“It is a joy to be hidden, and disaster not to be found.”
– D.W. Winnicott (1963)
Pain. Most people fear it and many go out of their way to avoid it. Our environment bombards us with messages regarding how to transcend it, or at least, hide it. We are urged to drink this beer, drive this car, get these abs, read this book, take this pill, follow this guru, buy this widget. We are told to focus on positive thinking. We are urged to learn the secret, get clear, or hear the good news while we keep calm and carry on with a stiff upper lip- all the while keeping up appearances on social media. Sound exhausting?
We go to great lengths to hide pain; in fact, it can easily become a full-time job. But pain has a funny way of following us when we avoid it. It grows and festers, just below the surface. It thrives on our insecurities, lurks in our dreams, and plays on our fears. When we avoid pain we may recreate cycles of hurt in our relationships with ourselves and others. We can become stuck, anxious, bored, bitter, addicted, and unfulfilled. We can make major life choices from a place of weakness and fear rather than from the stronger parts of us.
So it can be good to feel pain?
Similar to physical pain, emotional pain can be useful because it alerts us to different “dis-ease” processes- or parts of ourselves that are hurt and in need of recovery. But unlike physical pain, often, when we solitarily attempt to make sense of and put words to emotional pain, “the language runs dry” (Woolf, 1930). Being alone with emotional pain is like trying to wrestle a shapeshifting blob of intense darkness. It can exist as a composite of anger, shame, sadness, fear, and contempt in places deep within us- often outside of our conscious awareness. The experience is disorienting and overwhelming. Pain broadsides us in unpredictable moments, and can leave us frozen and entangled in a sort of timeless dysphoria, without a clear beginning or end, and without agency to change.
So what are we to do?
Therapy reduces pain by courageously going towards it… not alone but in the grounding presence of another. Together, therapist and client can greet the thousand faces of pain in a way that is holding and safe. The blob is teased apart and seen. Light is shown into dark corners, not to destroy what lurks within, but to curiously encounter parts of ourselves that have been split from our waking consciousness. Less of a “talking cure” than a “feeling cure”, therapy serves to integrate aspects of our being and to make conscious that which was unconscious- both emotionally and intellectually. In this creative space we can forge a more authentic and fulfilling version of ourselves. The therapeutic relationship exists to find, contain, honor, explore, and make new meaning from painful experiences. Through this process, the client can discover a new voice and a new way of being; One that operates more upon strength than fear.
Winnicott, D. W. (1963). Communicating and not communicating leading to a study of certain opposites. The maturational processes and the facilitating environment, 184.
Woolf, V. (1930). On Being Ill. London: Hogarth Press.
Written by: James Kalivas, Psy.D.
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