“Do not say that you do not want to know anything about pain or about suffering, that you only want to know about happiness—that would be an impossible thing. We know well that suffering helps us to understand, that it nurtures our compassion, and that for this reason it is vitally necessary for us. So we must know how to learn from suffering, we must know how to make use of it to gather the energy of compassion, of love, of understanding.”
“I just got home, and when I texted her she told me she’d call me later. What the hell? We haven’t talked all day!”
“Struggling through some hurt because she hasn’t sent a single text or picture of her party, even though I asked her to.”
“I sent her an email this morning, and it’s been an hour and she still hasn’t read it, which makes me feel like my words and thoughts don’t matter much to her.”
The words make me cringe. Actual entries from the journal I kept over the last five months of my last relationship. It’s painful to read them. Painful to see how insecure I was. How insecure, in some ways, I still am. But I’m getting better.
In childhood, due to various events and circumstances, I developed a belief that love had to be earned and could easily be lost. As a result, I have spent most of my life looking for evidence that I’m not loved. Sound crazy? It’s not. It’s a psychological principal called confirmation bias, and we all do it. Confirmation bias (which I wrote about in more detail HERE,) causes us to interpret otherwise neutral behaviors according to the beliefs we already hold (Ie: That person didn’t smile at me, she must not like me; my friend didn’t return my call, she must be mad at me; my husband came home late, he must be having an affair.)
When I learned of confirmation bias and how I was often causing my own pain and the pain of others by constantly searching for evidence of rejection, I did what I always do when confronted by a difficult truth: turned to writing. I started a journal with one goal in mind: “I will learn to love others, love myself, and beat the confirmation bias of insecurity.” In my first entry, I wrote:
“I know this wont go away unless I put the work in. There’s nothing [my partner] is going to be able to do to make it go away, because the minute she starts doing the things I think I need, there will be some new thing to make me feel this way. Because the problem isn’t her. The problem is me.”
Thich Nhat Hanh speaks of seemingly negative traits like anger, fear, and pain as the waste materials that can be formed into compost to nurture the flowers of traits like faith, hope and compassion. I determined to use my relationship to face those fears and insecurities that normally lie hidden and transform them into the very things that would nurture my soul. In an attempt to do so, I began an experiment. An experiment with love. Not romantic love, but unconditional love. An experiment in loving someone exactly where they are without attempting to change them.
For the next five months, rather than talk to my partner about my fears and insecurities, I allowed my heart to hurt if she said or did things that caused pain or discomfort. For five months, I allowed my heart to be trampled by someone I trusted DID NOT intend to trample it, for the purpose of learning radical love and acceptance, and to cultivate my own sense of security. For five months, I used my journal as a dumping ground and recorded every negative thought and emotion, every hurt received, every hurt inflicted, every mistake made, and every victory won. I read books on love, compassion, and meditation. I learned to pay attention to how I was feeling and the things that triggered those feelings. I learned how to sit with my pain instead of attempting to fix or rid myself of it.
A funny thing happened during that time. The more I wrote in my journal and the longer I sat with my pain, the less I had to write about and the less things began to hurt. I discovered that all emotions are part of what is called “The Learning Circle.” Bear with me for a moment while I explain:
The learning circle is made up of one large circle with two inner circles, like a bulls-eye, in which all knowledge resides: the comfort zone, the learning/fear zone, and the panic zone. In the comfort zone are those things we already know how to do and don’t need to think about (for an average high-schooler, this would include things like simple addition.) In the learning/fear zone we find the things we don’t yet know that stretch our capabilities but are possible with hard work and practice (multiplication.) In the outer circle, the panic zone, we find things so far outside our capabilities they can cause panic (advanced algebra.) These are things that are not (yet) possible for us to learn, but as we develop new skills, things move from one zone to another. For instance, as multiplication moves into the comfort zone, advanced algebra moves into the learning zone, and eventually it, too, will move into the comfort zone as we take the steps necessary to learn. (For a more detailed explanation, click HERE.)
The interesting thing I learned during this time was that rather than doing things to overcome my insecurities (as you would when learning multiplication, for instance,) my feelings of abandonment, unworthiness, being unloved, etc. were best healed by doing nothing. Rather than try to fix these feelings, or get rid of them, I discovered that the simple act of paying attention carried a mysterious healing power that not only soothed me in the moment, but also began to transfer things from one circle to the next. Events that once caused pain (she hasn’t called in three hours!) eventually stopped hurting, and things that once sent me into full-fledged panic simply caused pain.
I also learned that just as you can “blank out” on something you know when facing an extremely important test, things could jump from one category to another when life was a bit more stressful than usual or my routine changed a bit. It soon stopped bothering me if my partner didn’t respond to a text right away, but if I was feeling especially sensitive or if we’d recently had an argument, those actions could once again cause pain or panic.
I learned to be gentle with myself. I learned to allow the feelings to come rather than fight them. I learned to write and pay attention to what I was feeling instead of trying to “fix” it, and I learned that writing and paying attention often did fix it. I remember one moment, in particular, which was especially bad and found me standing in the shower, sobbing, knowing that this time it was all too much—all too big, all too painful for me to ignore. I just knew I would have to confront my partner about this. She wasn’t yet available to talk, so I did what I had trained myself to do. I paid attention to all I was feeling. Paid attention to the way this pain manifest itself in my body. Examined every single thing I felt—how my heart raced, how my hands shook, how the tears felt rolling down my face. I listened to the thoughts running through my head without judging them or participating in the “conversation” my mind was having about it all. And, much to my amazement, the feelings began to subside. By the time I left the shower, the pain had gone. I never spoke to her about it. I didn’t need to.**
Over time, my already wonderful relationship got even better. More understanding. More loving. Until one day, we were having a conversation and I mentioned, for the first time, that I’d been making efforts to work through my insecurities “for a few months.”
“It’s been about six,” she interrupted.
“It’s been about six months.”
Stunned, I asked her how she knew, and she told me I had changed during that time. Become more “mellow.” That our relationship had gotten better.
I looked up the date in my journal.
It had been exactly 5 months.
Today, I find myself struggling with insecurity much less often. I don’t worry when someone doesn’t call back right away, don’t assume it’s because they don’t care, don’t ask myself 3,587 questions trying to figure out what I might have done to make them angry. And when I do struggle with insecurity? I find myself a comfy spot to sit and hang out with those feelings until time and attention bring relief. Sometimes, I have to repeat the process throughout the day, but the more often I engage in this practice, the easier it becomes. I am loving others better. I am loving myself better. I am learning.
“What if pain—like love—is just a place brave people visit? What if both require presence, staying on your mat, and being still? If this is true, then maybe instead of resisting the pain, I need to resist the easy buttons. Maybe my reliance on numbing is keeping me from the two things I was born for: learning and loving. I could go on hitting easy buttons until I die and feel no pain, but the cost of that decision could be that I’ll never learn, love, or be truly alive.”
*Unfortunately, I cannot remember where I read this. My apologies to the author.
**I never spoke with her about it, that day. We did eventually talk about what had happened, months later, as part of a larger conversation. But by that time, the pain was no longer there in the same overwhelming way, and we were able to communicate from a place of healing, rather than hurt.