I'm taking part in this pretty amazing group of pastors and church people for several months this spring. Our text is "The Voice of the Heart," which is a kind of emotional fluency primer that is great for anyone. (But would be especially great for you if you came from a background where emotions in general were discouraged, and didn't have a great language to describe your emotional landscape.)
It's technically a Bible study, but it's short on Bible and long on the kind of twelve-steppy sharing stuff that pastors really get off on. Needless to say, I freaking love it.
In our first couple of sessions, we were asked to identify what kinds of responses we might have experienced in our upbringing related to the sensation of hurting. Did your parents say things like, "Big boys don't cry"? Or, "It's not that big a deal?" Or, "Look on the bright side!"?
Yeah, most of us weren't allowed to fully experience our own hurts. This is because those who raised us found our strong emotions so threatening that their own well-being was shaken by them. If you have kids, allowing them to express the fullness of their emotions is very intense. You know what I mean. The temptation to tell them "Shhh . . . it's okay" - even from a well-meaning place - is extremely strong. The primal urge that screams inside our heads These tears are not okay - make them stop! is extraordinarily difficult to resist.
Anyway, in my own family, the attitude was less "look on the bright side," and more "it could be worse." And so I've always told myself that things could be worse. Bad marriage? Sure - but I could be beaten or with no other options. Hurting because my mom died? Sure - but she could have suffered so much more, or we could have had a strained relationship and died on bad terms. Things can always be worse. In fact, I should just be grateful that the suffering I have experienced has been so manageable. After all, there are women in this world who are told they are nothing from the day they are born.
For a long time, I thought this was a fairly harmless coping mechanism. But then I realized that telling myself these things denied a basic truth about my theology. When I minimized the impact of my suffering, I was denying the fact that there isn't a limited amount of suffering in the world.
Know what I'm saying? Like, the fact that someone else is hurting doesn't mean that I'm hurting any less. It's not like I have 10% of the world's hurt and other people have 90%. It just doesn't work that way. And conversely, the fact that other people may not have suffered in the same ways as I have doesn't mean that their suffering is any less real for them. We all get what we get in life. There is no way to relativize our own suffering against the suffering of the rest.
So, moving forward, I'm going to allow myself to experience the depth of my own hurt as it occurs. I will try to stop telling myself that things might be worse (or even better). Things are what they are, and I can't be afraid to walk through the darkest times.