Diving deeper into the ways we protect ourselves from the painful moments we experience.
Have you every felt anxious to give a presentation? Have your thoughts ever spiralled out of control after a break up? Have you ever been in a tough situation with a friend and felt your face get hot or your palms get sweaty? Have you ever wondered why it feels like your body is betraying you?
The truth is, we have all had similar experiences and your body is not betraying you. Our bodies are not betraying us. This is our body’s alarm system preparing us for a perceived threat or danger. This is how our bodies keep themselves safe. What’s also universally true is that this is not a comfortable process. Our bodies are literally programmed to avoid feelings of pain and discomfort for survival. Since threats to our survival are constantly evolving, our bodies are always undergoing changes and finding new ways to cope with tough times using old roadmaps. This is why we have a hard time coping with today’s life challenges - our bodies are responding to outdated threats. It’s no shock, then, that new experiences bring about new challenges which bring about new body responses and thoughts.
This is how your body keeps itself safe.
Since we know how painful these experiences can be, we have a tendency to save people from their painful emotions and feelings. We save ourselves from our own painful ones too. In a sense, we put on our emotional armour to keep us safe as we’re undergoing the battles of everyday life. Here’s how we protect ourselves from the painful moments we experience:
- We avoid. We run away from the hard times instead of braving through the storms of our past, present, and future.
- We escape. When things get too hard, we seek safety in the familiar and do not lean into the discomfort of the uncomfortable.
- We fight. We displace our pain onto others by using violence as a tool to gain control.
- We object. Instead of choosing compassion and understanding, we reject the unfamiliar and we distance ourselves from the experience of pain or discomfort.
- We blame. We displace our hard feelings onto others so we don’t have to endure the pain of facing ourselves.
- We numb. We use substances (food, alcohol, drugs) and technology (netflix, movies, social media) to avoid pain and discomfort.
- We freeze. Using the past as a historical roadmap, our bodies make every attempt to protect us from perceived fear, pain and harm by making statues out of our experience.
- We individualize. We think we’re the only one going through hard times and we’re the only one that has experienced these feelings before.
- We carry. To save face with our loved ones and avoid dealing with conflict, we relentlessly hold other people’s pain and discomfort for them.
- We recoil. Conversations about privilege and unearned advantages make many folks uncomfortable so in attempt to avoid shame or guilt, we pull back and refuse to show up.
- We disengage. Instead of having tough conversations, we cut out friends and community members.
- We disconnect. We isolate ourselves even though we know that healing comes in the presence of connection with others.
- We harbour. We resent ourselves and others for the inability to confront the hard feelings head on.
- We apologize. Instead of thanking them, we say sorry to the people who always support us and the story we tell ourselves is that we should be ashamed for how we show up.
- We justify. We make excuses for people’s toxic behaviour and end up tolerating unhealthy relationships instead of burying them.
- We forget. In all of this, we forget about the ways in which our present and historical feelings are shaped by how our ancestors dealt with their pain and trauma. We forget that many structures and institutions were built by and for a select group of like-minded people. We forget that it is not just an individual responsibility to alleviate our own pain and suffering but rather our collective responsibility to each other.
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In order to truly liberate ourselves from the idea that it is our responsibility to alleviate our own pain and suffering, we must also be open to the re-imagination of the ways we understand the community crucible under which our emotions and feelings were born. If we look at our feelings as a by-product of a puzzle we don’t fit into then we can find new ways of understanding ourselves and the world around us.
Under our current mental health systems, emotions and feelings are described with diagnoses and prescribed with medications. What if there are other ways to understand mental health as it relates to brain chemistry and the ways trauma, attachment, and emotional intelligence show up for us both individually and collectively? What if mental health challenges are not an illness, but rather emotionally-driven responses to previously experienced traumatic events or as a result of unmet attachment needs from childhood? What if depression and anxiety are not illnesses, but rather a commonly held bodily response to the trauma experienced within our communities which are marked by racism, homophobia, ableism and other systems which maltreat us? What if all of those experiences show up differently for everyone which explains the variation in one’s mental health lived experience and their symptomology?
While I have many questions, I do know one thing to be true. In order to be truly liberated from violently and inequitably painful experiences, we have to stop asking “what is wrong with us?” and start asking “what happened, or is happening, to us?” We must be willing to accept that pain is an inevitable part of life and we have to experience the hard times in order to fully appreciate the good. We must also continue to resist and protest the types of pain and violence we cannot accept as inevitable.
We have to stop asking “what is wrong with us?” and start asking “what happened, or is happening, to us?”
The diversity in our lived experiences means that we all have different relationships with this content and in that sense, the emotional armour someone wears each day can change. What remains constant is that our bodies will continue to keep us safe which means it’s incredibly important to explore how your body responds to painful experiences. So the question becomes: which painful experiences are you willing to take off the armour for?