Life Pain or Traumatic Pain
Rabbi Dov Heller, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist
Previously, I discussed the importance of listening to one’s feelings. Feelings educate us. They provide us with information that we must access and process if we want to maximize our self-development. They lead us down pathways to self-discovery.
I also pointed out that troubling feelings such as sadness, loneliness, shame, and anger contain the greatest potential for teaching us important lessons about ourselves and our lives. At the same time, since people tend to avoid pain, we may consciously or unconsciously avoid, dismiss, or ignore our feelings. When we do so, it is like failing to open an email marked, “Open immediately!” It takes courage, strength, and integrity to face the truth encoded in our feelings.
There are two types of emotional pain: life pain and traumatic pain. The practical difference between them is that life pain can often be understood and managed through self-reflection, with the help of a friend, or by employing practical wisdom or spirituality. Traumatic pain almost always requires the help of a trained professional and cannot be treated with common sense advice or spirituality. Life pain is conscious and tolerable. I define trauma as unbearable emotional pain. Traumatic pain is so unbearable, it needs to be pushed out of one’s conscious awareness. People who suffer from traumatic pain tend to feel more dead than alive. They survive, but they do not thrive.
Let me illustrate the difference. David’s girlfriend forgot his birthday. He feels disappointed. He calls her the next day to tell her how he feels. She apologizes and asks if there is some way she can make it up to him. He tells her, “Yes. Take me out for ice cream tonight!” There is no serious rupture in their relationship. Life goes on because David’s pain was tolerable, and he was able to process it on his own.
Sammy’s girlfriend also forgot his birthday. Sammy feels enraged. When he calls her, he reads her the riot act, telling her how totally insensitive, uncaring, and heartless she is. After slamming down the phone, he falls into a deep empty depression, feeling lost and confused.
David and Sammy grew up very differently. David grew up in a home with a mom and dad who were present and attentive to his emotional needs. So, when he experiences disappointments, he has the inner strength and resiliency to handle it without falling apart.
Sammy, on the other hand, grew up with a mom who was chronically depressed and unable to take care of his emotional needs for love, attention, and affection. His dad was a workaholic and was essentially absent from Sammy’s life. Sammy’s legacy of emotional deprivation was traumatizing. When Sammy’s girlfriend forgot his birthday, he was re-traumatized. Sitting alone in his apartment, he felt abandoned and alone; the same way he felt with his mother who was not able to take care of his emotional needs. His intense anger was a reaction to a pain he could not access or understand because it had been pushed out of his conscious awareness.
Trauma is timeless. Past and present blur into one agonizing, endless now. Sammy’s rage and emptiness were not caused by his girlfriend, but by his experience of emotional trauma he experienced as a child.
When Amber did not get hired for her dream job, she was devastated. She called her brother, who she turned to at times like this. He was a good listener, and he didn’t disappoint her now when she really needed him. After an hour, the sting was gone. She gave her brother a big hug. Although still feeling sad, she was able to pull herself together and start a new job search.
Brooke also did not get hired for her dream job. Not only was she devastated, she was angry at the CEO of the company. She felt rejected and devalued by him. The familiar voices of doom were screaming in her head, “You see: You’re never going to make it. You just don’t have what it takes.” Her self-worth plummeted. That night, she went to a bar and hooked up with a guy. The next morning, she experienced shame and self-disgust. She felt fragmented and hopeless.
As you can imagine, Amber and Brooke also had very different childhood experiences. Amber grew up in a loving and supportive home. Her relationship with her older brother was a special one. He was someone she could depend on when she was in pain. He provided what I call a “relational home” for her feelings. Her emotional foundation and her self-worth remained strong and solid.
Brooke, on the other hand, grew up with a father who constantly compared her to her sister, who was the star of the family. The constant criticism and shame that Brooke experienced were traumatizing. Had her mother had been able to protect her from her father, the outcome might have been different. Unfortunately, her mother was afraid of her husband and offered no protection for her daughter. Brooke was alone with her pain. There was no one there to provide a relational home for her feelings. Trauma flourishes in isolation. When the CEO didn’t hire her, she unconsciously re-experienced the same sense of rejection and worthlessness she experienced when she was being verbally assaulted by her father. The pain felt so unbearable, she was desperate to find a way to escape from it, which she found in the bar.
People who struggle with trauma often think they are coping and getting by. But those who know them understand that they are not. Usually, there are fairly clear signs that these people are wrestling with some inner demon. There may be consistent bouts of anger, depression, panic, isolation, oversensitivity, or self-medicating or self-defeating behaviors.
Hiding and pretending is a painful way to live. At the same time, facing the deep, hidden pain of trauma can also be painful. However, in the long run, facing the truth is the only answer and the only way to feel whole and truly alive.
Dov Heller is in private practice offering psychotherapy and personal mentoring for individuals and couples. He can be contacted at Dov@ClarityTalk.com. You may also visit his website at www.ClarityTalk.com