Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding … And if you could keep your heart in wonder at the daily miracles of your life, your pain would not seem less wondrous than your joy. --KAHLIL GIBRAN
Several years ago, I developed what we call “frozen shoulder.” It’s very common in midlife women and, like just about everything else, it’s believed to be related to hormone levels and menopause—but I knew that wasn’t my problem. The pain started one day, seemingly out of the blue, while I was picking up a piece of wood to place in the wood stove. I developed immobilizing pain in my left shoulder, dropped the wood, and actually fell to my knees. The next day, I could not stretch my left arm behind my back very far without wincing in agony, and the pain continued day after day. Because I hadn’t suffered an injury, I felt that the cause had to be emotional, and that the pain and immobility, real as they were, were ultimately rooted in unresolved emotions. The brain doesn’t recognize the difference between emotional pain and pain caused by a physical injury. In fact, brain studies have demonstrated that emotional pain registers in precisely the same areas of the brain as physical pain. Because of my work with thousands of patients and my personal experiences with emotions and illness, I have long known that at their core, all illness and physical ailments—including those seemingly caused by accidents or viruses. So I was certain there had to be some old, unprocessed emotional wounds in the area of my heart, ribs, and shoulders, all associated with the fourth or heart chakra. Despite my intellectual understanding, though, I didn’t know the cause—and despite knowing my pain had to be psychosomatic, I didn’t get relief. With the help of a holistic chiropractor and my Pilates teacher, I spent months trying to open up my rib cage and move my shoulder, which helped ease the pain and expand my mobility slightly. But I knew that the key to complete recovery lay in releasing the blocked emotions related to my heart. For several years, I had been romantically involved with a man I loved deeply but who was not emotionally available to me. I desperately tried to fix the relationship, which in many ways mirrored my failed marriage. Because I couldn’t get this relationship to meet my needs, I was doubting my desirability as a woman—an old issue for me.
Could it be that my shoulder pain (and the occasional chest pain I had had about once a year for a decade) had something to do with my relationships with the important men in my life? Much as I idolized my father when I was growing up, he was busy taking care of my mother and her needs, as well as earning a living. It was a time when I needed my desirability validated by the number-one man in my life: him. I remember one day when I was around middle-school age, I was waltzing in the kitchen with him, trying to learn this skill. My father was a good dancer, and as we ended our dance together, I asked him what he thought, hoping he would approve of my moves. He replied, “You’d do okay if it was dark—and the man was drunk.” My Scorpio dad’s barb hit me very deeply, right in the heart. He made similar criticisms of my tennis playing even though I practiced for hours and tried so hard to please him by being a good player. He didn’t take the time to teach me or arrange for me to take lessons from someone else, but simply criticized me in his forthright way. I’m sure his comments were the result of being irritable from overwork, or simply thoughtless in the way all of us can be at times. And I know many women have suffered far worse things than I did. But that doesn’t mean I should have made excuses for him or downplayed the emotional impact on me—“Oh, for heaven’s sake, that was decades ago! Are you still holding on to that? Just get over it!” No matter what happened to you—or how long ago it happened—you must do the healing work that only you can do. Failure to do so just perpetuates pain and dis-ease. My father’s insensitive jokes and comments had created a wound that became buried in my tissues. Now that the old theme was playing out in my adult life, all these years later, the old emotions I had felt as a child were expressing themselves as pain and immobility in my shoulder. My body was telling me to heal the old hurts. I didn’t realize this right away, however. It began to dawn on me during a session I had with Doris E. Cohen, Ph.D., author of Repetition: Past Lives, Life, and Rebirth (Hay House, 2008). Dr. Cohen has been a clinical psychologist for 40 years and also works on the spiritual level and with dreams. For a few years now, she