Most of us understand that developing a high level of competency and skill in a physical activity will include pain and a LOT of repetition that may or may not see immediate results. We get that we can’t hit that level of achievement without the ability to manage enormous complexity, nuance, and intensity of experience.
Think of anything from dance to tennis to playing a musical instrument. Consider what it takes to become basically able, then solidly competent, then highly skilled, then extraordinary. Think about the enormous complexity of factors being perceived and responded to simultaneously, the precision of movement needed, the combination of analytical and intuitive responses that have to mesh perfectly.
Very few people seem to understand that this is how emotional skill is developed too. It’s tragic that we have virtually no options for instruction in this essential area, so most of us are fumbling around on our own and trying to figure it out as best we can (with the usual results for that approach). If we had “emotional training” options the same way we had dance or tennis or musical or martial arts instructors, think of how that would change the way we operate!
Further, in physical pursuits we clearly understand the difference between “injury pain” and “growth pain”. Obviously not everyone perceives and correctly responds to these inputs, but we inherently understand the difference between “hurts to get out of bed because we are sore from a hundred repetitions of a new move” and “I have injured myself and I need to stop”.
If we are experiencing “injury pain” in a physical pursuit, there are two broad categories of cause – incorrect form and overuse. Intersecting with these two broad categories are the two broad reasons we do either one – we fail to notice, meaning we are insufficiently connected to our own bodies, or we notice and persist anyway, which usually results from fear (even “pride” or “ego-based” reasons usually trace down to fear if you go far enough).
|FAILURE TO NOTICE||Lack of clear perception of limits combined with lack of awareness||Lack of clear understanding combined with lack of awareness|
|PUSHING THROUGH||Stopping = something bad||Lack of clear understanding combined with fear that stopping = something bad|
This applies PERFECTLY to the development of emotional skill and fluency, except most of us don’t know how to think about it this way. Here is an example for each area:
|FAILURE TO NOTICE||Connecting with others feels good, so I’ll keep connecting and connecting. This leads to others pushing back, which feels like rejection, which hurts.||I tease my partner because my family uses teasing to express love. I don’t notice that my choice of topic is a painful one for her, overlook her tense body language and tone of voice, and when she snaps at me I am hurt.|
|PUSHING THROUGH||Talking through a miscommunication often resolves it. This time my partner’s answers are getting shorter and shorter, and he’s not meeting my eyes, but I’m afraid if we stop this issue will fester, so I keep pushing. He ends up saying, “I’m going to bed” and walking out in the middle of a sentence and it hurts.||I love that my best friend is the person I can tell anything to. I’ve had a breakup recently and it helps so much to talk to her about it. I notice that she has been getting tense lately, changing the subject or playing with her phone while we talk. I get frustrated and hurt and finally tell her how much I need her to be there for me and really listen.|
As an example, most of us consider nearly any form of emotional pain to be “injury pain” and try to get away from it as quickly as possible. We have been taught that a “good life” is one that involves no emotional pain. When we think about it, we understand that pain helps us grow, but when we experience it we still try to get away from it as fast as possible.
We don’t have emotional stamina, the cultivated ability to accept and understand emotional pain, much less to seek it out – what would you say if someone said, “Yeah, I need to push my training harder, I’ve only cried twice this week and I’m clearly not working as hard as I could”?!? Most of us consider that “emotional masochism”, “drama-seeking”, “wallowing”, etc. Yet when we put that in the context of physical skill development, those accusations seem bizarre. How do you get better if you’re not willing to hurt?
This leads to the corollary, which is distinguishing “injury pain” from “growth pain”. This is why we tend to have such negative views of emotional pain – we treat it all as “injury pain”. We also watch people in situations of *genuine* “injury” emotional pain who keep going and going, which is precisely as excruciating as watching someone running on a broken leg. We have so few models of deliberate, healthy, and intentional emotional “growth pain” that we don’t know what it looks like, or how to create it for ourselves.
Watching someone running on their broken leg is indeed dysfunctional, and the negative perceptions of why he or she does it are probably accurate…but what is the alternative? No emotional pain = emotional couch potato. Our level of emotional skill remains somewhere about grade-school level, which is not meant to be mean or condescending – it’s simply the point at which our required emotional growth stops, and if we don’t continue to pursue it deliberately, it stays right there. Again, just like physical skill and fitness.
Just like in the physical, we need to learn to “tune in” enough to observe whether we’re using proper technique and whether we’re overdoing something out of fear. We absolutely *must* be aware enough of ourselves to pick up the signals, and then know enough and care enough to correctly interpret them, if we want to improve our emotional fitness and capabilities. Here are some “growth pain” approaches to the above examples:
|GOOD LIMITS||CORRECT FORM|
|ACCURATE PERCEPTION||~ Practicing the pain of being alone and strengthening the ability to find enjoyment in life without being with someone else.
~ Practicing not shutting down or lashing out from hurt when your friends say “no”, and instead ask them to explain more so you can understand their needs and where their and your needs can meet better.
|~ Practicing handling your hurt at your partner’s reaction, and instead of blaming her or yourself, or trying to escape the pain, investigate what happened and what could work better in the future.
~ Risk further hurt by asking your partner to help you understand what happened, and for her honest (but as kind as possible) feedback on the situation. It’ll almost certainly hurt to hear, but if it’s fair and true, it’s hurt that helps you grow. If it’s not, realize that it might be too soon, or that she doesn’t know how to give fair and true feedback honestly but kindly. Rather than lashing back or shutting down, ask for what you need.
|RECOGNIZING TRUTH||~ Practice tolerating the pain that comes from your fear of an unresolved issue with your partner. Recognize how you push past your partner’s limits out of your own fear, which leads to more hurt.
~ Work on strengthening your ability to trust that you’ll work it out later, and trust that you’ll be OK in the meantime. Consider how you can take care of yourself until you can talk again, instead of feeling that you must have this resolution.
|~ Practice holding your hurt at feeling that you’re not being heard, and ask yourself what else might be going on. Your friend’s reactions indicate that something is not working for her, and without knowing what she’s feeling and thinking, just demanding the return of her attention probably isn’t going to work very well. For your friendship to work, both your needs have to get met, and right now you don’t know what she needs.
~ Risk further hurt by asking her for her honest-and-kind feedback about what you’re seeing – be neutral and describe it journalistically, without applying your own interpretations and judgments. Be prepared for her to say things that will hurt, but again, if it’s fair and true, it’s something you need to hear. If it’s not, ask her to share it differently.
Emotional skill absolutely does involve technique, and precision and nuance matter just as much as they do in dance or tennis. Using incorrect emotional technique, both internally and interpersonally, leads to pain. If we perceive this and correct immediately, that can be “growth pain” or at worst it can involve recovery from an emotional injury, just like in the gym.
When we “push through” emotional pain that is “injury pain” out of fear, either because something very wrong is happening (poor technique) or because some was good but more is not better (overdoing), we injure ourselves just as surely as we do running on that broken leg. The longer we persist, the more serious and lasting the injury.
Consider what emotional “growth pain” might actually look like for you. Have you experienced this? What might change in your life if you sought it out intentionally? Do you know the difference between emotional types of pain, and how to tell when you’re building your skill vs. injuring yourself?