verbal communication will be one of acceptance and welcome. If I am not present, or am bored, dismissive, small muscles in my face and body posture will give that away. This body-to-body communication have a powerful effect on hindering the full expression of emotions. We learn what emotions are permitted by reading one another non-verbal body cues. In the first year of life the child registers what is welcomed or not by others without having the full grasp of language yet.
When clients come into my office, it is often with a great desire to have lasting change in their lives. “Please change me, change my life, I don’t want this struggle, this pain, this difficulty. Take away the pain, the whole thing!”, is the unspoken mandate to seeking help. Many therapist’s wish they had a magic wand in that moment to relief this suffering. Yet, the truth is we can’t. The most skilled therapist can only help the client find the change they want to make and send them on their internal way to find it. The desired change comes from learning how to be comfortable with discomfort and embrace this irritant, learning how nurture pain towards growth.
The most eager of therapists will seek to invite change by suggesting many ideas and insights, yet when the true change making begins it gets tricky. “I don’t want to change like that. This is painful, I don’t want to feel my pain. Can’t I change without this intensity?” my 52 year old client pleaded with me. Like my toddler on the climbing structure, with tears in her eyes she looked at me, expecting that I would join her in agreeing that her pain was a bad deal she had gotten.
“This is hard, huh?” I empathically answered. “You are afraid to feel this intensity and that it might swallow you up and you will never get out of it.” She softly nodded. “It is so uncomfortable and tight in there when you feel this, huh?” Her head gently bowed and tears were streaming down her face. A long pause ensued, she crying, me waiting for the tears to have their due time. “I know that this is very uncomfortable for you, and you rather not feel this right now, and yet here it is. How can you be with this right now?”
“It’s actually okay, my chest feels lighter and I am not so tight right now. “What is present here with you in this moment?” I ask her. “I can sense myself and I get it that the pain is part of me, if I reject that I am rejecting me, no?” her calm insight was not only clarity of thinking but a felt sense reality. She was aligned with her bodily experience, not searching outside of herself but being with the discomfort from the inside out.
This is a golden moment in the change of emotional pain. This seemingly small moment of ‘being with’, rather than pushing away the discomfort initiated the change she desired. When we trust the fullness of our emotions, we discover its intelligence. There is a change process that shows itself to us if we are willing to hang in there and be with it. We just don’t have to mess with it.
Not wanting discomfort is asking life to pause and rewind for the last rendition. The belief here is that what lies ahead is more threatening than feeling what is here. The pain of anticipation is moire feared than the actually felt sense of pain. But that is precisely what we need to do, trust that the discomfort holds the answers we have been looking for. Maybe not the way we imagined, or wished for. The idea of how we like to change is more enticing than the change that actually is waiting for us. How do we learn to trust this process? By looking into the faces of warm and empathic others that encourage us to climb, explore, fall and get up and strive for new terrains even if we don’t know where this might lead.