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Many of my clients and students grumble about “dwelling” on painful feelings or traumatic memories, asking, “What’s the point?” Perhaps you’ve said or thought this yourself. Well, here’s the answer. According to the dictionary, to dwell means “to fix attention on” and “think about for a long time.” When you fear dwelling on things, my guess is that you’re not thinking of the first definition but of the words “for a long time” in the second one. You’re afraid that touching on or stirring up painful emotions will suck you down into them and that you’ll get stuck and won’t be able to climb out. However, your fear (due to experience or false anticipation) must be overcome to grow emotionally and overcome disordered eating.
There are two ways to dwell on pain, one healthy and one unhealthy. The goals of healthy dwelling are understanding and releasing of emotion; unhealthy dwelling has no purpose but self-perpetuation and making you miserable. Sometimes you just have to sink into pain to recognize its impact so that you can let it go. The idea is not to stay there forever, but to process the circumstances of what caused the pain, experience whatever is left, understand your response, put it into perspective, and accept that it is time to move on.
For example, you may recall that your father beat you whenever he was drunk, allow yourself to experience the hurt and horror you felt back then and maybe still feel, understand that your reactions were and are natural and that you need not feel shame or guilt for them, and recognize that you and Dad were both doing the best you could (though his actions were deplorable and unacceptable). Healthy dwelling leads you to these insights so that you no longer have to be afraid of painful memories. It removes the power from them and makes it possible to recalling them with less distress.
Unhealthy dwelling, on the other hand, is a way of torturing yourself and going nowhere. It is not healthy, goal-directed processing that will move you through and out of pain. By continuing to search out and dwell on hurt, you cause yourself to stay stuck, often with a victim mentality. That’s when it’s time to remind yourself that the past is over and you need not now choose pain. This kind of dwelling is unnecessary and nonproductive.
So next time you think you’re dwelling on discomfort, consider whether you’re doing the healthy kind that will move you through pain and help release it, or whether you’re bogged down and extending your misery in a way that will merely perpetuate it.
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