Don’t Push Your Embarrassment Down, Embrace the Burn.
Before I learned how feelings worked, I lived in a very fragile world.
I had wounds that seemed a mile deep. When something touched them, my whole world seemed to explode. One of the skills I’ve had to develop is the ability to feel painful emotions without running from them. Maybe this comes more natural to others, but for me it’s a learned ability, forged through battles with depression, anxiety, and eating disorders.
I was in college and having a lot of headaches. All the reading and stress probably contributed, but purging myself of any meal I ate likely didn’t help. My mother didn’t know about the purging or the skipped meals, so she made me an appointment with a chiropractor. He very matter-of-factly made the comment that my large breasts were probably to blame for a lot of my neck pain and resulting headaches.
Just stating the obvious, right? Well, not to me at that time. I’m not sure when my breasts reached their full size. I was a late bloomer, but when I did bloom, I bloomed big. The teasing and my self-consciousness about them began in high school. By the time I got to college, I hated them and did my best to hide in oversized shirts.
Thus, the doctor’s statement of the obvious sent me into a panic. My face flushed with embarrassment. I had no words. I thought surely this was highly inappropriate for him to speak of my breast size. I seethed with anger.
How dare he? It’s not my fault, I wanted to scream at the accusation he never made. I couldn’t wait to get to my car to let out all the tears I was holding in.
I cried all the way to the nearest fast food restaurant, where I ordered enough food for four people. I shoved it in, pushing my embarrassment down.
My body is a freak of nature, I told myself. But don’t think, that hurts.
I pushed the pain down with the food.
You’re so messed up that your body hurts itself. You’re hurting yourself now, loser!
Push it down, push it down. Push down all the feelings. Don’t feel it, just eat! Just eat, don’t feel.
He saw; he knows. Everyone who sees you knows, you’re a freak! There’s no hiding it.
I wanted to cut my head off to stop the thoughts. Stop the feelings. I couldn’t, so I pushed it down with food.
See, binging and purging were my self-medication of choice. Not much different from other addicts. Life is too much, so the answer is in a bottle or a pill or food.
I couldn’t just do it with food though, because I wanted to fade away too. I didn’t want to be seen in my freakishness. I had to numb with food, but go off to the bathroom to melt away. No, I didn’t want anyone seeing me, judging me, and knowing that I was flawed.
The summer I finally stopped binging and purging, I spent in Dallas. It was a great summer, but I was starting law school in Miami in the fall. The night before I was to fly out, I desperately didn’t want to leave. I felt safe and happy here. Moving to an unknown city was scary and hard.
My head started squeezing in on my brain. This is where things get uncomfortable. This is when I might have gone to my old pattern of numbing.
Instead, I broke out my journal. I wrote to myself and told myself to be in the moment. I told myself it was okay to be scared before going off to a new city. It was normal to want to stay in a comfort zone.
I wrote and wrote. I didn’t let myself leave the room. I feared I’d find the bathroom or kitchen and be back to my old game of escaping the normalcy of feeling human feelings.
I didn’t escape. I felt it — all of it — and I lived through it. And I felt the next thing, and the thing after that. All the pain and joy and confusion and failure and accomplishment that is life.
Pema Chӧdrӧn, an ordained Tibetan Buddhist nun, explains her method for experiencing painful emotions as “compassionate abidance.” First, she advises, locate the suffering in your body and “just feel it completely.” That reminded me of my personal trainers’ advice of “embracing the burn” of a workout.
I love the parallel between a physical workout and personal development. Exercise tears down our physical muscles so that they can be built back stronger. Emotional suffering tears us down to be built back stronger as well. But the former doesn’t work if you don’t feed the body the building blocks of protein. Spiritually, it doesn’t work if you find an escape in the form of a self-destructive pattern.
Embracing the moment of discomfort is paramount. No one likes pain, but without it, no one grows. Pain avoidance is an epidemic, and the side effects are addiction, spiritual stagnation, and just plain failing to live.
We distract ourselves from our very own human condition with busyness and social media. We numb ourselves from feeling, because we’ve bought into the lie that we are the only ones flawed by emotions. We try and soften the world for our children and then scratch our heads and wonder why they aren’t more resilient. We overexert in our professional lives, and we are still unfulfilled.
We are mind, body, and soul, but we don’t appreciate the soul-growing necessity of the full spectrum of human emotions.
One of my trainers introduced me to the phrase “winners win.” At first, I thought it silly and redundant, but now, I like it. Winners win, because they are in the game. Winners win, because they’ve stopped expecting the game to be painless. Winners win, because they embrace the burn.