had been suggesting that I look at my father issues, but until this point, I hadn’t been ready to face that possibility. It took the repetition of the original heartbreak with my father—in the form of an adult love relationship—to bring the issue to the surface by bringing on physical pain. The severity of my discomfort made me willing to look again at my emotional issues surrounding my father and begin a program of healing, as Dr. Cohen suggested to me. For three days in a row, I set a timer for 15 minutes to do an anger and grief release session. During the first five to ten minutes of each session, I imagined my father sitting in front of me and let my rage fly. I just let him have it! I shouted at him for making those thoughtless, hurtful comments years ago. I swore at him, crying, “How the f--- could you talk to your daughter like that? What were you thinking, you bastard?!” In addition, I took a hand towel and snapped it against some sturdy woodwork, all the while yelling expletives of rage until I felt spent. After these sessions—and sometimes, just a few minutes into them—I often found myself lying on my bed, curled up in a fatal position weeping and crying out, “I want my Daddy.” It was the cry of a little girl whose broken heart had been running her relationship life on some level for decades. My level of grief surprised me. But underneath anger there is nearly always hurt. My ever-present “witness” self stood watching while I went through these steps of releasing pure, unfiltered anger, getting in touch with my grief and letting it out, and nurturing myself and my body afterward. After this process each day, I took a bath with Epsom salts. As I sat in the warm water, I imagined all of the toxins in my body and mind leaching out of me and down the drain.
For three consecutive days, I used this anger and grief release process, and then I spent five to ten minutes a day for the next two days doing “active imagination” work, imagining exactly how I wanted my father to have responded to me during the times when he was so critical. I imagined him dancing with me in the kitchen, praising me for my beauty, grace, and skill as a dancer. I imagined myself glowing with pride, awash in his praise of my desirability. Having cleared out the toxins from my cells, I was now reprogramming those cells with a new story. It was like removing the rocks from the soil and cultivating it before planting new seeds. I also did some of that towel work and raging to express my frustration, anger, and grief about the emotionally unavailable man in my life. Within about two weeks, the shoulder pain and limitation were nearly gone. It took about another month for full range of motion to return and all pain to completely resolve, but then I was pain-free even during my Pilates sessions. One of the insights I had during my healing process, which I developed over the course of a few months, was that the imprint of lack of love toward myself was being mirrored in some of my closest relationships. People were reflecting my own beliefs about myself back to me! My well-developed intellect wouldn’t let me see that at first. But working with my dreams, with Dr. Cohen, and with exercises for releasing my feelings about my father, I came to appreciate my role in keeping myself stuck in old beliefs and behaviours that no longer served me. Notice I didn’t say I had no right to my old feelings, or no right to see my father as cruel in some ways, or no right to my defensive behaviours and choices—such as getting and staying involved with an emotionally unavailable lover. I said I rid myself of what was no longer serving me. You get to decide whether the payoff of holding on to all that is worth jeopardizing your health, feeling lousy, and pushing away new opportunities because of your distrust, or cynicism, or avoidance behaviours. It’s up to you to make the choices. I’m just advising you to let all that crap go so you can flourish. These patterns set the stage for our health and relationships for our entire lives because our early years are when our core beliefs about the world in general, and our self-worth in particular, are formed. As children, we don’t have the capacity to emotionally or mentally process our painful experiences. We may think that the harsh words of others have rolled off our backs, or that we’ve worked it all through in therapy or by writing in our journals. But then a physical ailment or an emotional crisis arises—or both do. That’s when we realize that there’s some old stuff buried within us that has to come up and out the way it went in: through our bodies’ energy fields and tissues.
