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Hiding the Pain

Chances are you know what shadow work is because you’ve probably done some of it at some point in your own healing journey.

Shadow work to me, is a little like double dog daring yourself to go check out all this seemingly hidden pain you’ve been avoiding. Do I really want to see what’s in the back of this closet? Maybe. Maybe not. But either way, I’m going in!

What do you actually find back there when you go digging? Nothing new really. You find that old pair of slippers that are beyond the point of repair, but you were so attached to them that you couldn’t bear to throw them out, so you put them in the closet instead.

You find that ugly sweater Grandma gave you. You just hoped she wouldn’t notice if you never wore it. Much like the slippers, you didn’t have the heart to give it away, so you tucked it in the back of the closet with your slippers.

Neither of those things are new to you. You knew about them. You knew you put them there on purpose. But there is something about the idea of going digging back there that scares you, even though you were the one that put everything there. What are you afraid of?

The unknown. The invisible. The unseen.

Nobody else can put stuff in your closet of shadows. It’s not like your older siblings can hide plastic snakes in there for you to find later. It doesn’t work like that.

What happens is that we make up a story that our old pain will somehow morph into some big, new pain that we can’t handle. It’s like it’s going to multiply and turn into demons we don’t have the ability to control. Your pain doesn’t have hidden babies. You know about everything that’s in there. It didn’t multiply when you left it there and forgot about it for 20 years. It just didn’t.

What might happen when you examine these old treasures, is that they will give you some new insight. You might spot something you missed, but it won’t be anything new. New insight is just a fresh take on an old experience. Yes, sometimes those ideas offer you a little bit of pain because they trigger something, but that’s nothing to be afraid of. It’s not new.

What you’ll find is that it will be more like going into the closet, looking around, and finding that old straw hat you forgot you had. How many of you have ever put something put something away and then forgot you had it for 20 years, until you cleaned out that closet? It happens to all of us.

Much like a fresh take on an old experience, finding something you forgot you had doesn’t make that item new to you. It’s just offering you a different set of memories, some new ideas, and maybe some old pain you forgot you felt.

When you try to figure out why that stuff is in the closet, more than likely it’s one of two things: you either couldn’t deal with it at the time so you just stuffed it in a corner or it had some sentimental value to you so you kept it around. It’s a keepsake with pain attached to it.

My question to you is – why do you hang onto things that are painful? Or maybe better yet – why are you afraid to let go of the pain?

When you go digging in that closet what are you more afraid of? What you’re going to find or what you’re going to have to get rid of?

I’ve talked plenty of times about our identification with pain. It becomes who we are. Getting rid of something you identify with is hard to do because it changes your identity. That creates an unknown. Who will I be without the pain?

When the mind finds an unknown it fills in the blank, often with pain. Why? Because the mind’s strategy is to protect you. If that means it has to scare you off of certain things by offering you pain, then it will do that. The mind isn’t do anything wrong. This is its preferred strategy. What we want to do is offer the mind different strategies that aren’t so much of a problem to us.

The new strategy is to stop questioning the unknown. Questioning the unknown creates an argument that you can’t win. It makes you defend staying where you are out of a need to protect yourself. What are you protecting yourself from? Your own stuff: old worn out slippers, an ugly sweater, and a straw hat. Do you really need full body armor for that? Probably not but you still tell yourself that you do.

The unknown is the shadow. The shadow is where the work is. The shadow is only unknown to you because you forgot what you put there, not because there are a bunch of new things to find. When you can stop telling the story that makes you defend staying put, you’ll be able to do the shadow work more easily. It doesn’t have to be scary, but you certainly can make it that way if you tell a good enough story.

The shadow is mostly pain we’ve hidden from ourselves. But there’s another kind of pain – the pain we hide from other people.

My powerlessness made me quite defensive. Those defenses caused me to keep most of my feelings to myself. I very rarely shared how I felt with anyone because I was always afraid of what they would think or that my feelings wouldn’t be accepted.

I remember being at my stillborn son’s funeral almost 30 years ago. I was crying, something I never did in public. I had a few friends at the funeral that day, that literally had no idea what to do to help me. They were so confused by me being in pain that I overheard them talking to each other saying “what do I do?”.

I hid my feelings so well for so many years that people seemed to forget I was human. On the very rare occasions when I did show emotion, even appropriate emotion like crying at a funeral, it was overwhelming to other people because they had no idea how to support me because they had never had to before.

Hiding our pain is a self-protection mechanism. We feel like people won’t accept how we feel or tell us that how we feel is wrong.

First and foremost, nobody’s feelings are wrong. You’re allowed to feel how you feel. What people are usually objecting to is how you display those feelings.

Sometimes we display feelings appropriately and it still triggers other people. It’s in these situations that we just have to recognize that some people don’t like emotion so much that they don’t even want to see it in other people. This causes them to be triggered by anybody with any emotion they don’t like. Obviously, once we take responsibility for ourselves and we’re displaying emotion appropriately, if the other person doesn’t like it, that’s their stuff.

First you have to recognize what’s yours and what’s not. How much of what is happening is under your control?

