Your Pain Is the Doorway to Growth
I’m a therapist who recently had one of the most challenging years of my life — it changed me for the better
In psychology and the world of self-betterment, we always talk about “resiliency” as a barometer for mental health. Resiliency has always been something I talked about with my own therapist and with my clients but, until a recent challenging experience in my own life, I didn’t truly understand it in a deeply felt way. In reflecting on that recent experience, however, I had a profound moment of realization — recognizing just how far I have come on my personal journey toward building resiliency.
I wrote my thesis on the theory of trauma as initiation. That’s a topic for another piece altogether, but the short version of the theory goes something like this: Initiations are big, life-altering, internal or external changes that usher us from one stage of life to another. Things like changing career paths, breaking off a toxic relationship, or a mid-life crisis are all types of initiations. Spirituality and rituals used to be a platform for humans to experience and make sense of these initiations, but in our modern world, we have, in many ways, lost our connection to the spirit and the numinous (the unknown and mysterious). During a time of initiation, these sometimes painful and abrupt periods of change, we are no longer who we were and are not quite yet who we will become.
In the past, it was through our connection to spirit and ritual that we comprehended the pain, incorporated it into our inner narratives, and emerged as stronger, more resilient versions of ourselves. Initiations form a core part of our psyche. They come when it is absolutely necessary for us to grow or change life direction or thinking. Without those rituals, our psyches will sometimes seek out their own initiations to give us the push we need. Just because we have mostly lost touch with our spiritual and ritualized ancestral past does not mean painful initiations do not happen, just that we simply have a harder time integrating and making sense of them.
A little over two years ago, I desperately needed to change the direction of my life but was afraid to face the work such a change would require. So my psyche pushed me head-first into it, presenting me with an entire slate of traumatic experiences — a messy end to a six-year engagement, a move across the country with only two suitcases in hand, getting laid off from my job, breaking my jaw two weeks after moving and having it wired shut for eight weeks with many more weeks of recovery, and losing my grandmother — all within the span of one year. Through my personal connection and dedication to spiritual and therapeutic work, and the creative exercise of writing my thesis, I was able to process the traumas, face some dark and hidden places in myself, take away the learning I was being presented with, and incorporate it all into my sense of self as I emerged a more confident, self-aware, and resilient person than I had been at the start of my (metaphorical) journey of death and rebirth. I emerged knowing that, if I could come out the other end of a year that traumatic, I could go through just about anything and still be able to get back on my feet.
I made the mistake, however, of thinking that, after that one traumatic year, my initiation was complete. Then, last month, my partner and I suffered a miscarriage. I have now realized that the miscarriage was actually the final hurdle on this part of my journey. The final pieces of my old self that I was still clinging to were challenged in a way I never thought possible. I thought I had become my more resilient self, only to come face-to-face with the reality that I was still using old defense and coping strategies, and was still deeply attached to my old definitions, old comforts, and old self. Fully embracing the path and direction my life is on now required that final traumatic incident. In order to grow, I had to question beliefs about myself and my world that were once there for safety, but now no longer served me.
So, how does my story apply to you?
As humans, when our safety is threatened, the majority of us default to aggression, defensiveness, grasping, numbing, or addiction to soothe ourselves. Safety, in this sense, doesn’t mean just in the physical sense. Feeling unsafe can be the result of an attack on our sense of self, our values, beliefs, and the lens through which we see ourselves and our world.
In order to develop resiliency in childhood, we need to be seen, and to be truly loved and accepted regardless of what is seen. Growing up, many of us received subtle messaging that we should not have been the way we were. We should be smarter, prettier, quieter, tougher, more feminine, more like “them.” In a sense, we were taught that we could not trust our true selves and should be ashamed of those pieces of ourselves that made our parents, teachers, and others uncomfortable. I say this not to bash our parents. Most of them did the best they could with what they had. Many of them learned to parent through their own parents and they through theirs.
Spiritual reparenting strengthens our understanding that, regardless of what happens, we will be “okay.”
Through this lifetime of molding, we create a narrow construct of who we are, what path we are on, and what life should look and feel like. When this is challenged, sometimes in the smallest way, it can throw us into a tailspin (the direct fallout of which can be increased anxiety or depression). When we are incapable of integrating challenges or trauma, they instead cut us off at the knees. We have a narrow range of resiliency, a small window of tolerance for processing discomfort and pain. It is important to note that true resilience isn’t just about bouncing back, it’s about understanding and accepting that the stressors and challenges you experience actually help you grow.
As adults, then, we need to learn how to self-nurture. “Spiritual reparenting,” as Tara Brach calls it. The hard work of therapy and self-betterment, of spiritual development, is exactly this: learning how to spiritually reparent ourselves. Through the work of spiritually reparenting ourselves we develop, and then deepen, skills that give us the strength to face feelings of discomfort with compassion and, in turn, strengthen our resiliency and expand our window of tolerance for those feelings. Spiritual reparenting strengthens our understanding that, regardless of what happens, we will be “okay.” Not just okay, but a more fully embodied version of ourselves. One that did not exist before the initiation experience occurred.
“Trust the power of your heart and awareness to wake up through any circumstances.” — The Dalai Lama, when asked for the most important thing Western students need to remember
Spiritual reparenting (that is, developing self-awareness, self-acceptance, coping, and self-soothing techniques) doesn’t prevent us from experiencing initiations. Loved ones will die, jobs will be lost, accidents will be had, relationships will break — traumas will be experienced. But what spiritual reparenting does is give us the space to observe our internal responses to challenges with kindness, not judgment. It allows us to stand outside our trauma and see it as a descent into the place where growth and acceptance can happen. In this place, we can allow whatever comes up to just be what it is without judgment. When we allow experiences and the emotions around them to happen without fighting them or wishing they were different, we take ourselves out of the role of the victim and instead ask, “How can this challenge serve my growth?”
“Could it be, I wondered, that the deep truth embedded in these rituals might be that we cannot (apparently) become fully human until we can accept the human condition and that this is more difficult than we thought? The difficult part being that we must let the innocent (God-identified) part of us suffer experience in order to grow a soul?” — Donald Kalsched
I don’t have any more clarity or control over where my life will lead me now than I did before I lost my pregnancy (or before I went through my year of hell), but what I do know is that it takes a lot to break me. Or rather, in those moments when I do break (and God, is it important to let yourself break sometimes), I know I can stitch myself back together stronger than I was before. I know that I can sit in the fire and darkness and observe the thoughts, the fears, and the emotions dance around me like a ballet I’m watching from the balcony seats. I know that I can feel a seemingly bottomless intensity of pain, fear, and loss, but that I will be able to breathe again as soon as I stop searching for the bottom, and instead allow myself to float in the waters of it all, knowing that the shore is always there.