Allowing Yourself to Feel Pain Instead of Hiding from It

Healing Heart

“We must embrace pain and burn it as fuel for our journey.” ~Kenji Miyazawa

I used to run from pain.

My father died suddenly when I was six. For years I stuffed it down, never letting anyone know my emotions, how I was feeling, and I ran from situations that could cause me to lose, to feel pain.

My heart would jump and feel fear every time I received a “bad” email from a boss, or bad news. I only wanted to feel good things. I stayed out of relationships for fear of the eventual loss and bad feelings, not realizing that I was missing out on all the beauty in between.

A year ago, my journey to feeling pain began. I had decided a few months before that I would open myself up to a relationship. I was ready to see what was out there. I was ready to feel, whatever it was. I met an amazing guy, and I thought he was the weirdest but most fascinating and beautiful person I’d met in a while.

There was lots of love and tenderness between us. I think we were very similar, and both subconsciously wanted ours to be a beautiful, painless relationship. We were precious with the time we spent together, and never fought.

The first pain between us came after a few months. I wanted to know where this relationship was “going.” I wanted him to be my boyfriend, officially.

He told me he felt almost everything for me—intellectual stimulation, passion—but not an emotional connection. He wanted our relationship to continue on as it was: seeing each other three or four times a week, no expectations of what this was or would be.

Our relationship was already beautiful, why did that need to change? We committed to only see each other without calling each other boyfriend and girlfriend.

As time went on, I stuffed down all of my doubts about our relationship. I pushed away the full days that for some unknowable reason I wanted to end it. (I had no solid explanation, but a feeling.)

I ignored the red flags of someone who was just not ready to commit. I ignored my heart telling me that this wasn’t the kind of relationship I really wanted. But I continued on as before, making the moments we had together as happy and as beautiful and as magical as I could, and he did too.

Until right before I was leaving for a weeklong work trip. He asked me out of the blue what I thought about seeing other people. Valentine’s Day had been a week before, and I had seen no signs of him feelings this way. He had gifted me with a small figurine of an elephant carved inside a latticed egg, because he knew I loved elephants.

I felt sharp pain, and shock. We were walking my dog, and I walked away from him and was silent until we made it back up to my apartment. “Lauren,” he said. “I just want to talk to you.” Please just let me do that, his eyes said.

So we did, we talked: He told me how in the past he’d had relationship doubts and hadn’t expressed them, and how he felt that relationship had gone on without him. The next morning gave no conclusion, but we were tender with each other and he whispered, “I’ll miss you,” before he walked down the subway stairs to work.

When I returned a week later, he picked me up at the airport, and when we got back to my apartment, he coldly told me he couldn’t sleep over: He wanted to be emotionally open to other people.

My heart broke. I cried and made him stay the night. And I was a wreck the whole next day. But something in me felt freed, something in me felt that this was the best thing that had ever happened to me.

I had been so afraid to tell him how I felt, to tell him my own doubts and insecurities about how he made me feel, that I just didn’t tell him. Crying and feeling the emotional hurt of the split was incredibly painful, but was the truest and most raw emotion I’d felt in months.

When I looked at the elephant figurine he had given me, I realized that it wasn’t beautiful; it was trapped inside a structure of its own making.

The fear that was holding me back had come true: that we could break up. But it happened, I felt it, and I was still there, still very much myself.

Two weeks later, I found out my beloved dog Bella had cancer, and a week later, I had to do one of the hardest things I’ve had to do—take her to the vet and put her to sleep.

Even as her body broke down, her spirit stayed strong: At the vet, I left her on a friend’s lap and briefly left the room, and when I returned, she tried to jump into my arms.

Two of my closest friends were with me in the room, and after it happened we just hugged each other and cried. It felt strangely good and freeing to be able to cry together with someone, to feel pain together.

A part of me thought that the loss of my relationship was just preparing me for this loss.

Through all of this, my older brother had been fighting cancer.

He was diagnosed almost three and a half years ago, and had fought it with his life ever since. In between chemo and radiation, he surfed, traveled, coached his kids’ soccer teams, and was an inspiration to all who knew him.

A month ago, he needed an emergency visit to the hospital: He had fluid in his lungs and spent five days with a nurse visiting his home to drain them. I went home to see him and he was thin, carrying an oxygen tank around with him, but his spirits were high.

He was happy to see me. I told him about a recent trip to Turkey, about Bella, about my relationship. He listened to my pain and gave me advice.

A couple months back, he succumbed to his disease, surrounded by his wife and two children. At his funeral the priest, who knew him well, recounted how my brother told him that the past three years had been some of the happiest of his life.