Where Emotions Get Stuck
We learn to wall off our pain and “soldier on,” and after a few decades, most of us are very skilled at this and have a lot of very old emotions stuck in us. Our culture doesn’t teach us how to release our emotions as they come up, much less when they’ve become buried. In my teen years, when I was going through a breakup with my first boyfriend, my father hugged me and said, “Feelings are facts. And sometimes you just have to get them off your chest.” Much of what is required to truly flourish is embedded right in our everyday language. To “get something off your chest” means to free up your heart, your lungs, and your shoulders from the burdens of feeling unloving and unloved. Grief, rage, hurt, and resentment are all forms of being unloving toward ourselves and others. And though we are sometimes visited by a divinely inspired moment of grace and insight that quickly and easily lifts this burden of “unlovingness,” most often the burden is not lifted until we are brought to our knees by the weight of it. We don’t have to wait until that moment to free ourselves! We don’t have to create illness to awaken to our need to heal. I loved my father dearly. We were a lot alike, and I looked up to him. He was a pioneer in what we would now call holistic dentistry. My dad often said that you could tell the state of someone’s health by looking in that person’s mouth. His philosophy of health and disease, in direct contrast to that of his sister and brother, who were conventional physicians, became the basis of my own holistic medical practice. My father could do no wrong in my eyes. But long after his death, I was stunned by how much resentment lay buried deep in my mind and body. I thought that everyday misunderstandings and the ordinary mistakes our mothers and fathers make in the course of parenting couldn’t possibly cause wounds that can remain unhealed for a lifetime. We can love our family members dearly and make a conscious choice to forgive them for whatever hurts they have caused us. In fact, this step in our healing is crucial. But it’s not enough. We still need to clear old hurts, anger, and grievances from our bodies. The health benefits of this are immense.
When the pain of staying stuck is greater than the pain you have to go through to get free, you have the opportunity to let go of the heartache of the past and be free to bloom. Once you get to the point where you’re ready for the breakthrough, the emotions will appear one way or another. If you ignore them or repress them again, they’ll come back up. And the longer you wait, the more likely they are to come up accompanied by physical ailments meant to awaken you to the need for healing. There are four crucial truths about stored emotions that you must know if you want to be an ageless women: We store our emotions in our energy fields and tissues, where they can remain for years, suppressed and waiting for us to have the courage to express them; Unprocessed emotions of anger, grief, sadness, and shame are a serious threat to health and well-being. You must process your emotions. You do that by learning what need they signify and then releasing them through movement, sound, and tears. It can take a lot of repetition—using techniques like the ones you’ll learn about in this article—to bring the emotions up and out of you. I know that letting yourself feel and release so-called “negative” emotions is easier said than done. Shame is endemic in our society, and we’re taught to feel ashamed of ourselves and our strong emotions that make others uncomfortable, especially our anger.; There’s no need to fear the emotions that come up, because they won’t last forever or overwhelm you—though at first you may think they will. The good news is that we’re designed biologically to feel and release emotions regularly and easily. Many of us were taught that as long as we mentally acknowledge that we’re ticked off, or sad, or jealous, or embarrassed, or ashamed, and we think through why we feel that way and make some conscious choices about our thoughts and behaviors, that’s the end of it. Wrong. Emotions have an energetic and physiological reality that doesn’t magically disappear when you think to yourself, I don’t want to be mad at my mother anymore, so I’ll just go along with her holiday plans and try not to let her get to me. They don’t disappear simply because you’ve cried a few times, or shouted at someone, or talked to your therapist. Shifting your thoughts is very important, but it’s not enough. You have a lot of emotional energy to release too. As Dr. Joe Dispenza says, “Emotions are the language of the body. And they are also a record of the past.” We can’t change our bodies or our health simply by changing our thoughts. True transformation involves changing both our thoughts and the emotional connections that keep us stuck in the past. The only way to get rid of your anger, guilt, shame, grief, or fear thoroughly so that it doesn’t affect your health in the long run is to start a process of emotional release. Learn what you can from your experiences. You might want to do this with the help of a coach or therapist—there are many who incorporate emotional release work into their sessions.
