Wrestling with Your Painful Story: How to Recognize and Deal with Your Feelings (Part 4)

wrestling with your painful storyThroughout this four-part series, we’ve been looking at how to recognize and deal with your feelings. But it’s so important that we don’t stop there. Why? If you don’t take time to roll up your sleeves and do some wrestling with your painful story, you’ll be bound to repeat aspects of it for the rest of your life.


That’s because we can’t help but recreate the painful aspects of the story we grew up with, often without even realizing it. The characters in the story may change, of course. Maybe your wife drives you nuts just the way your mother used to, for some reason. Or that fear and anxiety you feel around your narcissistic boss feels just like it used to when your alcoholic father came home. These aspects of our stories show up as feelings we don’t fully understand and influence us in ways that we don’t know about.


So today, we’ll wrap up the series. In part one I shared a personal story to show why struggling with our most painful feelings is so important (more on that in a minute). In part two, I talked about why you might have a hard time knowing what’s going on with your emotions sometimes. In part three, I discussed a few practical ways that you can start to identify and get to know your feelings. Today, we’ll explore how you can put the feelings you identify into context and understand them more deeply.


Making the Conscious Choice to Look Inward

Often, when we feel intense feelings, it’s painful. It’s a struggle. It hurts. And who wants to feel pain? We’ve all learned ways of dealing with emotional pain that tend to keep us from growing: addiction, blaming, substance abuse, Netflix binges, anger, you name it. In fact, to paraphrase a psychoanalyst that I admire, all forms of mental health issues are really our unconscious defenses against growing.


Growing is scary. It’s unknown. It asks us to visit unknown, dark parts of ourselves. It requires risk and vulnerability, and that invariably means more pain. But if we’re willing to work on ourselves, we can truly “get past our past” so that it doesn’t influence as much as it used to.


Becoming whole, healed persons first means making the conscious choice to look inward by describing how we feel. After this, however, we need to learn to ask ourselves what’s going on with us that we’re feeling that way. What does this mean?


Wrestling with Your Painful Story

Whenever we get really angry, feel overwhelmed with shame, or experience some other emotion intensely, our mental chatter goes nuts. We get critical with ourselves or with others. We use words like “always” and “never,” which are sure-fire signs that we’re speaking from our pain. When our feelings are at their most intense, we tell ourselves stories about what’s happening.


“She’s such a spiteful bitch.” “I can’t believe he said that to me.” “He probably won’t even miss me.” “She knows I’m up against the wall here, doesn’t she care about me?” All of these statements are typical of the running commentary in our minds when we’re saturated with our feelings. Put together, they usually create a story that makes meaning of what’s going on.


The first step in wrestling with your story, then, is getting this story out there. Pay attention to where your thoughts are going? For a few moments at least, mindfully and compassionately, listen in to the story you’re telling yourself. Don’t try to judge or edit the story for now. Writing this story down by journaling can be a great way to start this wrestling process.


Deepening the Story

In her book Rising Strong, Brene Brown takes this a step further: She recommends writing what she calls a Shitty First Draft, or SFD for short. The essence of the Shitty First Draft is getting the story about what we think is happening to us onto paper. In doing so, we can see how our minds are making meaning of what’s going on now. Usually, it’s not very accurate.


For example, I can’t count the times that I’ve asked my wife (The Missus, for those of you following along at home) something like, “Are you angry with me?” When my Spidey-sense tingles and I feel slightly anxious with my wife, I become concerned that I might be in the doghouse. The story I tell myself is that she’s angry with me about something I did, which is a painfully familiar story to me. I was blessed to grow up in a pretty good family, but sometimes I’d get afraid that my mother was angry with me. I learned to be on my best behavior to avoid her anger.


So my wife’s anger used to be pretty terrifying to me. When I sensed that she might be angry, the story I made up about what was happening is that she was angry with me about something I did. It was my fault. I was to blame. It’s a story told by fear, guilt, and shame. The stories we tell ourselves always are. 

These SFDs, these stories we tell ourselves about what’s happening to us are always based on our experiences in the past. We use our past experiences without knowing it to make sense of what’s going on for us in the present. And often, the lenses through which we’re viewing what’s going on are pretty old; the older they are, the more likely it is that we’re not aware that we’re using our particular glasses while others are using theirs. We’re more likely to insist that we’re right, that it’s our way or the highway. That’s where miscommunication abounds.


You can start to reflect on the stories you’re telling yourself by asking yourself a few key questions:

  • What story am I telling myself about what’s going on right now?
  • When have I felt this way before?
  • What am I feeling (shame, fear, guilt, etc.) that could be writing this story?
  • Have I told myself a similar story before? When?
  • What’s the first memory I have of feeling this way and telling myself this story?


Reevaluating the Story

Wrestling with your painful story by asking questions like this can do wonders to help you increase your awareness of the lenses, your unique meaning-making glasses, that you use everyday to make sense of your experiences.


When we’re aware of the stories that we tell ourselves, which again, are always perfectly understandable and sensible given our past experiences, new possibilities emerge. We can begin to write the stories that we want for our lives. We can challenge the stories we tell ourselves. The confabulations and conspiracies that we tell ourselves break down in light of our curiosity about ourselves as we become more open to new stories.

To question your story, ask yourself questions like these:

  • What else might be true here?
  • What could be happening for the others involved in what’s going on right now? Where are they coming from?
  • What could I learn about myself?
  • What could I learn about the situation I’m in right now?


Being honestly curious about our stories is a lifelong endeavor but one that’s richly rewarding. We become open to new stories, new encounters, new ways of being in the world and in relationships. We are surprised when we feel closer to those we love because in being curious about our own stories, we also become more interested in theirs. And that’s where intimacy happens.


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Jeremy Mast

Jeremy is a licensed marriage and family therapist (CA LMFT90961) in private practice in Ventura, California. He helps those struggling with drugs, alcohol, and out-of-control sexual behaviors awaken to new possibilities for their lives. He lives with his wife, son, and cat in beautiful southern California.

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