I know my brother felt great pain, physically and emotionally, and he hid it from most of us. But he pushed through it to give his wife and daughters as much of himself as he could.

And now I’m in so much pain that it all runs together, the relationship, my dog, my brother—I don’t know what to feel first. But the strangest thing is that it is the most alive I’ve felt in years, to allow myself to just feel all that I am feeling, and not judge it, or push it away.

Allow yourself to feel pain, to sit with it. To build relationships that you may one day lose, for whatever reason.

Holding pain will be hardest thing you do. Feeling pain is the bravest fight you will fight. Running, avoidance, fear in whatever form, it all brings you further away from being a full, feeling person.

Pain is clarifying, cleansing. True.

You feel this pain because you loved so hard, because you felt so hard.

Walk bravely through pain’s cleansing fire, although it scares you, although it burns so bright that you walk in knowing it will hurt. You will come out on the other side stronger and more complete.

I don’t know what your pain is. We all hold it, some pain, inside of us; we carry it with us. And that’s fine, it really is.

There is a beauty in pain that that even happiness cannot touch, because you risked, you loved, you let yourself feel. Pain will be the thing that brings you to yourself, before and after pain—before, there is happiness, after, there is transcendence.

Pain is a part of your experience, not something to run from, to escape. Pain will find you somehow, and to go through its cleansing fire will be one of the truest things that can happen to you in your life, if you let it.

Photo by Brandon Zierer

About Lauren Cucinotta

Lauren Cucinotta is an content, community and communications strategist on leave from TED, and currently in Istanbul. She writes, travels, and loves to learn. You can read her personal work on Medium, about her adventures in her weekly newsletter and on Twitter @LCucinotta, where she tweets about women’s issues, global culture, digital storytelling, community and inspiring quotes.

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  • L

    This touched my heart and I can feel your wisdom, growth and freedom from these experiences. Your strength and willingness to allow yourself to feel this pain, so that you can truly live is very inspiring. Thank you so much for being open and sharing this!

  • LCucinotta

    Thanks L. You’re right about freedom — when you open yourself to feeling pain and moving through it, you feel freer!

  • Charlie

    Excellent post, thank you! I have been going through tough times, trying to deal with multiple issues without giving up. This morning I couldn’t do it anymore and I decided to just stop. There was about half an hour where I felt so empty and cold I honestly wouldn’t have cared if I had died. I literally felt nothing. But then something happened that I have never experienced before…I started crying. I couldn’t stop. And amazingly, as my body and mind succumbed to wave after wave of pain, I started feeling alive again. I feel clearer and more hopeful in a way that I am not used to. I think I must have been putting off feeling emotions for literally years of my life.

  • Debbie

    Thank you for sharing. Yes, to grow we have to feel the pain. The greatest emotion is love, which can lead to pain. As they say, ‘It is better to have loved an lost, than never love.’
    And crying always cleans the soul.

  • Laura

    This post is exactly what I needed today! Thank you Lauren ♥

  • Anthony

    Thank you for sharing your personal story. You bring inspiration where shadows fall.

  • Beautiful! I’m going through a similar breakup to yours, with a man who was ambivalent but yet seemed to care. I ended it when he came to a party as my date and ignored me and ended up in another woman’s arms (and in her tent). It hurts every day. But this post helps. I’m so sorry to hear about your other losses. hugs to you!

  • Melissa

    Wow, good timing to stumble upon this article for me. I was involved with someone who could not commit, but who wanted to enjoy what time we had together before he leaves the city. I had immense fear of the pain I would have to deal with when this “relationship” came to an end. We had a few arguments over the last few weeks… Often I would regret getting involved because maybe I’d still have a friend instead of someone I used to know. But really, would it have played out any other way? And would have avoiding the potential pain have been worth missing out on the great moments we had? I suppose not. I feel okay, better probably than I had expected to feel, as this situation has come to an end. Thanks for the post, it’s always comforting to know others are going through similar things.

  • Suj

    What about chronic physical pain? How do I deal with that when medication is no use?

  • There is no pain in love, actually 🙂 and there is no pain in transcendence. The only pain that is real is the physical pain if our body is physically hurt, and even that we can control to some extent depending on our level of physical control. Our emotional pain comes from attachment to the material reality, from poor nutrition and health. But you are correct, and by allowing ourselves to love and to feel pain we can transcend it, but pain is not necessary to achieve transcendence, so if you feel you need to seek out pain to become stronger… That’s not an optimal course of action, just seek out to love yourself and the world around you, and that’s all you really need 🙂 If you love yourself and the world around you, you will take care of your health and you will be able to find love in every moment no matter what happens.

