Tanya Ruckstuhl LICSW
As a trauma therapist I often feel like a dentist: it’s my job find the painful places and clean them out. It sucks to make people hurt but I have a theory about pain that helps me and hopefully, it can help you.
I separate pain into a couple categories. One is repetitive and worsening pain. This includes phobias, compulsions, and addictions. They are repetitive in that they are triggered by the same things over and over again (elevators! driving over bridges! imagining germs! walking past a bar!) and they are worsening in that they create an increasingly limited range of choice for sufferers who don’t get help. The purpose of pain in this category is actually vital and healing: it is meant to break through our barriers of denial, minimization and resistance to change and tell us THIS IS NOT OKAY. We are meant to listen to this emotional pain the way we would listen to the physical pain of a toothache. It means STOP WHAT YOU ARE DOING AND GET HELP.
The second category is transitory, productive pain. Think about a woman in labor. Think about a teething toddler. Think about a teenager applying to college. None of these scenarios are any fun. But they are necessary for what comes next: human life! Teeth! A more secure adulthood!
Changing lifelong patterns of self criticism and hyper-vigilance—patterns that were productive during childhood abuse because they mitigated some of the helplessness that all abuse victims feel—feels like a risk and even an outright lie. “If I hate myself how can I possibly treat myself kindly?”
Well, you have to change your inner self talk BEFORE your self-regard changes, because self-regard is a product of self talk. And it will make you feel uncomfortable, disingenuous, dishonest, and all manner of out of sorts when you start to change because positive self talk doesn’t feel true…yet. This is transitory, productive pain. This kind of pain doesn’t mean stop. It means GO. Transitory and productive pain is a big huge fluorescent pink arrow that points in the very direction you are going and is your body’s way of marking change.
Here is how you can tell the difference: Repetitive pain happens when you are isolating. Productive pain happens you are exposing vulnerabilities. Repetitive pain results in more of the same (misery! hating all of humanity!) and productive pain pisses off your defense mechanisms because you are doing something different and don’t know what the outcome will be.
Here’s a super-duper secret available only to you…shhhh….don’t tell anyone: no one knows what the outcome will be. Of anything. For anyone. At any time. We can hope and set an intention and make an educated assessment and run statistical analysis of likely outcomes and we can prepare…but we never really know. So our task is keep going on living and deciding and evolving while holding the weight of our powerlessness as part mystery, part magic, and part universal human challenge.