Pain and the Capacity to Love

“Our capacity for whole-heartedness can never be greater than our willingness to be broken-hearted.” -Brene Brown

I recently listened to two different NPR interview podcasts. The first was an interview of Brene Brown, who researches and writes about vulnerability. The second was a discussion with Tich Nhat Hahn, a Buddhist monk, teacher, author, and advocate for peace. Both interviews shared one common theme: that suffering is necessary for meaningful human connection. Tich Nhat Hanh said, quite plainly, “I would not want to live in a world without suffering.” Why? Because, he said, there can be no compassion without suffering.

Recently, a supervisee of mine made an astute observation. She was reflecting on the work we do as psychologists, and remarked that one thing that sucks about our shared career is that our own pain is a requirement of the work. It is impossible to help another person to heal if you have not suffered yourself.  What she meant is that we relate better to people’s pain by having felt our own.  When we can bear our own suffering, it is easier to endure another’s.

Of course, this is true outside of the consulting room as well. When I am having a hard time, it is only people who have allowed themselves to feel their pain who help me to feel better. People who know suffering, those who have not shied away from it but have let it move through them, are the ones we know we can turn to when times are tough. These brave and strong souls always have the courage to walk with us through our hardest times. You can rely on them. They know pain. They do not fear pain. They know pain is a part of life. They know pain is never permanent. They know that pain makes us stronger. And they sympathize with a strength you can trust.

As I have thought more about this, it strikes me that one of the great outcomes of our own suffering is that it builds our capacity for love.  The more difficulties we endure and overcome in our own lives, the more patient and compassionate we become with others.  Our pain helps us to relate.  This thought brings me a great peace of mind, for it means that our hardships, awful as they may be, can lead us to greater connectedness with each other.  If we do not run from our painful feelings, but instead experience them, we will help each other to heal.

This is the wise message of Brene Brown and Tich Naht Hahn.  And it is deeply true.  Don’t flee your pain.  Instead, allow yourself to feel it and to heal.  Because your healing heals us all.

© 2015 Stephanie A. Heck, Ph.D.



Ugly Feelings

Yesterday, I attended a lecture given by renowned relational psychoanalyst Jody Davies. Her talk focused on what she calls “the dark side of psychoanalysis.” In it, she made the point that therapists can only help their patients to heal when they are able to accompany them into their darkest places and resonate with their hardest feelings. And this can only happen, she said, when the therapist herself knows and accepts her own darkness; only then is she able to help her patient face and overcome his own.

While I was listening to Dr. Davies, I started to think about how this is true in all relationships (not just therapeutic ones). I wondered: what impact does it have when Person A views herself as only “nice” or “good” when she is in a relationship? What does it do to her partner, Person B, especially when they disagree or argue? From what I have seen in my life and work, Person B is left in a terrible position. When Person A denies or disavows her bad or mean parts, then Person B is stuck with all of the negativity and blame that can’t be shared between them. But, when Person A comes to accept her own negativity or destructiveness, the picture changes. Once this happens, no one is only nice, and no one is only mean. Things even out. And the relationship typically improves.

Being familiar with our darker selves unburdens our relationships and connects us more deeply to each other. For this to happen, though, we need to allow ourselves to feel tough emotions such as anger, fear, envy, greed, sadism, irritation, contempt, and disgust (to name a few). Only through experiencing and owning our so-called “ugly feelings” (Ngai, 2007) will we be able to bear and forgive them in others.  (Owning them also prevents us from acting them out destructively!)  And, what is more, experiencing and accepting our own dark ugliness makes our relationships more equal and free.

My mentor, Nancy McWilliams, frequently reminds me and her other mentees that “we all have the capacity for all of it.” What she means is that we are all capable of having any kind of feeling, be it good, bad, easy, or painful. It is this capacity that makes us human, after all. And I would argue that the more we know and accept this truth–that we all can feel all of it–the better we will get along.

©2014 Stephanie A. Heck, Ph.D.

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A Case for Curiosity: 14 Reasons to Know Yourself

Sorting through my mail today, I came across the most recent quarterly reviews of new psychoanalytically-oriented books. A particular review of Lew Aron and Karen Starr’s new book, “A Psychotherapy for the People:  Toward a Progressive Psychoanalysis” stood out (I’m a big fan of Lew Aron).

The book itself sounds great, but what really caught my eye was a line the reviewer, Carlo Strenger, wrote about why psychoanalytic therapy has lost its momentum in our culture.

“…I’m afraid that psychoanalysis is unlikely to turn into a ‘psychotherapy for the people,’ not only because most people have neither the time nor the means for psychoanalytic therapy, whether classical or more open and flexible; but because in a culture that is ever less connected to values of complexity and cultural depth, most potential patients do not have the interest in their own psyche needed for self-exploration.”  (italics added)

I am sad to report that this resonated with me. In my life and in my practice, I often feel shocked by people’s disinterest in self-exploration. It seems like these days, people are more interested in solving a problem than in knowing themselves. I have come up with many theories about why this is, but to list those seems beside the point. Instead, in an effort to revitalize interest in the process, I’d like to make a case for self-knowing.

Here are some reasons why you should get to know yourself:

1. When you know yourself, you make better choices.  You know what you want.

2. When you know yourself, you go easy on you.  You accept who you are, flaws and all.

3. When you know yourself, you treat others better. It’s easier to forgive people when you’re clear that you’re not perfect, either.

4.  When you know yourself, you have fewer psychological symptoms.  Knowing yourself, your feelings, and how you came to be who you are relieves all kinds of pain.  Trust me.  I see it every day.

5. When you know yourself, you are more confident and satisfied.  You have a solid sense of yourself.

6. When you are a parent and you know yourself, you have better relationships with your children. You are more patient.  You can more easily remember that you were once a child, too.

7. When you know yourself, you know your limits.  You’re less likely to be walked on, taken advantage of, or led astray.

8. When you know yourself, you’re less likely to repeat negative patterns from your past with others.

9. When you know yourself, you restore your own power. You get to make conscious choices about how you want to be…and how you don’t want to be.

10. When you know yourself, you don’t need to lie or to blame others. You can own your shit with humor and humility.

11. When you know yourself, you are less judgmental and more accepting of individual differences.  It’s easier to see the commonalities among us when we realize that we are equally capable of all types of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.

12.  When you know yourself, you often discover and unlock new talents.

13. When you know yourself, you love better.

14. Self-aware people make a better society.

If you haven’t gone through the process of self-exploration, you should give it a try.  Find an analyst and learn who you are.  Getting to know yourself is a rewarding process that benefits everyone.  For, as Socrates said, “the unexamined life is not worth living.”

©2014 Stephanie A. Heck, Ph.D.