However, after you’ve gleaned what you need to know about the origins of your feelings and behaviours, don’t talk about your childhood traumas over and over again in lieu of doing emotional release work. As author Anne Wilson Schaef said to me once, “We take our shit and we put it on an altar and worship it!” And unfortunately, we expect everyone else to worship it too, which is why “victims” can be so manipulative. How many of us have been taught to repress our inconvenient feelings and walk on eggshells around others who have unfinished business that may have nothing to do with us? Maybe you were told, “Don’t talk about that in front of Aunt Mabel. You know that she lost a daughter in the past and has never gotten over it!” It’s always important to be kind. But worshipping the family wounds for generations is just not healthy! All of us are given a certain amount of crap to compost. Create something better from the crap so that it doesn’t define your life or make you sick. And while we’re composting, let’s throw onto the compost heap the old belief that suffering is redemptive. You are not getting a ticket to the VIP seats in heaven by torturing yourself on Earth today. The atonement archetype has to go. And it’s deeply embedded in most of us. When it comes to painful emotions, it’s important not to indulge their inherent drama. There’s a difference between bringing emotions to the surface of your awareness so that you can release them and artificially keeping these emotional experiences alive in you. Don’t be fashionably cynical. Don’t identify with your depressive feelings and tell yourself that the world is out to get you so you might as well anticipate the worst. Better to indulge in “pronoia,” which writer and astrologer Rob Brezsny defines as “the belief that the world is conspiring to shower us with blessings.” Now that is a mind-set that supports health. So stop waiting for the moment when it’s okay to be happy—when you’ve lost the weight, stopped making financial mistakes, or achieved whatever goalpost of perfection you set up for yourself. After that, make a commitment to getting rid of all the old emotional toxins that have become stuck inside you so you can live freely and agelessly. Let’s look at the emotions you hold on to, how they affect you, and how to get rid of them when they’re no longer serving you so you can bring in the healing forces of love, laughter, pride, and sheer delight in being alive on earth.
Learn From Your Emotions
By midlife, you’ve had your heart broken at least once, and probably more, by someone or something. Heartbreak is how your heart becomes wise, because it has to be cracked open for you to experience your divinity. The more you try to avoid heartbreak and dull the pain through drinking, smoking, eating, or denial, the worse the pain gets and the deeper it buries itself. Fortunately, the heartbreak you’ve survived gives you the strength to face the emotions you’ve been encouraged to avoid. Anger, fear, sadness, betrayal, abandonment, and shame are the more challenging emotions we tend to avoid, to our detriment. Shame is the most painful because it stops us from facing the other emotions. There really aren’t any “negative” emotions because all emotions have a function. They serve as our innate guidance system, alerting us to what we truly need and what we need to change. Anger and fear—and those are closely related—are experienced in the primitive limbic brain system that evolved to help us avoid danger. When faced with danger, the limbic brain begins a process of reaction that involves anger, fear, and the urge to fight or run away. But we also feel anger and fear in response to thoughts, and to situations or people that aren’t actually dangerous. It’s good that we have a fear response, because fear and anger can remind us to slow down and sort out what we think and feel before saying yes to whatever’s being asked of us. However, fear and anger aren’t supposed to be a way of life. As Stephen Covey wrote in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Families (St. Martin’s Griffin, 1998), quoting Viktor Frankl, “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. This experience can also be called wisdom—which Dr. Joe Dispenza brilliantly refers to as “memory without the emotional charge.”
