The need to find emotional healing awakens in a simple truth: I am in pain.
When I meet a new client, sometimes they will say exactly that to me. “I am in a lot of pain in my relationship and I can’t resolve it. I need some help.” As they speak, their body is usually animating the pain for me in gestures and movement. Other times, a new client might talk all around and over their pain because they haven’t yet allowed themselves to feel their emotions, usually out of self-protection, and when I guide them inward to see that they are in pain, their body connects with the feelings, and that person starts to come into focus inside of what is really happening in their life.
However someone begins to feel this awareness in themselves – whether they are a mentally focused, tightly controlled person just starting to allow vulnerable emotions to move inside of them, or they are a deeply expressive emotional person waking up to a new level of feelings they didn’t know were in them, or they’re a person somewhere in between those two ends of the spectrum of emotional self-expression – the emerging feeling that there is inner pain that needs relief is the place where everyone begins to seek healing.
What makes waking up to emotional pain so challenging for so many people is that it is right there inside of our body, in the present moment. But when we lack the ability to identify what the pain is, where it comes from, what it needs to heal and how to communicate it successfully, it just sits there inside of us like an unopened flower or a tightly coiled ball of energy. Or it may be fragmented into different layers of of pain that are heavy, tired and dense. It may be jumpy and nervous, or reactive and shut down.
There are many different ways that emotional pain lives inside of us and acts out – i.e., expresses itself – through us before we work with it. From a dull empty ache in the gut to a panic attack, from outbursts of rage to a fear of speaking up in a difficult situation, from paralyzed states of helpless abandonment to avoiding being open with another person, from a tight and disconnected heart to a busy, intensely anxious mind – all of these forms of pain and more are the starting points from which people become conscious that they need to find some form of healing.
No matter how our unprocessed pain is living inside of us, until we begin doing our emotional healing work, we’re only partially living in the present moment because we are not fully present within our emotional experience – and that feeling, being less than fully aware of what is happening in our emotional self, being less than fully alive in the present moment, is disorienting, frustrating and confusing.
Being in pain and not knowing what is really going on is what makes us act out in ourselves and with each other, because our pain needs to wake up and become conscious in the present moment. Until our minds and bodies are guided to allow unfocused feelings of pain to become deeper emotions, and then to connect those emotions with accurate words that describe the emotional dynamics in which our pain originated, we will not become fully conscious of what our pain is really trying to say when it acts out.
Nor will we be able to really begin healing our pain, because emotional healing takes place when we can come out of our non-verbal isolation and tell the truth about our emotional experience with another person, so that we can begin to honor our individual self-development and start to find real emotional solutions.
So what is acting out? Many people have learned that acting out is negative behavior in children that is disruptive, destructive or out of control. Adults however act out with each other (and their children) just as much as children do, and in order to make complete sense out of how our pain attempts to communicate through these actions, a more comprehensive definition of acting out will greatly assist us in understanding and accepting our own emotional experiences and expressions.
The term acting out really describes the entire range of triggered, unhealed and unconscious emotions that wake up inside of us and attempt to become conscious through some form of dynamic, animated expression that seeks a solution. The goal of recognizing acting out expressions is to translate the message being acted out into a coherent emotional communication and then take healthy action – it isn’t that much different than the game of charades where we attempt to act out a word or phrase or idea so that other people can guess what it is.
The difference is that these are our lives that are at stake, our emotional well being and health, and the intensity and urgency of acting out expressions is necessary to get our attention so we can respond appropriately and consciously. The evolution of emotional healing that this kind of healing work represents is driven by the need to respond to acting out expressions with a more appropriate, non-judgmental and heart-centered understanding of what the wounded language of acting out is trying to say.
Earlier authoritarian parenting strategies as well as clinical models of emotional disorder and pathology have left us with a gap in our ability to hear what acting out expressions are trying to say. Our goal isn’t to see what is “wrong” with a person – it is to discover and respond to what acted out pain and emotions are trying to tell us about our dysfunctional families and relationships, and the breakdown of love between us.