The Blessing of Leaning Into Pain
Abseil: a controlled descent down a vertical drop like a rock face or mountain.
In the summer of 2015, I was teaching at the African Leadership Academy in South Africa. I was going through a tough period in my life. I was depressed, knowing that I needed to leave my marriage but not sure how to. Fearful of what others might think, ashamed of the thought of “breaking up” my family, and anxious about walking the unknown road ahead of me. One day we took the students on a field trip that included hiking up a mountain. I saw this as a representation of my life, and so I went. However, at the time I didn’t understand how I got back down the mountain that day would have the greatest impact on my life. Abseiling down a mountain in South Africa taught me that when going through the hardest or most painful things in life, it's best to lean in.
We are often taught to disconnect from our feelings, repress our emotions, or to simply "get over it" when going through things that have deeply hurt us or make us uncomfortable. But leaning into pain and allowing yourself to feel is a blessing, and the first step towards healing.
I'm terrified of mountains...terrified, but when ever I travel I somehow find myself voluntarily signed up for some excursion where I find myself atop a mountain. As I'm hiking I have a bit of self talk in my head and it goes a little something like this:
Ama...you're crazy, what are you doing? Do you want to die? I'll never do this AGAIN!!!
Then I reach the top and I have a very short lived moment of victory before the inevitable thought enters my mind: how are you getting down? And that is what terrifies me most: getting down. When abseiling, the only way to get down a mountain is to actually lean back, as if you are falling off the side, and propel yourself down.
This is counterintuitive because when you think of falling off of a mountain, your natural instinct is to grab on to anything to keep you from falling, avoiding potential pain, and certain death. This is what we do when we have to get through painful and uncomfortable situations in our lives...we grab on--to people, to relationships jobs or career choices--all to keep us from falling or distract ourselves from feeling the pain of loss, betrayal, anxiety and fear.
I remember climbing to the top of that cliff and telling myself that I couldn't do it, and the closer I got to the edge I felt as if my life would be over. As they strapped my equipment on I remember thinking of every excuse I could come up with so that they would let me out of that contraption, but I knew that if I didn't go down the side of that mountain I wouldn't respect myself, because fear was the only thing holding me back. I knew the equipment was safe, I knew these were highly trained professionals, I knew I would be alright, but the truth was that I was scared of the "what if". However, when we allow the fear of "what if" to govern our lives, we cannot and will not live a truly authentic life.
Dealing with our pain seems just as counterintuitive and counterproductive as propelling yourself off the side of a mountain. Confronting childhood trauma, examining the hurt of failed relationships, and holding ourselves accountable for choices that contributed to our unhappiness is an undertaking. Understanding the pathology that has us locked into a pattern of behavior that causes us to attract and recreate the same toxic relationships because of our "default"setting; a setting that was programmed since childhood, takes a lot. Dealing with these things will bring up feelings of sadness, anger, confusion and loss...and that's totally natural. But we have to sit in those feelings and allow ourselves to "feel" and acknowledge them, in order to sort them out and begin to heal. I am a huge advocate for journaling and therapy. Seeking the counsel and guidance from a trained professional is invaluable during this time. This is also the time you want to go through this process with support from people you respect, trust, and consider "safe" while you are in such a vulnerable state.
I remember climbing down a mountain in China, and I was so scared. I was crying, I remember my heart beating out of my chest, and I remember thinking that I would not live to make it to the bottom. Everyone else was seemingly flying past me and making it down the mountain in their own way. Slow and steady I kept at, and as the tears dried up on my face, I got into a rhythm and I made it down. I was covered in sweat, dirt, and tears; I was filthy but I made it. That's what happens in life, you'll get down the mountain sometimes bruised, scraped up, and covered in dirt but you'll make it past the pain. It's also important that when you see the people around you seemingly easing down their "mountain"; that you're not distracted. That you use that as motivation, and not to discourage you. Because you're not other people, you are uniquely you. So instead of looking at what others are doing, measuring yourself up to that standard, judging yourself and your process; look at what other people are doing as the motivation you need to continue your journey, lean in, and eventually make it down your own mountain.
When I come to think of it, mountains have played a tremendous role in my life. Every time I think I can't do this, or I will die, I dig deep and make it down the mountain. You've also done this before. You've faced some things that seemed insurmountable, but you overcame it, and it’s a reminder that you can make it through the pain of your process. It's important to give your spirit credit for being capable. Your spirit is strong and resilient enough to confront pain, and overcome it when it's given the support and tools to do so. Give yourself the love and support to make it past difficult places in your life. Then give yourself the credit to acknowledge when you've made it down your mountain...and be proud of yourself. Leaning into the pain of your past is one of the most courageous things you can do for yourself, and your spirit will thank you for taking the time to do the work in order to heal.