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3 Body-Based Practices to Identify and Heal Emotional Pain

Compassion doesn’t always soothe or fix our pain. It changes how we hold it.

My youngest son had colic for his first 5 months. I bounced him, walked in circles with him strapped to my front, and rocked all hours of the night. No matter how hard I tried, he wouldn’t stop crying. One day, haggard and sleep-deprived, I decided I had to do things differently or I was going to go crazier than I already was. I committed right then to stop trying to make him stop crying. My plan was to allow him to cry and focus my attention on loving him as I held him. The result? My son kept on crying just as much. But my relationship to it changed. Instead of feeling frantic and anxious when he screamed, I felt feelings of compassion and care for both of us.

Compassion doesn’t always soothe or fix our pain. It changes how we hold it. With compassion, we acknowledge pain, give space for it, and offer it kindness.

For example:

  • We can heal our relationship with our parents, without fixing our parents.
  • We can heal our relationship with our body, without fixing our body.
  • We can heal our relationship with our trauma without fixing the past.
  • We can heal our relationship with our children without fixing our children.

To Heal Your Pain, Hold It Differently

Body-based practices can be a wonderfully different way to relate to your emotional and physical pain. Instead of resisting pain, clenching around it, or trying to make it stop, you can choose to turn toward what is uncomfortable with care and love. Here are three embodied approaches that will help you generate a physical feeling of compassion toward even the most difficult feelings and sensations.

1. Notice Where It Hurts

The first step to compassion is acknowledging that you, or another person is in pain. Pain can show up in the form of emotional or physical discomfort or contraction in our bodies. Pain has a location, a form, a movement, and a feeling to it.

Try doing a body scan for emotional and physical discomfort. Develop an observer stance by describing it as if it were a physical object. Physicalizing pain in this way helps you recognize that although you are experiencing pain, you are not your pain.

  • Where do you notice physical or emotional pain in your body?
  • If you were to draw a line around it, what shape would it be?
  • How does it move in your body?
  • Does it have a weight?
  • What does it feel like?

2. Use Your Breath to Make Space.

After you have acknowledged and described the pain, bring your breath to it. Slow your breath down and allow it to move around your hurt and into the spaces that are contracted or sore. Imagine your breath is soft, comforting, and nurturing.

  • Take in long soothing breaths, for a count of about 5 seconds in and out.
  • Breathe into the tight and painful parts of your body.
  • Breathe in space and make room for all your feelings and sensations.

3. Hold Your Pain Lightly and with Love.

Finally, imagine you could hold your pain the way you would a crying baby. Handle it lightly, knowing that behind those screams is also a sweetness. Send compassionate feelings of caring, kindness, courage, tolerance, willingness toward your pain:

  • Imagine holding the pain in your body with care. Soften your face, unclench your jaw, let go of your belly.
  • Generate compassionate feelings of warmth, love, courage and send them to your painful parts.
  • Bring in compassionate imagery of others who love you, holding this pain with you.

Having compassion for yourself when you are hurting can feel foreign at first. But it is a skill you can develop over time. Try these simple body-based practices on a regular basis and you can grow a more compassionate mind and heart.

To learn more, see my interview with Paul Gilbert, founder of the Compassionate Mind Foundation.