More often than not, I embody a used car saleswoman rather than a clinical psychotherapist. I spend a lot of my day asking clients to sit with the very feelings, thoughts, and experiences that they’ve spent a lot of their life avoiding. I try to outline the benefits of doing so, add some humor, console any worries; anything I can do to sell them on the idea that there’s true worth in what they’ve been avoiding.
Seems like an odd thing to do, though. When I try to explain it to others, I usually am inundated with questions. How do you try to sell their own pain back to your clients? Why do you try to convince them that what they are avoiding holds a ton of value? Does it actually hold value? Is it really worth them choosing to look at that stuff, right in the face? Buckle up, because by answering these questions, I’m hoping to convince you, too, that all of those feelings, experiences, thoughts, etc. are worthy of your undivided attention.
It goes without saying, the top product I most often am attempting to sell to my clients is their own pain. The very pain that they probably have spent years on years trying to avoid. The most common pain that I see in clients’ lives (and my own) is the pain associated with rejection. Whether perceived or experienced, the hurt that follows being rejected is a brutal encounter for us. We’re incredibly social beings, us humans, as we are quite literally biologically wired to crave belonging; we feel and do our best when we are in a space of belonging. So it goes without saying:
The threat of being rejected and cast out of connection is perceived as a huge risk.
How we respond to that perceived risk varies from person to person. This flavor of pain shows up in a multitude of ways, always keeping us on our toes. It can show up as social anxiety, depression, panic, and even trigger trauma responses in those who’ve endured traumatic events in their lives.
With pain being as intense and firing off in so many potential response patterns when we get close to it, how do I dare encourage someone to work with it? The most helpful way is indeed the most simple way: by being Incredibly overt.
A Very Unpopular Thing to Say
I’m risking the loss of all the popularity contests I’m currently enrolled in to say:
The pain you experience is highly important for you to be present with.
It’s imperative that you don’t avoid it.
Before you jump ship, let me explain a bit. I’ve experienced the power that comes with being completely immersed in avoidance, as well as setting it aside. When I’m being the most honest used car saleswoman you’ve ever met, I’ll tell you that when I’ve examined both, the latter has had the largest and most favorable impact on my life.
Our society promises a lot around the idea of distraction and ‘coping’. If you do a simple google search of “coping with mental health pain” you’ll find millions of results that will take you anywhere from changing the way you’re breathing to journaling to more complex skills like practicing radical acceptance. And while all of those things are helpful in keeping you afloat in difficult situations/feelings, in the long run we see different results. Prolonged use of coping skills without stepping into the pain and hearing its message looks eerily similar to…avoidance. Current culture has us locked into this with things like endless scrolling capabilities and millions of hours of things to listen to, consume, and create.
Oh…that pain. I get it.
Speaking for myself, it has historically felt good to be distracted…for years. When I decided to honestly look at my screentime report on my iPhone, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t embarrassed about what I found. Come again.. I spent how many hours lost in the TikTok wasteland?! When I look at it with kind-of clear eyes now, the amount of numbness I was able to induce for myself with social media, podcasts, audiobooks, being hyper-busy, etc., was a truly astonishing amount.
Pain sucks. Pain from our choices, the live we live or don’t live, the relationships we hold, the things we’ve experienced… it’s all really difficult stuff to be with. It may even be some of the hardest work you ever sign up to do in this lifetime. But now, as a therapist and a fellow avoider/distractor, I will share this insight with you:
It just might be worth it.
The message that’s inside of the pain we experience is really what we’re looking to gather when we sign up to be with it. Because that’s what pain is… your body giving you information about what you’re seeing, hearing, feeling, enduring, perceiving, and/or otherwise experiencing. And the information that that experience holds for you is the very information that you need to have in order to move forward. Without it, all of the changes and choices we try to make are ill-fitting, don’t last, confusing, difficult to follow, etc.
I’ll give you a prime example of what this looks like. Imagine you go into a therapist’s office, dump out your life story and explain all of these points of pain that you feel stuck in. You map these all out by explaining the problems with your family, a recent break up, and how you’re super unhappy at work. When you conclude, imagine the therapist offers this little tidbit:
“Have you ever tried deep breathing exercises?”
Did you get just as queasy and angry reading that, as what I felt when I wrote it? Without stepping into the pain of all of those events and allowing that client a safe space to feel those events fully, any solution is going to be incredibly ill-fitting. It’s not going to make sense, it’s going to be unsustainable, turn little results (if any), and definitely runs the risk of being offensive as f***.
If we bar off pain as being something we aren’t interested in working with, as being ‘bad’, or as something with no value, we lose access to all of the information that experience brings to the table. When we avoid pain, we avoid progress.
All in All, I Hope You’re Sold
Making the decision to sit with the pain you experience is like turning on a light in an otherwise dark room. Suddenly, you can see the details, the obstacles, and the opportunities that were previously hidden or even completely unknown. With all of that information now present and visible, you get to use that vantage point to create a plan forward that actually fits the situation.. and you.
It’s a radical act of self-love and courage to confront your pain head-on. Acknowledging that your feelings are not only valid, but that there’s valuable information within them, isn’t something that most of us are taught anywhere in our life. It’s a true paradigm shift to set aside avoidance and escapism and to consider the pain you experience as being a keyholder to growth and transformation. And it might even be some of the hardest work you ever do in your life, but let me be the first one to cheer you on by saying: