The most important—and most difficult—task of a psychotherapist is to persuade the client of the value of their pain. If this isn’t accomplished, the psychotherapy will be a Band-Aid—it will either fail or it will last forever.
But how do you convince someone to enter into the pain?
I think we must experience the pain in a new way, as tolerable and temporary and, ultimately, life-giving.
Last week, my eight-year-old son pulled a 32-inch LCD television down on his leg. The stand scraped along his ankle, pulling off a layer of flesh about four inches long. It was gruesome.
But the prospect of taking his first shower after the injury was even more gruesome.
As the hot water began to washer over the wound, he cried out in agony. And I asked him to trust me. I asked him to do four things:
- First, begin breathing slowly and deeply (by deep, I don’t mean big—I mean taking a normal amount of air deep into your lungs…it will feel like your stomach is filling with air).
- Now, start taking the air in through your nose, and slowly begin breathing it out through your mouth (pretend your blowing off soup on a spoon). Pay attention to the breath.
- When you have developed a rhythm, on your next breath, focus on your pain, feel it fully, and imagine breathing the air directly into your painful ankle, filling the pain with your breath.
- Then, imagine slowly blowing the pain out through your mouth.
- Finally, continue doing this until you are completely comfortable feeling the pain.
At first, Aidan refused. The idea of focusing on his pain seemed crazy. But he finally agreed, and after several iterations, breathing into the pain and then blowing it out, he visibly relaxed. He opened his eyes, smiled, and said, “Hey, it worked.”
Aidan’s pain had not changed, but he had discovered he could approach it, walk through it, and he didn’t need to be afraid of it anymore.
We can approach our psychological pain in the same way. When it’s expressed through a headache, or a weight on our chest, or muscle pain, or stomach cramps, we can approach the pain, breathe into it, and learn that our pain is something we live through, not something to avoid. We can even learn to approach our more abstract thoughts and feelings in this way.
If we can do this, we might just end up free to live our lives outside the captivity of our pain.
Tuesday Tip Disclaimer: The Tuesday Tip is not professional advice. It should be read as you would read a “self-help” book. For professional and customized advice, you should seek the services of a counselor, who can become more intimately familiar with your specific situation. Counselors can be located through your insurance network or through your state psychological association website.
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