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The Power in Opening to Pain


A friend of mine is grieving the end of her five-year partnership, and she is fighting herself. She believes she gives away her power when she lets herself feel the heartbreak of her loss. “I’m not letting her turn me into this,” she says, bracing against the emotion rising in her. “She is not turning you into anything,” I tell her. “You’re already it.” She stares at me with a mixture of confusion and contempt, and I see that I have succeeded only in making her feel worse. I try to explain myself:

You dared to love. You brought your whole messy self into relationship. You couldn’t help it. To do otherwise would have been a betrayal of that love, a betrayal of yourself. And now that you’re on the other side of that relationship, you can offer yourself the same tribute of loyalty; you can honor your full experience by letting yourself grieve. It takes a special kind of holding, open-hearted and compassionate, to allow the expression of your whole self, though some of its parts are painful or seem “unattractive”; and it’s in that holding, in that allowing, that you claim your power, for in offering yourself the space to express yourself as you need to, in offering yourself a more complex play, you free yourself into wholeness…and you concede nothing.


The prospect of bringing feelings of hurt into a current relationship also tends to elicit a power struggle. “Why should I give him the satisfaction of showing him how badly he hurt me?” is one such response. “Why should I be the first to apologize?” is another. Intimate relationships can’t help but evoke the vulnerability we experienced as infants in our mothers’ arms. They are tender with the joys of union and the fears of abandonment, sometimes within the same hour. Just as intimate relationships provide us with secure and nourishing connection, they also awaken in us emotions leftover from early attachment wounding: the shame of inadequacy, desperate longing and helplessness. The arising of those emotions can make us feel overmatched in conflict, like small children defending against towering adults, and provoke us into compensatory acts of power: shouting, screaming, even violence. We may have already found that such “acts of power” often leave us sitting in the wreckage, feeling anything but powerful. So how can we claim the kind of power that makes us feel masterful in seemingly overwhelming situations? Marsha Linehan, the creator of Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), which is based on Zen and the practice of mindfulness, offers us the acronym: STOP.

The “S” in STOP stands for, well, “Stop,” and may be the most difficult to apply. It asks us to stop the momentum that is sweeping us along and surrender the urge to retaliate. It requires a moment of clarity in which we awake from the destructive pattern we’re caught in and open to the possibility of doing something different.

The “T” in STOP stands for “Take a step back,” which can take the form of saying, “I can’t do this right now,” and walking away. “Taking a step back” typically asks us to remove ourselves from the conflict until we’ve calmed down. Calming down is an important step because it creates a physiological shift in which the amygdala—the part of the brain responsible for our flight or fight response—cedes control to the medial prefrontal cortex. Once our medial prefrontal cortex is back online, we can start to think more clearly.

Which brings us to the “O” in STOP: "Observe." We are now able to assess what the hell kind of mess we're in. We can start by asking, “What hurt so much?” And we might trace that hurt back to a whole history of such hurting, understanding that the ferocity of our response arose out of the momentum that’s been gathering for years. We might extend compassion to ourselves for continuing to get swept up into that momentum, for still being vulnerable to feeling that hurt. We might then extend that compassion to our partner, who likewise is responding to a similar history of hurt. We might observe how the conflictual pattern keeps repeating, how we keep getting swept up into it blindly, and we might decide to try a different response.

“Proceed Mindfully,” the “P” in STOP, is the practice of a different response. Generally speaking, it asks us to act out of our natural wisdom rather than out of emotional reactivity. For incidental conflicts in relationships that are alive and well, I suggest using an approach adapted from Marshall Rosenberg’s method of Nonviolent Communication (NVC): From a place of vulnerability and tenderness, share the impact that your partner’s words or actions have had on you. You might find that it starts a conversation based in empathy, curiosity, and understanding, and that it inspires you to respond differently in the future.

Though introducing vulnerability into conflict seems a counterintuitive act of weakness, it is in reality a radical act of power. In the short-term, it undermines our adrenaline-cortisol response with an oxytocin response, which can return us and our partners to a state of bonded attunement. In the long-term, it upends a pattern of destruction that might have already eroded trust in our relationship, and it initiates a new pattern of relating that fosters respect and understanding. Where once we reacted blindly to the patterns of behavior we inherited as small children, now we respond wakefully, as conscious adults, with powers we didn’t know we had.

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