Your point of control is within you. You only have control over how you express what you’re feeling – that’s your stuff. You cannot control how other people react to that because that’s their stuff.

So if you go around like a crazy person blasting your pain out of a fire hose at anybody within a 10 foot radius, you’re asking for trouble to some degree. You’re going to get pain back and it’s probably not going to go well.

What do I mean by that?

Owning your feelings means you’re not blaming anyone or anything for them. The feelings are yours. It doesn’t matter what the external trigger was. So when you stop pinning your feelings on the people around you and you simply offer how you feel without any stories of blame, people are less likely to be bothered by it.

What happens when you blame others for how you feel, is that they defend themselves because you’re blaming them. So they get defensive about it. If you weren’t blaming them, they wouldn’t need to be defensive and you’d probably get a different response.

The story of blame that you’re telling is affecting the response of the other person. But the story of blame is under your control. You don’t have to tell it. If you don’t tell it, then the other person has an opportunity to react differently.

If you defend the story of blame by telling me it’s the truth, I’m going to tell you that the story of blame is not true. It’s made up in your head to justify how you feel so that you can avoid taking responsibility for yourself and your own triggers.

The other person says something dumb and you blame them for what they said. Your emotions are your reaction to what the other person said. The other has no control over your reaction. The reaction was yours. They didn’t tell you to react that way, you chose to react that way.

Now what do you want to tell me? They need to control what they say so I don’t have to control how I react. They aren’t allowed to say that. I don’t have to put up with that. Ego much?

Why do we always seem to want to reach for controlling the external world instead of ourselves? Why do we think that’s easier?

All this stuff is a story. You’re victimizing yourself. You’re blaming the other person. You’re defending your own trigger. You’re also trying to control other people. You’ve got a lot going on. You’re doing everything but what needs to be done which is to manage yourself within the experience, instead of trying to control the experience.

All this happens a few times and then what happens? You hide how you feel because people don’t react right. That story makes people react badly to you because you’re not taking control of how you show up when your emotions are in play. You’re creating your own reality right now, and not in a good way.

By controlling yourself within the experience, you have the ability to affect the reactions of others. If they don’t feel triggered by you, if they don’t feel blamed by you, if they don’t feel controlled by you, and if they don’t feel victimized by you because you’re managing what you’re putting out in the world, then their reaction will change.

You can express how you feel without projecting how you feel. You can express how you feel without any of the stories of blame, shame, guilt, or victimization. You can express how you feel and take responsibility for it at the same time. You can express how you feel and still keep yourself under control. You don’t need to be a maniac.

Whether you’re sharing some pain and waiting for a reaction from somebody else or whether you’re the one reacting, you’re always in control of yourself. Your job is to manage yourself at all times. You don’t need to get sucked into any drama. You also don’t need to hide your pain when you learn to express it appropriately.

The reason you feel like you need to hide how you feel is because you’ve thrown it around before and it made people react badly to you. You created a reality in which your feelings were not accepted. It was totally based on how and why you were putting your feelings out in the world.

Why don’t they have to control themselves?

Well they should be, but we can’t make them. So we have to accept that they don’t have control over themselves yet. That’s okay. Leave them where they are. Let them be. That shouldn’t prohibit you from taking responsibility for yourself anyway. Don’t become a toddler that only does things if other people do them too. That’s ego and it won’t help you here.

Don’t you dare take out that invisible hammer and start beating on yourself.

Everybody does this at one point or another. It’s a normal, human thing. It doesn’t make you a bad person. it doesn’t make you less than others. It doesn’t make you not good enough.

It makes you human.

Being human is exactly what you’re supposed to be.

When I talk about this stuff it can sometimes sound like you’re supposed to be perfect at it. The truth is you’re not going to be perfect at it ever, no matter how good you get at it. You will have moments.

Do you know to take responsibility for those moments?

You own them by holding yourself accountable, going back and apologizing for crappy behavior, and re-having the conversation if you need to. Hold your own feet to the fire without the free hammer to beat on yourself with.

You do the best you can and when the best you can do sucks you apologize for the suck and do better next time. That’s it.

You learn to hide your feelings because your feelings aren’t accepted by other people. I get this story because it’s one I told myself.

Do you know what my fix was?

Understanding how to put my feelings out in the world appropriately and then letting go of control of the reaction of others.

Is that a perfect system?

Of course not. I’m human too.

I just don’t carry around a free hammer. So I take responsibility for my crappy behavior when it happens and self-correct as needed.

As it turns out, holding my own feet to the fire like that shifts my behavior rather quickly, long term. Why? Because I’m not a fan of going back and apologizing all the time. Accountability works.

You can change your reality, by changing what you do with emotion, both the ones you put away for later and the ones you want to express to the world, but aren’t sure what will happen if you do.

Self-awareness plays a role in your ability to show up in the world authentically – emotions and all. Why? Because it helps make sure that you’re taking control over the only thing you have control over – yourself.

That’s all you can ever do. Learn to manage yourself in the experience, stop telling the stories, and stop trying to control the outside world.

It takes practice, but it works.

Love to all.



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