Sourcing the Pain: Why We Need to Sit with the Hard Stuff

Lately it’s been hard to write. Hard to finish my grad school assignments, hard to get to my yoga mat, hard to unpack boxes, hard to get going, period. So, instead of writing, doing assignments, taking care of myself, or unpacking, I’ve been distracting myself, checking my phone more often than I should, reading about being productive instead of actually being productive—basically I’ve been avoiding what’s uncomfortable.

Avoid and numb is the name of the game in our society. We treat symptoms instead of root causes, we ingest substances instead of dealing with our emotions, we procrastinate instead of produce, we stick a screen in our face instead of coming face to face with whatever our hard shit is. But if we keep doing this, then all we will ever have is a surface-level life built on avoidance. I don’t want that, and you probably don't either.

What I’m coming to realize is that instead of focusing on making ourselves be comfortable and feel good, sometimes we need to figure out how to settle into the uncomfortable and see where it leads us.

Now, I’m all about self-care and treating ourselves well. When I say we should learn to be uncomfortable I’m not talking about staying in an unhealthy relationship, or ignoring mental/physical illness, or even just zipping up those too-tight jeans (by all means, leave the jerk, get the help you need, and wear what feels good).

I’m talking about reaching into those difficult areas where there is golden learning to be had: having that difficult conversation with a loved one, tackling the nagging but necessary tasks on our to-do list, being silent and actually listening to what comes up instead of reaching for our phones to fill the gap. 

This idea struck a chord with me when I got a migraine recently. I’ve been suffering from headaches since I was young, but for most of my life if I was able to fall asleep, the pain would be gone when I woke up. When I was around 25, that changed.

People experience migraines differently, but I get an deep pain behind my left eye, feel intensely nauseous, and am essentially bed ridden until it passes. Sometimes they last for up to three days, leaving me dead to the world. Yes, I’ve seen a doctor. Yes, I have medications, but they don’t always work, and you can’t take them if you’re pregnant. Since I want a family in the future, I know I need to find a way to deal with my migraines that doesn’t involve a prescription.

When this recent one hit, I listened to a guided meditation for migraines, and it suggested that instead of trying to escape from the pain, we try to “source it,” pinpoint where the pain is coming from. Sitting with the pain, accepting it, allowing it to be there will often soften it, sometimes dissolving it altogether. I was skeptical, but I tried it. And it worked. It didn’t disappear, but it did soften and helped me find the stillness I needed to rest instead of writhing against the pain.

A few days after the migraine, this idea resurfaced when I heard writer (and self-care, empowerment goddess) Jennifer Louden talk about this idea of staying with difficult emotions instead of fleeing from them. She used a visualization of a waterfall, where all our thoughts, anxieties, worries are the gushing water. Instead of being in the waterfall, drowning, struggling to breathe, she offered that we imagine ourselves stepping back behind the water, into the cool cave of awareness, and just observing how we feel.

What does it feel like in your body when you think about whatever your hard shit is? Maybe your chest tightens thinking of having to confront your partner. Or your stomach drops when you imagine not getting the job you interviewed for. Or your head pounds when you check your bank account balance. Numbing ourselves with screens, meds, substances, food, shopping, sex, etc. is easy, but ineffective. It is the opposite of empowerment. None of those distractions will make our relationships any stronger, our job prospects any better, or our bank account any fuller. Sourcing the emotion, allowing it to soften, and learning what you truly need next is the only way through.

The next time you feel resistance coming on or you reach for a distraction, I urge you to pause and ask yourself what’s really going on. Step back from the waterfall and figure out how you feel.

On the other side of discomfort is understanding. And possibly some peace. And at the very least, inching just a little bit deeper into this life of ours.