    Love transcends Pain. Pain is not love 🙂

  • Mish

    What I took the article to imply is that for many they get hurt and instead of acknowledging the pain, they sink into depression or choose anger, denial, revenge etc to avoid pain. However if you embrace the emotional pain, mourn your loss, then it washes away and you can move on. If you don’t it is always there, masked and festering…

  • Voda888

    Thank you for this post. I have suppressed my grief and pain over my husband’s betrayal with my ex-friend, and then his death 6 months later. That was three and a half years ago. I still haven’t cried over his death. I have been focused on helping our children cope with their loss as they grow older and enter new stages of their lives.

    I keep thinking that when I’m by myself I’ll cry for him. When the kids grow up I’ll cry for him. But nothing. It just never seems to be the right time. I just keep pushing the lid back down on that can of worms because to think of his death is to remember the circumstances behind it. It was a motor vehicle accident and the only thing for which I can be grateful is that he died instantly.

    Pain does make you feel more alive, but it can also numb you to the environment around you. I have become more cynical, but also more numb to what is going on. I don’t laugh anymore – nothing is funny. I don’t cry anymore – tears won’t fix the problem. I think I’m a bit of an emotional mess.

  • LCucinotta

    Thanks Voda for sharing, I’m very sorry for your losses. I think it probably took me over 20 years to really decide to feel pain. (Or maybe my situation forced me to, finally?) I think the first shock of my father dying numbed me to emotion a bit, and made me want to avoid feeling something. But for some reason, the series of events this year made doing that too difficult to do anymore. It was unavoidable to feel. It wasn’t something I expected, but I welcomed it in some ways, and surrendered to it. There is no rule about how you should feel about anything, and how long it takes for something to really “hit” you. I’m still working to make sure that I am present and open in moments, its an ongoing process.

  • LCucinotta

    Thanks, and hugs to you to. It’s all a process – it won’t be “felt” and healed in one day, but as long as you stay conscious of your emotions, and allow yourself to feel however you feel about it, you are moving down the right path.

  • potato

    Great post.
    Pain is an odd thing; I like to think of myself as blessed in hat my life is not as wrought with as much pain as those around me. Whenever the pain does come though, I’ve always had the mindset to push through it. In life, you have no choice but to move forward, and especially through pain. I don’t quit and I don’t give up, often to a fault. I live a happy and fulfilled life, and I’d like to attribute that to my ability to conquer pain. Thank you for your story; may you conquer all of your pains.

  • That’s exactly what she meant 🙂 And what i mean is that kind of pain she describes exists in the first place because we fail to love ourselves and the world around us. Because there is no pain in love. It’s a hard concept to grasp, but once you achieve transcendence, all that pain turns into indignation, empathy and sympathy. Pain exists because of the attachment to life, not because of love for life and for yourself 🙂

  • CanarySonne

    My year after college was one of the most tumultuous times of my life. I changed jobs because of health and stress-related issues, left my first, real relationship where I felt worthless, and moved farther away from home. My year has been filled with much pain that has been very difficult to handle at times. I truly thank you for this article and the reassurance it gave me.

  • LCucinotta

    Yes, all of what you said. Beautiful.

  • LCucinotta

    As an aside, I think no one tells you how hard that year after college can be — away from your core friends, away from home, and looking for a job. I had a hard time too, things settle more after that first year. I love what the commenter above says — to grow we have to feel pain. You are in a growth stage, and I think you can turn that pain into real lessons for you. I’m glad this piece could be helpful to you.

  • Mary

    I do not think she meant that we should seek out pain in order to grow. Rather painful things will happen that we need to learn from. Her fear of experiencing pain caused her to continue in a relationship that did not meet her needs.
    It is better to acknowledge the pain in order to move on.
    The majority of us have not perfected this transcendence thing and it is an unrealistic to expect that we won’t experience emotional pain. We have to acknowledge it and work with it before we can rise above it (transcendence).
    For most of us the process of learning to love ourselves and the world means untangling the blocks that have caused us to close our hearts down in the first place. This is what the author is talking about.
    Pain is meant to protect us. If I deny my feelings then I end up in a position of possibly making bad decisions for myself.
    Yes ultimately love transcends pain but on this level of existence it is a process, not a destination. Ironically you seemed to have missed that this is exactly what the author was saying. She was not extolling pain, she was talking about the transcendence of pain by moving through it. Big difference.

