How to Lean into Your Pain So You Can Release It
Do you remember the classic children’s book “We’re Going on a Bear Hunt”? I read that book countless times to all three of my boys, and I almost knew all the words by heart. Throughout the family’s journey on their bear hunt, they would be confronted with a new obstacle such as squelchy mud, thick grass, or a swirling snowstorm. As they stared down each new challenge, they would realize, “We can’t go over it, we can’t go under it, we have to go through it!”
That chant often runs through my hand when I find myself facing a dark wave of emotions or blocked trauma inside of me. “I can’t go over it, I can’t go under it, I have to go through it!”
I repeat those words as I move with a mixture of terror and excitement into an open-hearted state and allow myself to fully lean into all those big emotions that are waiting to be fully felt by me. I know I can’t outrun these feelings. I know I can’t go over them. I can’t go under them. The only way to get to the other side of that emotional experience is to go into it—fully.
It sounds so simple, yet it’s counterintuitive to how most of us experience our emotions. From the time we were very little, we were taught not to be ‘crybabies’ or ‘scaredy cats’ or to throw tantrums. Our parents meant well, and they were trying to teach us emotional regulation. But instead, we learned to keep feelings inside. We learned that people didn’t want to see emotions like fear or sadness on our face. We got the message that we were less lovable and less enjoyable to be around if we didn’t always have a smile on our face.
There’s also a chemical reason for why we run from negative feelings. Cortisol, the stress hormone, can spike a fight-flight-or-freeze reaction in our bodies. So when we feel the stress and weight of negative emotions, we will often instinctively want to run from or battle against those big emotions. Or we may freeze, and just get locked up and numb when faced with grief or darkness.
In other words, we do everything we can to go over it or under it rather than through it. But here’s the thing: Even if we *think* we are outrunning those big emotions and we are keeping it all together with a stiff upper lip, our body is still hanging on to those feelings. Our body keeps the score. I have experienced this firsthand. When my mother died of breast cancer, the massive wave of grief I felt terrified me. It was so huge and so dark that I was terrified to wade into it. So I froze up. I clenched my teeth and tried to just white-knuckle it through the grief, never fully letting myself feel it or go into that huge darkness. I thought it would swallow me up. I thought if I let myself feel the massive loss of her death that the pain would carry me away and I would never find my footing again.
Then, within a year of my mother dying of breast cancer, I got a very random and rare form of breast cancer in the same breast my mother had breast cancer. It was as if all those feelings I didn’t want to feel—all that fear, all that sorrow, all that rage—took root in my breast and blossomed there, demanding my attention and nurturing.
This time around, with my son’s death, I have taken a much different approach. I knew from my experience with my mother’s death that I couldn’t just outrun my grief, not if I was going to be healthy and strong and present, not only for myself but also for my other sons and my husband. I needed to let myself go into that darkness and feel all my emotions if I ever wanted to find the light again.
Even if you aren’t grieving a loved one, the truth is that we’re all living in such an emotionally charged and overwhelming time. From Covid to the election to social justice issues to economic depression, we have all been enduring an AFGE (my code word for Another F*#cking Growth Experience). The thing about AFGEs is that they can be very meaningful and incredibly rewarding. AFGEs lead to our most important soul work and enlightenment—but only IF we are able to stay in an openhearted state and be willing to go through the accompanying emotions, rather than trying to go under them or over them.
A few weeks ago I shared a video on Instagram in which I shared how I get into an open-hearted space and release locked emotions. I truly believe that living in an openhearted state is our most invaluable tool when it comes to not just surviving AFGEs like the one we are going through right now, but also anytime you’re faced with uncomfortable emotions you might naturally want to resist. This exercise only takes 10 minutes.
1) First, ground yourself. Find some stillness and silence inside of your world. It may be helpful to literally ground yourself by sitting on the ground outside. Being in nature can be an almost instantaneous way to recenter yourself. Maybe you feel most grounded after yoga or after a swim in the warm sun. But you can also ground yourself by just taking a few deep breaths, and quieting your rushing mind. Imagine yourself being rooted to the earth, cradled in the earth’s strong, powerful core. Feel your body settle. Feel the earth holding you securely.
2) Second, do a body scan. Tune into your body. Starting from the top of your head, go inside your body. Look for places of tension or discomfort. Is your jaw tight? Does your belly feel heavy? Where in your body might you be carrying an emotional load without realizing it? Where is the density and thickness? Notice what comes up without judgment. Simply bring your loving awareness to your physical form in a very present and intentionally focused way. It might be shocking to be suddenly ‘in’ your body fully and to perhaps realize you have been grinding your teeth or taking shallow breaths.
3) Third, let yourself go into that space inside of you that feels heavy. Wade into that storm inside of you. It’s happening whether you let yourself feel it or not, but if you let yourself feel it, it can pass through you and leave you lighter and fuller. So trust yourself. Trust that you are strong enough and wise enough to feel this pain without losing yourself. Remember, you’re grounded and connected to the earth. She can hold you. She can support you. So let yourself feel all those feelings that are calling out for your loving attention. You might feel your body needs to move or you need to make sounds. Let your body lead you as you go into that space that feels tight or locked. Let yourself sob or cry out or scream into a pillow or rock back and forth. Maybe you want to punch a pillow. Whatever your body is asking for, trust it and give it what it needs. It will be an intense several minutes, but here’s the thing: It will pass. The emotions will move through you. You will release it into the universe and find yourself lighter. That’s all your body needs: A chance to just feel it and release it, so that the burden doesn’t become locked inside of your physical form.
4) Fourth, visualize a flame in the center of your heart. If you are a spiritual person, this flame could be God’s love for you and your eternal connection to that unconditional love. But this flame could also represent your connection to nature, to your source, to Mother Earth, to the love that flows through you and all around you. Your flame will be different than anyone else’s flame, but in the end, it will feel instantly recognizable to you. When you’ve reached that flame, you will know it.
If you’re struggling to get there, try thinking of your most precious memory. Maybe it is the first time you held your granddaughter. Maybe it was laying on the beach by your partner on your honeymoon. Think of a time when you felt imbued by love and buoyed by love, utterly lifted and filled with that indestructible pure light.
Now hold on to that. Lean into that flame. Feel it warming you from the tips of your toes to the end of your hair. Let it blanket you in perfect peace. Bask there for a moment.
When you move out of your meditative state, hold on to that memory of how it feels to be openhearted. How it feels when you’re connected to your source. Suddenly, feeling all those other big emotions doesn’t feel so scary, does it? Because no matter how deep your grief is or how wide your trauma might be, you trust that your flame can endure any storm and you have faith that the universe is only working to serve you. You know that the universe is supporting your healing. The universe is unfailingly working to nurture your soul growth. You know that you are loved and that you are love.
When you are in this open-hearted state, you don’t have to go under it. You don’t have to go over it. You can go through it. You can get through it. You can be with it. You can trust the ocean and ride whatever waves come your way, knowing that even when you encounter stormy waters, you can welcome it, because you’re here to learn how to sail your ship and that learning is what your soul was put here to do. So, open up, lean in, and let it all happen—all the beauty, all the terror—let life happen to you. Let yourself feel it all. It can be hard, it can be terrifying, but I promise you, it’s so, so worth it.