Posted on May 19, 2022 by Jenn Zatopek
So much of what we want is a quick fix to end our suffering, and it’s only natural to want that because difficult emotions are painful to feel. From a neuroscience perspective, these painful feelings are the direct result of unconscious emotional knowings learned in our distant past. We carry these emotional knowings with us in a part of our memory that is largely unconscious (known as implicit memory), and these knowings are learned from a multitude of interactions with our caregivers, family, friends, and the culture we live in. These emotional knowings drive our actions on an unconscious level, and because we are wired for learning and growth, we will act according to what we know to be true in our lived experience.
Of course, we act this way: it is all we have ever known.
The problem is that many of us have emotional knowings that feel true but are actually myths, stories we tell about ourselves that are consistent with how we were raised in our first families, from our early life experiences and later years. The grandfather of psychology Sigmund Freud was only partially right in terms of brain science: the first five years of life are critical for a child to learn how to love themselves, to receive that love from others, and to believe the world is a safe place in which to dwell.
But when our caregivers suffer, the child suffers, setting in motion a lifetime of pain and sorrow even amid moments of joy and delight. You want to feel a strong sense of peace and joy, but it is hard to hope because other emotional knowings are telling you awful things about yourself and the world around you. Even feeling connected to the Divine feels far off because those emotional knowings interfere with our ability to feel safe in our own skin.
As a trauma-informed EMDR psychotherapist, I made a commitment many years ago to doing counseling as a spiritual practice, which means I’m on my own healing journey and feel called to share a bit of my story with you for Mental Health Awareness month. I have two reasons for sharing which dovetail quite nicely: I want to normalize the pain and courage of facing your past but also to help you feel less lonely in your own recovery. Change is possible, friend. I have tasted it and know it to be deeply true.
On Mother’s Day, I found myself waking up from a nightmare, a memory triggered by the holiday itself and a sober reminder of what happened to me many years ago with my mother whose harsh words and cruel touch stained me. The dream was so frightening that I woke up my partner and asked for support, steeling myself for a day of reckoning with ancient pain that danced around me like flames of heat lashing my soul. I endured with prayer and self-compassion and support from my partner, but dear friend, days like that are hard to bear. Maybe you can relate.
As I review my experience through the lens of neuroscience and theology, I can validate my suffering because it is hard to reckon with our pain, especially on major holidays that celebrate parents. We need to acknowledge our feelings too because in noticing our pain with friendliness, we open to healing. I also find myself practicing gratitude for my beautiful brain who is moving towards healing as it was made to do so by The Creator, recalling that our original nature is rooted in Love. Unprocessed pain lingers in the nervous system and longs to be released, and one way the brain works to release pain is through REM sleep and our dreams, helping us gain insight about ourselves that is more often than not positive in nature. My body longs to surrender the emotional knowings gleaned from my mother and she is letting me know she is ready, which feels like a welcome relief after many years of running away from my story.
What else could I learn from this dream? I can remember that healing from the past takes as long as it needs to take, which means I can be kind to myself as I recover from the damaging effects of growing up with a mother whose only love language was pain. I can trust that even before she got ahold of me that who I am at my deepest core is rooted in goodness. Just like you.
As a parting gift, I would like you to consider practicing being kind to yourself right now as a radical act of love. Bathe yourself in caring words and soothing touch and remember you are not alone even in the midst of challenging emotions. Talking to yourself gently, trusting you are connected to the beautiful web of humanity, and letting go of punishing yourself for having feelings is how we honor our pain skillfully and honor the Giver who created us for love. In showering ourselves with kindness, we practice the real truth which is this: you and me have always been so worthy of having our needs for companionship, friendship, support, and love met.
May it be so.
Image: Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains near Palm Springs, Jenn Zatopek