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Steering Toward the Pain

Don’t turn away. Keep your gaze on the bandaged place. That’s where the light enters you. —Rumi

I was once denied a big promotion at work. I was virtually certain I would get it, and the core people I worked for were also virtually certain I would get it, and pretty much all of the other people in that part of my life at the time were virtually certain I would get it. It really seemed a slam dunk, and a number of my superiors for at least a year before had begun involving me in work matters as if I had already gotten the promotion. Then I just didn’t get it. When they told me, they said they were sorry it didn’t work out, and they offered some generic rationales that sounded way disproportionate to the way I had been treated over the prior year or more and way disproportionate to the extent to which I had been led to believe the promotion was all but guaranteed.

Needless to say, this hurt me deeply. It also enraged me so much that I walked out on the spot. For some weeks, I refused to take the many calls they made, stewing over the outrage and considering my next moves. It happened that right at that time I had a close friend whose family needed significant help, and I threw myself into that fully. That was hard, but it turned out to be a great way of getting some distance from my work distress.

Over those weeks, I rehashed the countless ways in which I felt betrayed by work, and I actually came to see there was one aspect to my rejection that might have served as a basis for a legal claim of discrimination. Whether that kind of claim would have succeeded in court or not, it was at a minimum credible, not frivolous, and likely to result in a significant settlement if I pursued it. Of course that was infuriating, but what ate at me even more was how poor the communication was that I had had about the promotion with the people who were primarily shepherding it through the process. I don’t believe they were intentionally dishonest; I believe those people, as well-meaning and supportive of me as they were, just didn’t understand the process adequately, and didn’t understand how I would be viewed through it. Of course, that was their job, not mine, so I felt very betrayed by them. I was so hurt by this aspect of the betrayal I could not imagine ever seeing these people again, much less working for them.

Nevertheless, with determined guidance from a very wise friend and colleague, and many difficult sessions with my therapist, I gradually turned the focus inside to see what role I played in the situation and what steps forward would suit me best. We considered all the options, from suing, to looking for another job, just going back to work. My bosses had made it clear that they very much wanted me back despite my not being promoted, so that was technically an option. At that time, I did not know Rumi or the verse of his I quoted above. And like most of us, when something hurt, I tried to find a way to make it feel better. There’s nothing wrong with that, but at least sometimes, Rumi turns out to be right.

The internal exploration I did over those weeks was extremely painful. I had to face things about myself I did not want to face—things I probably had had some inkling of my entire life, but had been able to keep mostly out of awareness. Thanks mainly to that friend for her refusal to let me off the hook and her profound support as I struggled, I was able to find a healthy place for the legitimate hurt and outrage I felt, and I was able to see pretty clearly how to move forward in the way that served me best. At the beginning of my extended walk-out, there is no way I could have conceived of the plan I put in motion just 6 or 7 weeks later. And the way I knew I had hit on the right plan was that when I looked at it, I felt the light that Rumi speaks of. Of course I didn’t see it that way then—then what I saw was just that the plan felt right and that no other plan I had considered even came close. I saw that my plan met my needs in many ways and at many levels, including the emotional. When I envisioned implementing my plan, I felt strong, powerful, and big—not in comparison to others, but in comparison to how I realized I had been feeling about myself before. I knew my plan would not be easy, that it was totally unheard of in my business, that many people in the company would disapprove or outright condemn it, and that I would have to endure all that if I wanted to succeed—but once I recognized how right the plan was for me, I was undeterred by any of that. When I was ready, I negotiated with my bosses, and I returned to work on a drastically modified schedule that enabled me to do certain work at the company that I wanted to do and to go back to school as a step toward a career change. The subsequent 7+ years of my tenure at that company were enormously satisfying at many levels and set the stage for the life I constructed after I finally left for good. Not even a large settlement from a lawsuit or another great job could have yielded that level of reward.

I won’t go on to chronicle all the similar hurts I’ve suffered and how I dealt with them, but I will mention one other. I once had a serious disagreement with someone I cared very deeply about. I was shocked to discover how differently we saw a particular situation, and I felt strongly that the way he saw it put me (and him) in danger—not to mention that to me it just felt wrong. No amount of describing my concerns got through, and one of the most frustrating, hurtful parts of this was that he never actually offered any coherent argument for why his perspective was right; he just kept falling back on, “you’re out of your mind; you’re making a big deal out of nothing”; and worse versions of that. We barely spoke for many months after this, but I knew that I could not let the relationship end permanently. Over those months, again with a good deal of help from a trusted advisor, I put my feelings about him and the situation to the side and turned the focus inward. Again, this was very painful, but what emerged was a much deeper understanding of who I am, who he was, what drove my views, what he was really open to and closed to on this issue and in our relationship, and most of all, what I needed to do in order to move forward and know that I was doing what served me best. I wrote a letter to him (not easy!), and after many weeks with no reply, I went to see him. The first thing I was hit with was that he told me he had seen my letter but had not read it past the first couple of lines. He offered no explanation for that. All of my planning for that conversation had not prepared me for that, to say the least. I remember sitting there in silence for a few minutes feeling the burning in my chest and a vertigo-like shaking in my head. Instead of bolting, which I wanted to do, I let myself feel the pain while also reconnecting with my purpose. Fortunately I remembered nearly everything I had written in that letter, so I just went through it for him. He listened, and when I was done, he basically said, “all that is fine, but…,” and he went on to tell me that he was hurt by something I had done that had absolutely nothing to do with this situation (and that I had actually done unintentionally). I immediately apologized for that, explained why I did what I did, and offered to rectify it right away, and he accepted that graciously. I was still stunned by the shift in topic and the lack of resolution of the main issue, but I could feel that the energy had shifted between us, and I realized that I had done what I needed to do for the relationship, and he had done the most he was able to do. It was unsatisfying in a way, but it was honest and real. When I look back at the whole thing, I can see that not only did I feel strongly about the substantive issue we argued over, but I also had an expectation that he would see it the same way I did, or at least be persuaded by my very cogent arguments. And even more than that expectation, I actually felt that if he did not come around, then it would not be possible to stay in the relationship with him that we had had before. It was that part that came to light when I was working through this over many months, and it was that part that the unsatisfying conversation with him freed me from. By letting myself feel the many dimensions of pain and going deeper and deeper into them, I became able to accept him as he was, and that freed me to continue to have a relationship with him that was important to me, even though I knew we were miles apart on this particular issue. Since then, we’ve been able to have a good relationship, and when there’s a reason, I can also call up the wound that still exists, but without the poignancy and mostly out of view.

I practice this in meditation as well, and it has helped me move through emotional hurts more effectively when they arise in day-to-day life. When I meditate and some unpleasant or uncomfortable feeling arises, I sit with it, let myself feel it as fully as I can, and resist the (powerful) urge to push it away. It’s not fun, but it’s manageable, and it works. I took a class in grief and bereavement counseling once, and the professor taught us to “steer toward the pain”—encourage the client to feel the loss as fully as they’re able at the time as a way of processing it so that it can become less intrusive in their life. That’s what I try to do for myself in meditation with whatever kind of “pain” comes up. Psychotherapy and meditation (and other spiritual practices) are complementary—they both can help reduce this pain, albeit in different ways. No one likes to feel pain, and I still find myself turning away from it from time to time. But the only way to truly free ourselves from pain is, as Rumi observes, to face it—to “keep our gaze on the bandaged place” so that the “light can enter.”

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