Grief is a little different from anger and fear. It tends to have less energy—in fact, it zaps us of energy. Becoming sad is a part of life, but if you carry your grief for too long, it will age you very quickly. Don’t suppress your grief because you feel pressured to keep your tears to yourself. What’s the first thing you do when you see people crying? You probably tell them not to cry and try to talk them out of their sadness. And chances are you also hug them—as a way to stop their pain. Then they feel obligated to stop crying because it’s making you uncomfortable. There’s a happy medium here. One mother says to her sensitive daughter after a good ten minutes of her daughter moping on the living room couch, “I know you’re sad about this and I’m sorry you feel that way. Maybe you should take some time in your room to cry.” She’s not banishing her daughter, or saying her daughter is being too sensitive. She’s just teaching her that sometimes it’s best to be alone with your tears. Now, this mom checks in after a while to make sure her daughter hasn’t gotten stuck in her mood, but she gives her daughter room to be sad. Wouldn’t it be marvellous if we all encouraged each other to let it out but not indulge sadness to the point where everyone feels the need to flop in a chair and begin weeping? Thoughts and beliefs can fan the embers of sadness just as they can rekindle any emotion, so it’s important to look at any depressing, pessimistic attitudes and stories you have about your life and decide whether you want to replace them. Recently I had some old slides that I hadn’t looked at in decades scanned into jpegs. And I was utterly astounded by how lovely I looked in the early years of my marriage. But back then, I didn’t feel beautiful at all. It didn’t help that the man I was married to was always happy to tell me that I could stand to lose weight. I spent many years certain that I was too fat and not desirable as a woman. Those beliefs—and the shame and grief that were part of them—eventually showed up as a frozen shoulder, chest pain, and a large fibroid in my uterus. I have reversed all of these conditions through bringing the beliefs and the feelings associated with them to consciousness to be felt and released. And with each layer of the onion that I’ve shed, I have become healthier and happier—which is really the body’s natural state. What old beliefs and feelings do you need to release? What sadness are you holding on to? I don’t mean to minimize how strongly you can be affected by anger, fear, or sadness. It’s incredibly scary to contemplate the end of a relationship, losing your job or your home, and so on, and those things can happen, forcing you to accept that change is a part of life. You can’t freeze your circumstances and avoid future suffering, but you can choose to live in fear or live in faith. Most of what’s called security is an illusion anyway. You can create a sense of security even when you’re in a transition or your circumstances aren’t what you would like them to be. Your inner power to generate emotions such as confidence and faith is incredible. And the ability to do so literally rewires both your brain and your body. But to do this, you first have to connect with the Divine.
The actual problem isn’t what we fear so much as the emotion of fear eating away at us. Many women, myself included, share a primal fear that somehow we’ll end up homeless and living alone in a cardboard box on the street. In general, we humans tend to look out for each other, and support can come from unexpected places when you turn your life over to the Divine Beloved. To live as an ageless women is to release fear and strengthen faith. Name your fear and transform it instead of hanging on to it. One of my favourite prayers to heal fear goes like this: “Divine Beloved, please change me into someone who trusts that the perfect outcome to this situation has already been chosen. Change me into someone who can relax and let go.” Say this prayer (or something in a similar spirit, such as the Twenty-third Psalm) when your fear of the future or the unknown has you in its grip. Over time, it will become a habit. Letting go and letting God is a learnable skill.
