Pain. It is inescapable. If you are alive you will have pain. Mental pain, physical pain, broken heart. I have been thinking a lot about pain and trauma since my husband died. How have I experienced pain? Some times it is very physical. My heart/chest feels the ache. I feel heavy and slow. It can set my stomach roiling and make me nauseous, or catch me off guard and make it hard to take a deep breath. At times my thoughts get me going on tracks into dark recesses of my mind, or going round and round second guessing things I did or said. It can bleed over into my spirit and make it hard for me to connect with God or other people.
At some point in time I came across the term pain-eater and it was an “aha!” moment. This resonated with my experience in general, and more specifically as a gender role/expectation in my culture.
Here is a definition from The Urban Dictionary:
by NKI April 02, 2014
Most women I know have served this role at one time or another for their children, spouses and friends. To some degree I think I do this in my work as a nurse. As humans, I think we have a natural tendency to reflect what the people around us are feeling. I know for myself that when my husband was hurting it seemed just wrong to feel happy, as if I was required to carry his suffering. Yet now I think, “I wouldn’t want anyone else to suffer just because I am hurting.” It is nice to have love and support when you are in pain but not such that is inflicts pain on anyone else.
This concept of pops up in the most unlikely places. I was getting a pedicure a few days ago and there was a quote neatly penned on the wall in front of me:
Did you catch it? “She was beautiful for her ability to make other people smile even if she was sad.” My immediate reaction after reading this was anger. SHE is supposed to put away her own feelings. SHE is supposed to put on an act and pretend everything it fine. SHE is not beautiful unless she puts on her mask and plays the role. Do you think this would ever be said about a man? “He was strong and masculine for his ability to make other people smile, even if he was sad.” This is the kind of subtle nonsense that women are raised on. Furthermore this kind of self-denial (really self-abdication) is damaging to your heart, mind and spirit.
I have had to go back and revisit pain and trauma from earlier in my life in order to deal with the pain I have shoved down and tried to keep under wraps. In some cases I have had to remember events and the feelings that accompanied them. I have spent time journaling and drawing. I have been to counseling. I have prayed, read my Bible, and talked to friends and family. I have done therapeutic yoga and stretching, and walked on the beach. There is no definitive checklist of things to do here. It was all trial and error. The point is that I gave a voice, movement, and expression to my emotions.
I had to have a little talk with myself, to forgive myself for abandoning my own needs consistently for the needs of others. After this little chat “we” made a pact to stop denying our own needs and emotions from now on. I will come alongside others but I will stop trying to take on their pain.
I suspect that I will still be a pain-eater at times as this has been a long term habit. However, instead of using a spoon to ladle it into my gullet, I’ll be careful to serve it up with chopsticks. That way I can stir it around, look at it, pick up stringy bits of it, but not much will actually make it into my mouth.