  • Mary

    You might be interested in the book “The Day Room” by Kathleen Crowley. She shares her journey of learning to cope with chronic pain.

  • “She was not extolling pain, she was talking about the transcendence of pain by moving through it. Big difference.”

    That’s exactly what I deducted she was saying, actually 🙂 Hence my response was: “pain is not necessary to achieve transcendence, so if you feel you need to seek out pain to become stronger… That’s not an optimal course of action” So, I am not sure what exactly I’ve missed according to you 🙂

    You can not transcend pain by moving through it or feeling it, because pain is something you create. The only way to transcend pain is with love 🙂 And “ironically” love is also something you can choose to create. So, which one would you rather to choose to create for yourself and others, Mary, pain or love 😉

  • Ouisasqueezer

    I loved this post so much because pain is what I am experiencing at the moment. Loss of a relationship, loss of a job, having to leave leaving a city I love living in. I agree, you have to allow the pain to wash over you. You need to feel it. & yes it means you are alive with a beating heart full of love. Experiences of pain are so beautifully described here, really helps my own progress. Thank you!

  • ebaygo

    Hi Lucy, I had a similar experience, I invited my friend to a pub to spend time with him over dinner as I really liked him and wanted to get to know him better and got completely ignored as he found his Crush there and he told me the next day that they decided to become a couple. Man, it hurt!

  • Tanya

    What a beautiful story. My fear with the whole “positivity” movement is that people shy away from feeling what they’re feeling, head-on. I love that you’re finding the courage to live an honest, authentic human experience—one with pain, love, and joy. Thanks for sharing your journey!

  • jhenzpaul

    This is Great! I love it!

  • Jed Hammond

    how do I feel it… I’ve been running from it for months now and it’s getting to the point I wan to watch myself die. I’m willing to slowly let myself die on the inside rather than feel and experience it fully to become whole..

  • Jed Hammond

    for some reason I won’t let myself feel the pain I need to in order to grow and evolve to free myself

  • Esther Ang

    Thank you very much for sharing this. I really needed this now… i’m going through some pain too, and learning to release them as I’m aware how the ‘trapped pain’ can manifest into physical pain which i’m learning to get myself to work it through via yoga and TCM and change in mindset. Your first line “I used to run from pain.” strikes me and it resonates with me as it is what I was very used to, till i was struck with ‘Transverse Mysellitis’ in 2009. Parts of my body went numb. I was afraid , really afraid. And when i started to feel the physical pain again, I was actually very happy about it (such an irony). To feel pain means I’ve another chance to work with it rather than run away from it! So I agree with your expression that “Pain is clarifying, cleansing.”, “There is a beauty in pain…” The lesson for each of us is to listen carefully to what our body is telling us. Paying a attention to ourself. The most important relationship is with ourselves.
    Thank you again, Lauren, for sharing your story.

  • Lia

    I never noticed I was holding back from releasing pain. I had a tough upbringing and now I see after my husband told me that I created a little bubble that blocks any “form” of sadness. My problem is that I have no idea how to let the sadness come and clear my heart. Even when I’m about to start going through my divorce I still can’t cry, tears don’t come. I feel extremely sad, my throat hurts but I don’t know how to let it take over. I want to cry and feel free, but I don’t know how. It makes me think that I don’t love my husband because I can’t shed a tear for our life together ending, but that’s not the case I love him, but he wants his freedom and I want him to have his happiness, i think I took too much of it already.
    I think not crying it’s pulling me back and I’m afraid I will never to able to move on. I keep googling but I can’t find anything the works.

  • Rachelle Niemannn

    Thank you for sharing your beautiful story. My condolences for your losses.
    I have only recently realized how feeling pain and discomfort can help us open our hearts and feel all the feels that make us come alive, and I appreciate you sharing your journey.

  • John Tally

    “Pain is a part of your experience, not something to run from, to escape. Pain will find you somehow, and to go through its cleansing fire will be one of the truest things that can happen to you in your life, if you let it.” I do not mean to diminish the perspective of the author, but I do not find in Buddhism the prescription to embrace pain as something inevitable or necessary. In fact the “achievement” of the Buddha was to transcend it completely. We feel pain, or in better terms suffering, because of our attachment or aversion to things. While it may feel cathartic and freeing to a certain extent, about going through suffering and moving on, it is not the same thing as complete liberation from the actual cause of the pain, which is the attachment to self or ego. Personal growth means that there is still a “self” involved, which means there is still suffering, even if it appears that it has abated for the moment because you have endured a difficult time and that time is now passed. The point of Buddhism is to transcend attachment to compounded things, including the self, which is what causes all suffering.