‘Tis the Season for Pain?



I don’t give Christmas presents any more. I don’t have to find a gift that someone is “sure to like.” That’s a relief! I live in the same town as my mother, so for a holiday I just walk over and eat, like we do any time. I don’t have to travel. I’m not thrown into a crowded house with the frictions and stress of old relationships…trying to make them right.

Despite the self-care I have given myself around the holidays, during this holiday season, I can feel my stress, and physical pain arises. What can I do?

Shopping, long distance travel, presenting ourselves to family, extravagant meal preparation —-all this creates pressure on our deeper selves. While our “adult” self feels all these activities are normal and even needed, our child-self still has all the needs and feelings it did during the holidays of our youth. Pain (and other symptoms) can arise or intensify as these conflicts play out below the surface.

Using Dr. John Sarno’s approach, we can gently inquire into what kind of pressures our holiday experience is creating in our unconscious or semi-conscious selves, and discover how the younger parts of us might be feeling. Dr. Sarno’s genius break-through is that pain is a distraction. Pain represses awareness of feelings that threaten our familiar sense of self. Our younger parts feel things we don’t want to be aware of.

This Christmas I am with my mother, and I am the remaining family member. My brother Will, who died about 30 years ago was born on Christmas day. We lost my other brother Don two years ago. One stocking hangs where there used to be three. I am saddened when I see the single stocking.

I see my mother in pain on Christmas Eve. I don’t know what to do. I can’t fully be there for her pain. I have not lost a son. Besides, honestly I don’t want to feel that much pain. So I am with my grieving mother as best I can be. I fear she will never find an antidote to her pain. I really don’t know how to help her.

I am out for a walk later the same evening, and I feel a twinge of the familiar foot pain. What is this about? I ask myself.

How does the oldest and only remaining son see his role? I ask. The answers come quickly.

I should relieve a suffering mother. I should be strong, so that she hurts less. I should be cheerful, but not too cheerful so I don’t demonstrate non-attunement. I should feel her pain and therefore lessen it. I should forget my own pain and take care of hers. I should take away her pain.

These are pressures I have put on myself: a mix of adult compassion and child-like delusion.

This inquiry quickly reveals that I have semi-consciously taken on an impossible task. Worse yet, I didn’t even see that the task is impossible. I am mindlessly putting extreme pressure on myself to do the impossible. All this, trying to be a loving son.

Wow! Now, I ask: How does a young Andy feel to be burdened with making his mother feel good about something that will never feel good? Rageful. Hopeless. Why is a young Andy worrying about taking care of someone else? He wants to be seen and loved for himself! Needy. Ashamed about Neediness. My young Andy also lost his dear brother Noel, all those years ago. Sadness. Hurt. Helpless.

Rage, shame, neediness, sadness, hurt, helplessness. These feelings are painful, and they threaten who I see myself as: adult, rational, together, in control, a good son. These feelings are real (but overwhelming) for my inner child, but for my adult self-image they feel extremely threatening. So my mind-body follows an age-old human template of repression by distraction. My foot hurts!

Seeing this, compassion for myself starts to emerge.

Aware of these inner tensions, and how threatening the feelings are, I connect this to my foot pain while walking along. My awareness of these hidden feelings means the repression is no longer necessary. The tension in my foot relaxes almost immediately.

I am using a simple Sarno technique to inquire into where my pain might actually be coming from, rather than assuming there is a physical source for the pain. Walking along, I notice his process is allowing me to see myself more fully. I feel connected to myself, which is satisfying. I feel warm and more complete. I am physically inhabiting more of me.

Although my holiday example may seem extreme compared to your experience, the inner pressures to perform, conform, and the “need” to repress feelings are universal, powerful forces that can become extreme during Holidays. Being a loving and generous parent, a “successful spouse,” a patient brother… All of our familiar roles pressurize us, and this tension can create pain if it is not seen accurately.

The whole of this adult life—what we do on a daily basis—is pretty overwhelming to a child.

If you are in pain this holiday season, spend a few minutes to think of the sensitivity and needs of a young child, perhaps at Christmas. Is he getting what he really wants? How might he feel down deep with the pressures of travel, of always being loving, of being ever-generous? Does she feel like she isn’t really being seen? Does she feel like she has to fix a world that is not in her control?

This practice of inquiry when pain arises, is Dr. John Sarno’s gift. The real miracle is that none of the stress we feel has to go away in order to find relief. We simply have to connect our inner life with the symptoms, and the pain-distraction strategy no longer works.

With Gratitude,

Andy Bayliss