A month ago in a conversation with a friend I respect and appreciate he said something that I took the wrong way at first, something that I let hurt me. We had been talking about some of the experiences I had gone through in my life and the type of pain I felt from them: the loneliness, the shame, the rejection, the hesitation and fear to be open and honest, etc. He said, "I see your pain. I see that it is very real, but Mia, your pain is not unique."
I was crushed. I stopped talking to him and couldn't think. My head pounded out the phrase, "your pain is not unique," over and over again until it morphed into, "YOU are not unique." I was crushed. I wanted to say to him, "Oh yeah?! You try being sexually abused as a kid, keeping it secret, hating yourself for it, not dating or ever having a relationship, trying to end your life and then living through the hell and embarrassment that is a psych ward and then come tell me that that pain is not unique!" Instead, I disengaged and isolated for a while, which is my MO anytime I feel hurt. Then, after the initial emotional flames had died down, I was able to think about what he could have meant and ask myself why such a simple phrase had taken such an emotional toll on me; what I feel I learned from this experience has changed me.
He was absolutely right – my pain is not unique and neither is yours.
Now, this isn't me trying to say a phrase I hate with all my heart, one that is often used when pain is expressed, the "I know how you feel" phrase. I still believe that no one can truly and fully know another's pain because every individual who has lived or ever will live is unique; what I'm wanting to talk about is the understanding that everyone does have pain and even though it's different, it's still at it's core, pain. If one can acknowledge that then one can begin to let others who have experienced pain, whatever the pain may be, sit with them in the hard moments.
In recent years, I feel there has been a surge in people seeking to differentiate their pain: the ALS ice bucket challenge, mental health awareness campaigns, child abuse awareness, walks for diabetes, lupus, cancer, and many other campaigns for the various sufferings or hardships that happen in the world. I feel that it's actually a great thing and that they've started with great purposes – to educate, to bring light to experiences physically and mentally that have been previously ignored. When it is used for that purpose I feel it is powerful. However, this same trend of differentiating pain has also been used to denounce the validity of other painful experiences and has turned into what some have called the "Olympics of suffering." It's as if some are seeking to create a hierarchy of pain with their particular ailment of course being top of the list. There will never be a hierarchy sufficient enough to please everyone and there shouldn't be, it's too subjective an endeavor.
I can honestly say I've been there before. My pain was so tied to my identity that if it was compared against that of others and found equal or wanting then it would mean I was nothing. I would dissolve into the sea of other people's pain and not be able to come back together again as a person. I've learned over the last few years that my inability to allow another's painful story to be told without me wanting to follow it up with my own pain was due to my own insecurity about who I was and if my pain wasn't seen then I wasn't either; and feeling unseen is such a horrifically awful feeling. Being able to allow another to tell their story and really hear it without seeking to input my own has lead to an increase in empathy for others and also a certain type of healing for myself.
I know that pain not being unique is a seemingly harsh statement but let me explain what I mean. Pain is described in the dictionary as: "1) the physical feeling caused by disease, injury, or something that hurts the body 2) acute mental or emotional distress or suffering 3) someone or something that causes trouble or makes you feel annoyed or angry." At the time of our conversation, my friend was definitely the third definition of pain to me :) I was angry and annoyed . . . but, I was wrong. Lets talk about what he was really trying to teach me.
Pain, according to the above definitions, is universal. The process of just being alive in this world gives way to pain, whether physical, mental, or emotional. All people experience pain. I realized in the moment that he said those words to me that I needed my pain to be unique – I was holding onto my pain for dear life; it defined me, it was me. What did I have if I didn't have my pain? Twenty years of silence about deep-seated pain and believing myself to be separate from other people (and not separate in a good way but in a less than others way) takes its toll. I was holding onto pain and the crushed feeling came because I wasn't ready to let it go.
In some weird way my pain had comforted me, in my mind I knew who I was - I was the words others had called me, and the bad that had been done to me. I had not allowed others to be aware of what was happening inside my mind and heart and as such, letting go of pain meant a collapsing of all that I thought I was. It was as if, with his words, he had come knocking at the door of my mind and behind that door on rows and rows of shelves sat my pain, my unique pain – categorized and alphabetized (because lets be real – I'm a little OCD) … abused, ashamed, alone, bitter, bullied, depressed, embarrassed, rejected, shamed (in there twice for good measure :) ), victimized, etc. . . . There wasn’t room for anything else. His knocking made me take inventory and believe that if I let all the pain go I would be left with nothing. But that is not true, that is a lie. It is a lie that my pain is telling me because it doesn't want to get kicked out.
What happens when one finally begins to let go of the pain is freedom. Now, I'm not going to tell you I've become pain free, that I've opened up all the pain jars in my mind and threw them away, but what I will tell you is I'm beginning to. I'm allowing myself the chance to imagine what I could be if I freed up some space in my heart and mind for other things. I'm beginning to see that merely the acknowledgment of my pain not being unique is opening doors for me to be comforted and helped. I am slowly letting the words of other people penetrate because I no longer believe us to be on different playing fields. Their words of comfort aren't bouncing back off of the phrase, "Well, you just don't get it, you don't know my pain."
I'm beginning to imagine and experience what it looks like to live in a present moment – to not be haunted by the past or worried about the future. I'm beginning to understand that not only is our pain impermanent but so is our joy . . . nothing last forever, life is constantly changing. I can no more hold onto the joyful moments of life than I can push away pain when it comes. I believe it is in the seeking to cling to the joy and not let go, while also pushing away any ounce of pain that comes, where the real damage and unhappiness occurs. Acceptance of the impermanence of life is what has started to bring me peace . . . In my moments of pain and agony I am trying to say to myself, "this won't last forever, " and the quicker I realize that it doesn't the easier it becomes to stand the pain; likewise, in my moments of happiness and joy I am learning to say, "This won't stay forever so savor it, live IN it," and the more I do that the more joy I feel. I used to turn happy and good moments into pain because I would realize they couldn't last forever and my inability to accept that would cause me to miss living in the good, in the happiness.
So . . . what pain are you holding onto? What could you begin to imagine for yourself if you freed up the space that pain and an unwillingness to accept the impermanence of life takes up in your mind and heart? What comfort could come to you if you began to accept that pain is universal and an acceptance of it not being unique to you doesn't mean at all that you are not unique because you are not your pain? These are only some of the questions I am beginning to ask myself, why don't you join me . . .
Your pain is not unique, YOU are unique and you are NOT your pain . . .