“We’ve all fallen. And we have the skinned knees and bruised hearts to prove it. But scars are easier to talk about than they are to show – and rarely do we see wounds that are in the process of healing.” – Brené Brown
Throughout our lives, we’ve all experienced failure, disappointment and heartbreak. But when you listen to most people tell a story about overcoming adversity do you notice how they go straight from the setback to the comeback, skipping the messy part in the middle?
The story sounds something like “I was devastated, but I found a new job” or “I was lost, but I found love again.” The truth is many of us don’t stop to reflect and dive into the pain and suffering. We fail to ask the most important questions, “What’s actually happening here?” and “What’s causing me to feel this way?”
The real reason we don’t ask these questions is because we’re often too ashamed or afraid to face the truth. It’s uncomfortable so we avoid it. As a society, we view failure, disappointment and heartbreak as things to avoid at all costs, so we don’t make ourselves vulnerable. We build walls to keep people out, project our negative emotions and place blame on others.
However, in reality, it’s the people who failed and the people who had their hearts broken who are the most courageous among us. They were brave enough to take a risk, and brave enough to love someone. If you don’t take chances how do you expect to grow? If you don’t take a leap of faith how do you expect to fall in love?
If you take a step back and look at the big picture you’ll realize that essentially, we are all looking for the same thing: a happy, fulfilling life. True happiness and fulfillment comes from a deep sense of self-acceptance and self-awareness. You know you’re not perfect and that sometimes you will be afraid and ashamed, but that doesn’t change the fact that you’re also brave and don’t let pain define you.
Newton’s Third Law of Motion: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.
I love Brené Brown’s work in particular because she combines science and spirituality. As a social scientist and researcher, she places equal importance on faith and reason – understanding that both must be taken into consideration in order to come up with a solid theory.
In her book, Rising Strong, she talks about Newton’s third law, and how it’s more than a principle of physics. It can also be applied in the context of human behavior. For example, when something happens that triggers our emotions, it doesn’t just disappear into thin air. Even though you can’t see it, that energy has been set in motion. So anytime you feel hurt, frustrated or angry, you carry that energy with you. And while it may not show up immediately, it’s getting passed on.
This explains what happens when people suppress pain instead of process it. Let’s use anger as an example. A common tactic is to push the anger so far down that you think you have control of it. Then, one comment or event triggers that anger to the surface and you go into a fit of rage – an equal and opposite reaction. Another common pattern of behavior is to stockpile emotions. In other words, you hold it all inside until your body can’t take it anymore. This manifests into anxiety, depression and the list goes on.
The Neuroscience of Emotional Pain
In the midst of struggle, we want to make sense of our emotional pain and our brain chemically rewards us when we come up with an explanation. The problem is that our brain rewards us for that story whether it’s true or not – hence, the false beliefs and lies many of us tell ourselves.
“She left me” or “He cheated because I’m not ____(fill in the blank with your insecurity).” We make up a story that essentially says “I’m not good enough” and “I’m not worthy.” We don’t consciously realize it, but it’s those thoughts that shape how we act and ultimately, who we become.
Why do we lie to ourselves and make up these stories?
Our brain is wired for survival. It’s wired to protect us. The second our brain senses a threat (whether it’s actually real or simply perceived), it works fast to process it and make sense of things very quickly. Who is safe? Who is dangerous? However, what our brain does not take into consideration is the need for discomfort and vulnerability in relationships.
So, how do we know the story we are telling ourselves is what actually happened? These three steps will provide clarity and give you a more realistic perspective.
- Recognize when you start feeling emotionally out of control
You know that moment when you feel that wave of anxiety, anger or stress? Your mind automatically makes false assumptions and you start to downward spiral.
Instead of going to your crazy place, take a step back and acknowledge that something just triggered you. Even if you don’t know exactly what’s happening or what caused that reaction, the best thing you can do is put yourself in the position of the observer. When you can distance yourself from your emotions in this way, you can start gaining back control of your thoughts.
The problem is many of us aren’t curious about emotion since we were taught from a young age not to talk about our feelings. As a society, it’s ingrained in us to be tough and getting overly emotional is a sign of weakness.
For this reason, we are much better at inflicting pain than feeling it. And when you don’t process what you’re feeling, you project it elsewhere – whether it’s a random outburst at your coworker or getting frustrated with your partner for no apparent reason.
Being able to master this first step (also known as “The Reckoning” in her book) is helpful because when you recognize something is going on you are less likely to take it out on your colleagues, friends, family and so on. Most importantly, you’ll realize the emotion has nothing to do with another person. It’s hurt and trauma from your past coming to the surface.
This is why you need to get curious and put the work in to heal yourself. You need to understand that your healing is not dependent on others.
What is your emotional hook? Learn to recognize the signs.
The signs are different for everyone. Some people binge eat, while others (myself included) go into that endless loop in their head – replaying the scenario a thousand times to make sense of it.
Being able to recognize your own signs is the first step. Then you need to dive deeper and explore what’s really going on. What was it about that situation or person that triggered you?
Write it down
Everything you need to know about who you are and what you need to work on is in your initial reaction. Journaling can provide valuable insight into how you think.
Don’t filter anything. Just let your stream of consciousness flow on to the page. It’s going to be uncomfortable at first, but you need to become conscious of those thoughts in order to change them.
Let’s say your partner just broke up with you. Your thoughts could sound something like “I knew he never liked me. He doesn’t trust me. I need to stop putting myself out there.”
This way of thinking is completely irrational and self-deprecating. He probably liked you, but there’s a lot you don’t know – which is why it’s pointless to try and fill in the blanks. You’ll drive yourself insane, not to mention completely destroy your self-esteem in the process.
- Get clear on the facts and figure out what’s real
In many cases, we lie to ourselves and the scary part is we actually believe it, regardless of how far-reaching and ridiculous it is. In this step, you have to challenge those irrational thoughts and false beliefs.
Ask yourself three questions: What more do I need to learn about this situation? What more do I need to understand about the other person or people? What more do I need to learn about myself?
Answering these questions will help you filter out the nonsense and find out the truth. What do you know for sure? What are you making up?
This part of the process Brené calls “The Rumble.” It’s the toughest step because it means staying brave and feeling your way through those uncomfortable emotions. What’s underlying those feelings? Is it shame? Perhaps perfectionism? Trust issues?
Imagine you ask your boss a question and he gives you a strange look. Rather than going straight to, “I did something wrong” and “I’m going to get fired,” ask him: “Is everything okay? I’m getting the feeling that something’s up and I want to get clear on it.”
Chances are he was thinking about a fight he had with his wife or stressing about a meeting later that day, and that’s the real reason he seems a bit off. It probably has nothing to do with you.
It will be uncomfortable in the moment, but afterwards you’ll be relieved. And your boss will probably think you’re brave for doing that and have more respect for you.
- Turn this practice into a habit
Start taking responsibility for your own emotions. Understand that everything literally starts in your head. If you change the way you think, it will change the way you feel, change the way you act and change the way you live. This last step Brené calls “The Revolution.”
“It’s he or she who is willing to be the most uncomfortable who can rise strong.”
She explains you have to lean into the discomfort. In other words, you have to be willing to make yourself vulnerable. The ability to take off the mask shows courage. Being vulnerable isn’t a weakness. It’s a strength.