Ryan Berg is a former U.S. Marine Corps combat infantryman and deployed twice to Iraq.  In 2004, he was with 2/24 Echo company, Weapons Platoon, in Mahmudiyah, Iraq.  In 2006, he served with 1/14 Task Force Military Police and was in Fallujah, Ramadi and Al Asad.

He studied rhetoric at UC Berkeley and completed his MA in Leadership Studies at Saint Mary’s College of California.  He is most interested in understanding the ways that the system of patriarchy in America affects male military Veterans – and argues that this system is fundamental in perpetuating suicides in the Veteran community.  He is married to his wife Nataly, and lives in the SF Bay Area.

Editors note: The opinions expressed in this commentary are the author’s own.

You walk into your bedroom and clang your pinky toe on the sturdy, round wooden leg of the bed frame.  A mind-numbing ache ascends instantly from your foot to your skull.  You lie down on your mattress and clinch hard your eyelids as you whisper hateful obscenities.  The pangs climax into one loud verbal curse.  The pain pulses, but the worst is over, and a little laugh slips out for there is mercy after all.

Was that experience evidence of your weakness? No, it was a clear sign of your vulnerability in this body, and it hurt. 

Under absolutely no circumstance is emotional or physical pain, weakness. Therefore, it could never be “weakness leaving the body” as I’ve heard some Veterans say.  While the phrase, “Pain is weakness leaving the body”, began as a motivational adage that encouraged us to lean into pain as a way to cultivate strength, it has set up many of us to think that the experience of pain is weakness.  That is the first clause in the sentence after all.

Thinking of emotional pain in these terms is extremely damaging to our well being, because it can cause us to conclude that opening up to, talking about, and experiencing painful feelings is something that a strong person should not do: If pain is weakness leaving the body, then why don’t I just disconnect from it altogether? There, I’m strong.

The only problem with this is that pain demands to be felt.

The reality is that brave and wise people are not only open to the experience of emotional pain, but most importantly, they take action when it is causing them undue, incessant suffering.  Pain is our body attempting to communicate with us. Science writer, Kirstin Weir, reminds us, “Pain tells you what’s happening within the world of your own body, [and] your nervous system is in charge of delivering the news.”

If we act on the pain in the scenario above, we might scooch the bed over a few inches, or consciously move with more grace as we enter the room in order to spare our little toes.

Emotional pain works the exact same way.  When we feel the stings of internal hurts, our bodies are providing us with valuable bits of data.  Something within the world of our experiences, past or present, is in need of attention, and talking about it is generally the only way out.  Otherwise, these feelings stay trapped in our bodies, and as my psychotherapist likes to say, “feelings don’t flow with nowhere to go.

In other words, if we don’t talk about our feelings with another human being, they have nowhere to land, and can torment us for days, months, or even a lifetime.  Other people, especially empathic professionals, can be a critical part of this process because they can offer us emotional resonance, and a place to “unload” our heavy feelings, so that we don’t have to carry them by ourselves. 

Have you ever awoken to realize that despite having a home, career, a healthy retirement, friends and family, that you’re living a deeply unsatisfying and unhappy life?  That’s because ignoring one’s inner world leads to a life void of feeling, and since living and feeling are one, the result is a deep unfulfillment which can permeate our existence. Life becomes virtually meaningless and dreadful, as nearly each day becomes a metaphorical banging of our emotional toes on the bedpost of a painful past.

Without seeking real support for our deep aches, we never learn to inhabit our inner or outer space with the kind of grace that would permit us to avoid further self-inflicted emotional and psychological pain.  When we refuse to acknowledge the messages our bodies are sending us, we stunt our own growth, and sadly lose out on the profound gift that lies just beneath all those hurts.  We aren’t able to feel true love for ourself and others, or live by our higher values. We cut down the process of cultivating resilience by avoiding these feelings, and actually become weak.

Paradoxically, our hard fought effort to avoid emotional pain to remain strong actually leads to our demise, and we become weak from our core.  Following our trail of tears is the only chance we have of becoming strong and happy. 

Therefore, pain is never weakness.  In fact, pain, if we allow it to, manifests in our bodies to guide, strengthen, and heal us.  Enlisting a professional to help us unearth, feel, and learn from our feelings, can be greatly beneficial because our psyches are complex, and often difficult to understand on our own. 

Pain connects us to our humanity, and humanity is the rich soil we need to experience a deeper and more authentic happiness, joy, and strength.

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