I’ve been thinking about pain a lot lately. The emotional kind. Where it comes from. Why we have it. What I do with it. There is a lot of pain related to what we are having to do these days. I haven’t always been able to face that. I used to ignore and medicate it away.
I remembered how much “Gateway” by Frederik Pohl was about pain, so I’m reading it again.
Bob Broadhead, the main character, is in a session with his AI therapist, a Freudian computer aptly named Sigfried. He says, “It is very hard, sometimes, to fool him. I get to the end of a session absolutely limp, with the feeling that if I had stayed with him for one more minute, I would have found myself falling right down into that pain and it would have destroyed me. Or cured me. Perhaps they are the same thing.”
Not facing my pain almost destroyed me. Accepting it healed me.
However, it is still very attractive to put my pain in a box and leave it alone on a shelf. I still have the capacity to do that. I also have learned how to accept my pain and process it. It is uncomfortable and hard, but it is the healthy thing to do. This time, what is the hardest for me is knowing that to do what we have to do means having to do the other thing, too.
Physical shock occurs when, due to trauma or injury, there is insufficient blood flow throughout the body. The primary symptom of shock is low blood pressure. Medical shock, as it is often called, is a life-threatening condition that can lead to other things such as lack of oxygen in the body’s tissues (hypoxia), heart attack (cardiac arrest), or organ damage. It requires immediate treatment as symptoms can worsen rapidly.
Our emotional selves are interestingly similar to our physical selves. There are interconnected systems that rely on each other. If one of those systems stops functioning, all the others suffer. If the damage in one area is significant enough, the whole system can fail. Like blood circulating through our physical systems, feelings flow through our emotional systems. A lack of feelings or emotions indicates a serious problem in our emotional selves, like a lack of blood pressure would in our physical selves.
So, back to the issue of pain.
Pain is an emotion that is natural for us to feel. We may use other words for it—sadness, loss, anguish, heartache, or shame—just to name a few. Pain flows through us in the same emotional veins as joy and love. Like blood flowing through our veins carries all sorts of things, good and bad, the emotional circulatory system carries all our emotions. You can’t stop the bad things from flowing through either system without stopping the good things too. And that’s bad.
You can, however, avoid feeling emotional pain. You can medicate yourself with drugs or alcohol or behaviors. You can practice shutting off your feelings by ignoring them or compartmentalizing and leaving them in a box in your emotional closet. You can distract yourself by obsessing over work or other activities. If you avoid feeling painful emotions, you end up interfering with feeling the good ones too. This is where the problems start.
When I avoid my emotions, I am shutting off a part of myself that is necessary for me to fully function and fully live. My emotions are a source of information. My emotions tell me something about what’s going on in me and around me. Emotions, however, are not the only source of information available to me. I also have my rational thoughts, my stored knowledge and experiences, and my values and goals. Information provided by emotions needs to be appraised and evaluated in light of these other sources in order for me to decide how to behave.
A healthier alternative to emotional avoidance is emotional acceptance. Emotional acceptance is the willingness and ability to accept and experience one’s emotions, acknowledging and absorbing them. Several good things happen when I accept and acknowledge my emotions.
First, I accept the truth of my situation. I am always better off if I am aware of the reality around me, because then I can act in ways that help me achieve my goals instead of expending energy fighting against negative emotions.
Second, emotions are sources of information, and by accepting them, I give myself a chance to learn about that emotion and become better at managing and integrating it into my life.
Third, acceptance allows me to learn that negative emotions aren’t really that bad. Yes, they are messy and painful, but emotions will not kill me. Experiencing them as they are—annoying but not dangerous—is eventually much less work (and less exhausting) than the ongoing (failing) attempt to avoid them.
Finally, accepting negative emotions destroys their destructive power. If you have ever been caught in an undertow you can understand how this is counterintuitive but true. When you are in the grip of an undertow and you attempt to fight it and swim against it, you are likely to tire, cramp, and drown. If you “give in” to the current and let it draw you along, it eventually loses its power, and you can easily swim around and back to shore. The same is true for powerful emotions. Fighting them is futile and dangerous, but through acceptance, the emotion will run its course and leave you to run yours.
For many years I thought suppressing and ignoring my emotions was “normal” and what I needed to do to survive. I was wrong, and it almost killed me. Thankfully, I was able to learn to accept my emotions and to process what they are telling me. This does not mean that emotional pain doesn’t hurt, but it won’t kill me, and I will get through it. As leaders, we often have to do difficult and painful things. We can avoid this pain to our peril, or we can use our emotions as the gateway to a fuller and richer life where we better understand ourselves. This self-awareness is critical to our ability to lead well, and it is also The Kimray Way.