Mca blog

Self-Compassion To Heal Pain & Trauma

One of my early childhood memories is of my father consoling me after a rather nasty fall I’d had. 

He patched up my skinned knee which, I recall was burning with pain, hugged me and said: “By the time you get married you won’t even remember this”. I was a compliant child back then, but I remember thinking, more with curiosity about the veracity of this statement than with defiance, “I am going to remember!” Well over half a century later I do remember. Or rather, I remember as much as I’ve just described; I can’t remember details of the actual incident, so I guess my father was right.

They say that if we didn’t have the capacity to forget pain women would never choose to go through childbirth more than once. But do we really forget? Many people have a memory of an extremely painful experience they’ve endured, and they would say that they have not forgotten. But just like my childhood memory, we tend to remember the memory of the pain, rather than the actual pain.

The memory of that pain is the part that is linked to all of our emotion-based stories. This is our mental narrative that includes the “shoulds’, the ‘if onlys”, the “wishing it had been different”. This is where we carry the grief, the anger, the injustice of a painful event, and this is the hardest part to let go, even when we thought we had. I realised this firsthand this week.

Some of my readers will be aware that 8 years ago I was hit by a car whilst crossing at a pedestrian crossing on a quiet Sydney suburban street. I saw the driver, she saw me, our eyes connected, her car slowed down. But then she accelerated, continuing across the pedestrian crossing and knocking me down, putting me in hospital for the next 3 weeks. This week I underwent a total knee replacement as a result of this injury, and for a couple of days I felt all the physical and emotional trauma of that event return to my body.

Looking back at that time, I’ve not forgotten that the pain of the initial injury was intense. But what I’ve found extremely interesting is that it’s not the sensation of that acute pain that my body remembers, it’s the stories my emotional mind built around the pain that hang on, stories related to the injustice of having to endure life-long repercussions because of the carelessness of another person.  These stories have incorporated themselves into the deepest recesses of my mind and body and reared their ugly heads this week during the course of my surgical experience. 

On a purely cognitive level, I understood that this was my somatic memory of trauma. As a long-time mindfulness practitioner, I was completely aware that I was reliving this trauma and in spite of the emotional intensity of the experience, I was able to observe it with some level of curiosity and non-judgment. I won’t say it made the experience easier to endure, but it did make it pass more quickly. It also allowed me to hold my emotional pain with self-compassion and observe the emotional stories as thoughts of the past, not reality of the present.

So here’s the thing about pain. Pain is a physical sensation that your mind will build emotional stories around. How far these stories incorporate themselves into your being will depend on many things. 

The human tendency is to push the pain of these stories away, to pretend they’re not there or that you’re over them. But pain and trauma need to be given voice, not necessarily to someone else (though talking it through may be therapeutic), but at least to yourself. Honouring the truth of your experience, because no-one understands your own suffering like you do. No-one else has walked in your shoes or lived in your thoughts. It’s a rare and amazing experience if you meet someone who truly gets you in every sense. Most of the time, however, the only person who really gets you is you.

So be your own best friend. Show yourself kindness, be gentle and loving with your pain, be it physical or emotional. If you’ve experienced trauma, if it re-emerges try exploring the pain, rather than rehashing the event. “Rehashing” is you remembering the memory, and the fact is that every time you remember a memory the chemical nature of that memory in the brain changes slightly. And the more you recall it, the more you’re mentally imprinting the neurons that make up that memory.

Instead of recalling and rehashing the event, try opening yourself to the pain itself, to the physical sensations. Explore them with curiosity and with love. Be gentle with yourself, as you would be with a dear friend who was suffering, who perhaps just wanted a hug. As the physical sensations pass (which they will), notice the diminishing nature of the pain. If it returns, notice that too, acknowledging the dynamic nature of pain.

Explore what helps you the most. Sometimes it may be to open yourself to the pain, other times it may be to turn your attention elsewhere. Personally, when pain is too severe, I find it helpful to turn my attention to certain types of complex but melodic instrumental music. Choosing where I place my attention allows me to acknowledge the presence of the pain without going into overwhelm. This may work for you too, but only you can determine that. loving-kindness meditation is one way of learning how to be kind to yourself. Click here to listen to a traditional Loving-Kindness or Metta Meditation that was recorded during one of our Monday Mindfulness group meditation sessions.

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