I’ve had a dull toothache for months now. Months. The pain ebbs and flows. Sometimes when I drink something cold I’ll get a shooting pain, but other days it goes completely unnoticed. I’ve even learned to adjust to it by only eating and drinking on the left side of my mouth, and that’s actually worked pretty well for me. Is it getting worse? Probably. Should I get it checked out by a dentist? Most definitely. But I’m scared. If I go to the Dentist, they will most likely tell me that I have a cavity, and having a cavity equals pain in my mind. Or what if it’s actually a root canal? I’ve never had a root canal before but I’ve heard some pretty bad things about the pain involved in fixing that up. Or even worse, what if for some bizarre reason they have to take the tooth out and then I’ll look ridiculous and never find love and get married (just kidding….I haven’t actually thought that, but it illustrates what a beast anxiety can be in coming up with worst case scenarios). It’s easier to just avoid the toothache, pretend it’s not there, make minor adjustments, and live with the dull pain rather than the extreme pain that might come with actually dealing with it. It’s not that bad.
A toothache may seem like a silly comparison, but I see this pattern of avoidance play out with emotional pain every day.
We are terrified of exposing parts of ourselves to others, to God, or even to ourselves for fear of the emotional and physical pain that may be involved.
These wounds we hide may look like weaknesses, flaws, addictions, past mistakes, or things that we had no control over that were said or done to us and caused us to feel bad, unlovable, or unworthy. We lock them up airtight, shove them under the bed, and pretend they don’t exist. If anyone, or anything, tries to probe at them, our instinct is to shift blame, run away, and do whatever is necessary to cover them back up.
I can’t tell you how many times things have been going great with a client, tons of progress is being made, healing is happening, and suddenly in session something gets exposed that they are terrified to look at and they don’t come back to therapy for weeks, months, or ever. Krishnamurti says of this,
“Relationship is a process of self-revelation; relationship is as a mirror in which you begin to discover yourself, your tendencies, pretensions, selfish and limited motives, fears, and so on. In relationship, if you are aware, you will find that you are being exposed, which causes conflict and pain. The thoughtful person welcomes this self-exposure to bring about order and clarity, to free his thought-feeling from isolating, self-enclosing tendencies. But most of us try to seek comfort and gratification in relationship; we do not desire to be revealed to ourselves; we do not wish to study ourselves as we are, so relationship becomes wearisome and we seek to escape.”
I’ve often thought about how so many people could choose to reject Christ when He was here on the earth. When you study His character, it’s evident that He was a man filled with compassion and love. His intent was perfect – never to harm or hurt, only to heal. How were so many people in His actual presence, feeling that light and love, and yet still chose not to partake and receive? We find one of the answers to this in John chapter 3 as he discusses how light reveals darkness, and that can be extremely exposing. While Christ was exposing them to the light to heal them, it would first require them to look at their own darkness. He knew that if they would allow this light in it would be a balm that offered compassion, love, understanding and forgiveness. Unfortunately, truth can be blindingly hard to look at.
If as a kid you ever fell off your bike and had a skid burn cleaned of the gravel and rocks before your mom could put Neosporin and a Band-Aid on it, you know that healing can hurt like the dickens before the relief actually comes. This is why I often warn my clients that coming to therapy might feel like things are getting worse before they get better. Close, intimate relationships can often do the same things. Sometimes they open up a Pandora’s box of things we’ve done a really good job of avoiding for years. As rational beings, it makes sense that we don’t want to sift through that box and feel the pain. Every part of us screams that it would be easier and less painful to just not deal with it.
But that’s the big lie. Sitting in our darkness, avoiding the truth, running away is NOT easier. Nor is it less painful. It’s just creating a different set of pain that we’re often not paying attention to. And that pain always finds a way to catch up with us.
Brene Brown says, “If you put shame in a petri dish, it needs three things to grow exponentially- secrecy, silence, and judgment.” Those things that we’re avoiding and keeping locked up, they’re creating shame- boatloads of shame. And that shame is festering, and creating all sorts of havoc in our lives and relationships. Shame prevents us from feeling self love and seeing ourselves clearly.
When we don’t love parts of ourselves, or haven’t made amends with things from our past, it inhibits our ability to both give and receive love.
This is often at the root of many of our self defeating behaviors – withdrawal, isolating, numbing, self-medicating, anger, blame, perfectionism, and on and on. Ironically, these self defeating behaviors then create more shame, and more things we feel like we need to hide, and thus the cycle continues.
We think that hiding and avoiding these things is helping us, but it’s not. It is hurting us in unimaginable ways. It is pulling us away from God’s love and light, from loving and healthy relationships with those around us, and from our own innate sense of divinity and worth.
So how do we stop running, hiding, avoiding, self-justifying, and face our fears of being exposed? The trick is exposing these parts of ourselves to the right sources – love, light, compassion, and forgiveness. Brene Brown continues, “If you put the same amount of shame into a petri dish and douse it with empathy, it can’t survive.” When we expose ourselves to light it brings clarity, truth, and understanding. But most importantly, it brings freedom.
Freedom from burdens that we have been carrying for far too long, freedom to be vulnerable and allow others to truly see us, and freedom to give and receive the love that we all desperately and innately need.
We must choose to believe that this light and love do exist, and open our eyes to those around us, and those in the heavens, who are ready and willing to give it. Through all of this we have to believe that even in our weaknesses, frailties, and imperfections, we do matter, and we are deserving of receiving this love and light. Be patient with yourself if you’re not there yet. I’m sure there’s some really emotionally and spiritually progressed people out there who have learned how to fully embrace these concepts, but for the rest of us, it’s a lifelong process that typically comes by chipping away one little piece at a time. Choosing to believe these things is hard for all of us, myself included, especially when we’ve experienced the opposite from those who are struggling with their own pain.
But when we do choose to embrace these beliefs, powerful things happen. Some of the most sacred and special experiences I’ve had as a therapist come when my clients allow themselves to receive this light. One of my clients battled for years with a burden of sexual abuse that occurred to her by a family member. As she worked through her own healing process and allowed herself to be freed from this pain, she approached me with the question of whether she should expose what happened to the rest of the family. We talked for many months about what this would look like, and the possible reactions that could come from this. If the perpetrator was not ready to look at and heal from these parts, she would most likely be met with defensiveness, anger, denial, and blame. All of which would be very painful. However, exposing this could also give him the opportunity to heal from his pain, receive forgiveness, and move forward. After conferring with God, this client felt peace about speaking to the family member privately first, through a letter.
What occurred after this can only be described as divine. The family member, consumed with shame from carrying this burden for so long, was overcome with relief at receiving this letter and immediately took action to begin making amends with my client and with himself. Many tears were shed as this man opened up to my client about his remorse, grief, and the negative repercussions these actions had on his life and relationships through the years. While these conversations were difficult and painful, they brought profound healing to both my client and her family member. It was beautiful and sacred to witness. Both of these people were at a point where they were ready and willing to allow the light to heal them, and give and receive love. And miracles occurred. Sadly, sometimes those that have hurt us are not ready yet to have these parts exposed, but that does not mean that we cannot receive our own healing.
In John 8:12 Christ says, “I am the light of the world; he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life.”
Christ is there, ready and waiting to let us be partakers of this light and heal our dark places. We also have the fortuity to be givers of this light as we take and create opportunities to expose those dark places and offer love, compassion, and empathy to ourselves and to those around us.
May we all help each other calm those fears in our heads that say it will be better and easier to run, hide, and avoid. Instead may we have the courage lean toward the light, confront those dark places, have the hard conversations, make amends with ourselves and others, and ultimately face the pain so that we can be freed.