Many Forms of Shame
Fear and anger are like weeds that feed on shame—and shame is a toxin we need to release if we want to be ageless! Again and again, we get the message that our needs aren’t important and that we’re being selfish and bad if we take care of ourselves. No wonder we’re afraid to feel our emotions. A patient of mine once told me, “In my household, I was so certain I wasn’t wanted, I was afraid of breathing deeply because I might take up oxygen other people needed.” Guilt serves a purpose, waking us up to something we need to correct, but shame is downright poisonous. Brené Brown distinguishes between guilt and shame this way: guilt is feeling you made a mistake while shame is feeling you are a mistake. That said, healthy shame serves the purpose of alerting us when we’ve truly been selfish and even cruel. It creates good boundaries between people and leads us to create a balance between our needs and those of the people around us. Our conscience makes us feel ashamed when we’ve acted shamelessly, oblivious to anyone else’s feelings and needs. However, unjustified shame is very different. It is hands down the most destructive and painful emotion that we humans are capable of feeling. It drains us of life force and creativity. Our energy goes to hating ourselves instead of to self-correcting, and we forget that, like everyone else, we deserve love and acceptance. Too many women are terrified of taking risks and making a mistake, socially or otherwise, because they fear other people shaming them. And no wonder—it happens all the time. Women are shamed for just about everything. They are especially shamed for not being perfect: being too thin or too fat, too beautiful or too plain, too bubbly or too serious, too emotionally expressive or too cold, and of course, too sexy or too unsexy. You can’t win if you’re trying to please the perfection police! Mary Pipher, author of Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls (Putnam, 1994), and others have pointed out that as teenagers, girls start to realize they can never achieve that balance of perfection that’s expected of them and their self-esteem plummets. It seems no matter what we do, there’s plenty of public shaming to keep us from flourishing. We’re even shamed sometimes just for feeling happy. A woman was telling me the other day that at her meditation centre, the group was instructed to meditate on equality in honour of some civil rights legislation breakthrough that had just occurred. Afterward, the meditators shared their experiences. One of the men said he had meditated on all the work that still had to be done, and expressed how depressing and upsetting it was for him to hear people celebrating the new law when its scope was so limited. Happiness shouldn’t be shamed!
It’s crucial to your health and happiness that you learn to spot this kind of manipulation the moment it’s happening and not allow yourself to get sucked in. Let’s look at the logic here: you can’t actually get sick enough to help those who are sick, you can’t get sad enough to help those who are sad, and you can’t get poor enough to help those who are destitute. The belief that suffering somehow makes us holier or superior is rooted in what is called the “zero-sum model” that runs most of Western culture—the system that says, “Resources are limited. So if you get more, someone else will have to go without.” This is simply not true when it comes to the currency of health and happiness!
Shame Holds You Back
Shame is toxic not just to your health but to your creativity, learning, and growth. In the medical and research professions, the one thing you can count on is this statement at the end of just about every research paper that presents new, sometimes helpful information, such as the health benefits of vitamin D: “More research needs to be done.” It’s become a mantra to let the doctor off the hook of taking a position. After all, if she’s wrong she will be shamed. In the early days of being an ob/gyn, I read many research studies showing that if you prescribe folic acid to pregnant women, you reduce the risk of the baby developing spina bifida, so I went ahead and prescribed it. Despite all the research, it took the American College of Obstetrics and Gynaecology 15 years to officially recommend this intervention. How many babies were harmed in the meanwhile because shame and fear held doctors back from doing the right thing? We’re still awaiting official permission to get rid of fatal monitoring, which has never improved outcomes for mothers or babies but does increase the risk of C-sections. Current research shows very clearly that having optimal levels of vitamin D in your blood can cut your risk for breast cancer in half and substantially lower your risk of other cancers, such as colorectal cancer. And giving enough vitamin D to pregnant women drastically reduces a child’s chance of developing type 1 diabetes, which should be mainstream knowledge. But almost no one wants to make the first move for fear of being wrong. Not every risk turns out to be a good one, but we can only learn and change and bring about something new if we let ourselves be clumsy, unskilled novices who screw up here and there. Let’s face it: shame can get us stuck in every sort of emotion and behaviour that can hold us back. Because we’re often afraid of being shamed for not being a “good” person, or for being disloyal, we don’t prioritize our desires and instead focus on pleasing everyone else. Because our culture doesn’t agree on what constitutes “appropriate” grief, we get shamed for being too sad after a loss—or not sad enough. You might find yourself holding on to grief to prove what a good spouse, parent, or daughter you are. You start feeling like Scarlett O’Hara in mourning, desperately wanting to dance but instead feeling compelled to look every inch the bereaved widow in head-to-toe black. An acquaintance of mine lost her son in a car accident. A year later, her husband told her she should be “over it” by now. But each of us has our own timeline for recovery from loss. How can you decide for another person when grieving should end? Sometimes people will shame you because they’re jealous and think, I should have had that opportunity she had! It’s not fair!