Do you think it means you’re weak if you share your pain? You’re not alone. Some of my counseling and coaching clients are stoic types who are very hesitant to connect the painful, early chapters of their life stories with the difficulties they are encountering in the present. They don’t want anyone to think they’re making excusesfor their current struggles with mood or anxiety or relationships or a profession. Even when they survived cruelty or abandonment or experienced very significant losses as children or adolescents, lots of people have told me they feel like they’re complaining if they make a connection between the trouble back thenand the trouble right now.
Well, here’s the truth: It takes courage to connect the dots and trace your current struggles back to their roots. It isn’t complaining about what you now face. It’s part of explainingwhat you now face.
Here are some examples:
- A man in his 40s had trouble figuring out why he was risk-averse and had passed up some very good opportunities that weren’t “sure things.” Amazingly, he never connected his reluctance to take risks with the fact that his father had passed away shortly after starting a business with two of his friends when my client was just 10 years old. For my client, being bold was connected with death—literally. Once we made that connection, he felt like a massive resistor had been removed from his decision-making process. We had explained his fear of any risk.
- A woman in her late 30s had married one weak man after another. Three short-lived marriages ended when she realized she was more like a parent in the relationships than a spouse. She never connected her choice of men to the fact that her father was domineering man who unduly influenced her career path, among other things. She wasn’t likely to ever risk being in a family with another powerful man, so she chose weak ones—until we explainedher choices by connecting the past with the present.
- A woman felt her mood and energy plummet when her daughter turned 11. She was the CEO of a bank and had to take a leave of absence. She hadn’t considered the fact that her sadness at losing one of her best friends when shewas just 11-years-old was being rekindled by her daughter reaching that age. Once we explainedher sadness and fatigue by connecting the past with the present, they began to go away.
Explaining isn’t complaining. It’s the opposite. Only strong people are willing to do the hard work of connecting early life experiences with the ones that are troubling them today. And the strength to do so pays big dividends, because it frees people to live powerfully in the present, rather than being hostage to the past.
There’s a very good reason to explain the roots of your recurring or chronic emotional pain, by the way. Eventually, if you don’t, it will become debilitating. The walls we build psychologically to keep our pain under wraps may start out as the walls of a fortress, but they always end up as the walls of a prison that keeps us away from our best intentions, most ambitious goals and capacity to love ourselves and others.
The idea that if you revisit troubling pages from your early history that you will become stuck there also is a myth. Revisiting them allows you to move past them. Until you do, those pages will be your future, too.
Remember, human beings don’t really connect with other people by sharing all of their triumphs. They connect with other human beings by being willing to share their struggles. And you can’t really share what you’ve survived and how you’ve thrived, amidst adversity, if you can’t bear to look back at the earlier chapters in your life story for what they really were.
For anyone who wants to delve deeper into these topics, two of the books I wrote address them:
And, as always, for anyone who wants to take overcome today’s challenges and set the stage for tomorrow’s successes, contact me at [email protected].
Keith Ablow, MD