Learning to pause when it matters most



In the previous posts, I’ve discussed overexpectation and overgeneralization as cues to stop thinking and start feeling. The last cue I’ll be discussing (for now) is overreaction. I’ve saved this cue for last, as it is the trickiest. It is a broad subject. You could even say that overexpectation and overgeneralization are forms of overreaction.

An overreaction is any sudden compulsive reaction that is out of proportion to what just happened. What makes this difficult to selfdiagnose is that you don’t recognize your  overreaction as out of porportion or illogical. To you, it is not only normal, it is completely logically and any other reaction would be viewed as abnormal.
One moment nothing is the matter, the next you’re livid, blaming others, bursting with tears, victimizing yourself, unable to speak, experiencing a social freeze, hitting the bottom of a tub of Ben & Jerry’s or the limit on your credit card, finishing the fifth cigarette in five minutes or your third glass of scotch. You may also experience instant tiredness, the need to watch the complete Downton Abbey series or you read two romance novels in a row, like I did recently.

An overreaction is usually caused by a situation in which we unconsciously stumble upon an old unresolved pain. Because we have learned to fear pain, our first reaction is to make it go away, to do anything to not feel it. Although our reaction is an overreaction in response to what just happened, it is always proportional to the pain we are trying to avoid. Your overreaction gives a temporary relief. After the relief usually come feelings of guilt, and these are often coped with through rationalization and justification.
By overreacting, we numb our feelings. Your logical reaction may be, ‘But when I’m angry or sad, I am not suppressing my feelings, that’s stupid.’ And up to a point you’re right, yet what I’m suggesting is that those feelings are a diversion. For years, my primary reaction was sadness. It was the tip of the iceberg, I was ignoring what is under the water. And I have learned that this is part of our development. Everyone has icebergs, we have to learn  to see what is under water.

Sometime ago, someone shared her pain with me. When she left, I felt sad and unable to concentrate on my work. The next day, I was still feeling sad and unable to concentrate and I had a deep need to just do nothing. I felt like sleeping. Instead, I went for a walk. And instead of going to the park, as I planned, I walked to the mall and bought a double romance novel, headed home, made a cup of tea and started reading. I intended to read just one and then start working. When I finished the first one, I had figured out that I had stumbled upon unresolved pain. Years ago, I made a row of bad decisions and caused pain in others. Eventhough, I had forgiven myself for the bad decisions, I had not forgiven myself for the hurt I had caused. Instead, I had rationalized and justified it. Now, the guilt emerged to be dealt with. I wasn’t ready to deal with it and read the second romance novel, in order not  to feel all the pain I had been feeling all these years ago.

I’ve been practicing to recognize overreaction in myself for almost 15 years now, and still the need to numb the pain can be so strong that I do not (want to) recognize it. I’m not a particular fan of pain. Like most of us, I’d rather avoid it. What I have learned however is that beyond the pain is the absence of pain, which can only be described as exhilarating. Even though I have never skydived, I imagine it is somewhat alike. Before you, jump, you feel resistance to get out of the plane, because you don’t know what will happen. What if your parachute won’t open and you will die. When you jump you don’t feel well either. You’re experiencing massive turbulence, you feel immense fear. After a while, you realize there is nothing you can do about that, you relax and you start to ease into the uneasiness. The fear subsides and you allow yourself to free fall, you are able to look around and see the landscape beneath you with clarity. And just when you think about opening your parachute, you stop falling  and you glide through the air. And you remember you were tandem skydiving all along. Having landed safely, you want to do it again, because there is no better feeling. You feel exhilarated.

To be able to let go of unresolved pain, you first have to learn to recognize the behavioral pattern that you use to numb the pain, you may have several. Once you how you numb yourself, you try to bring awareness to it. You could do that by stopping dead in your tracks, but I don’t recommend that. There is a good reason why you’re numbing the pain. I don’t want to force you to feel pain when you’re not ready to, that could cause an even deeper trauma. You, only you, know when you are ready enough. Instead, lean into it, bring awareness to what you’re doing. When you’re emptying that tub of Ben and Jerry’s, know that it is not the icecream that you’re craving. Try to taste each individual scoop of Chocolate Fudge Brownie. Eat it slower than you normally would and allow yourself to feel what comes up. Then lean back, let the pain pass. The pain your feeling feels as real as it felt when you first experienced it, but it isn’t happing now. Be curious. Be kind. Don’t blame your younger self and don’t victimize your present self. Simply allow it to pass through you.  You don’t need to analyze, that is just another form of numbing, all you need to do is feel the pain and be compassionate with yourself. If you have difficulty feeling compassion for yourself, imagine yourself at the age the pain was created, as a kid, or as a baby. If that is too difficult imagine something you can feel love toward, even if it is your cat, a puppy or your favorite bearded dragon, feel the pain while feeling kindness.

I can tell you this, you will never be completely ready, there will always be a part of you that will want to run in the other direction. These are the moments when you rely on the vision that is growing in your heart, and you jump even if you fear that your parachute won’t open. This isn’t a quick fix, you may not feel better after you have brought awareness to it and you may need to do it again and again. Letting go of unresolved pain is an act of courage. And everyone who is willing to go through the pain is a hero in my book.
What I know for sure is that you are carried by a force greater than you. You will find support in the unlikeliest of places and you will land safely. With every ounce of pain gone, you will feel incrementally lighter and you will take quantum leaps in the direction of all that you can be.


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