by Ben Eden
As I share my story, pay attention to how you think and feel. These realizations will be important in your path to overcoming your own emotional pain.
As you read my story, don’t compare and think, “That was no big deal” or “Oh my! That is so much worse than mine!” Rather, see how we can relate. Our experiences may not be the same, but we may relate in how we have felt during our experiences. We are all dealing with something and maybe we can learn from one another.
My story comes from when I was 9 or 10 years old. I was in elementary school and we had just finished playing dodgeball for PE. I have always loved sports and I have a natural talent for most sports. My friends were starting to notice my talent and I started to really care what they thought of me.
As we were leaving the gym to go back to class, my friends were laughing about something. Naturally, I wanted to be a part of the fun so I asked them what was so funny.
They told me to raise my arms.
So I did.
And my friends laughed even harder.
I looked down and realized that I had extremely sweaty armpits.
Now you might think, “What’s the big deal? You just got out of a dodgeball game. Of course you were sweating.” Yes, but I was still getting to know my body and I didn’t know I sweat like that. And it must have been more than others or else why would my friends make a big deal about it?
As I was beginning to look good in front of my friends whom I cared about what they thought of me, I was caught in an embarrassing situation regarding something I had no control over. I felt humiliated, embarrassed, ashamed, scared, and uncomfortable. My friends reacted in ways that I didn’t like. They laughed at me. They said it was gross and disgusting.
After a while, I began to think that I was gross. That I was disgusting. That nobody wanted to be around me... I began to believe that I was the problem.
Sweating was something I couldn’t control and I experienced how others reacted to it. Because it was a part of me, that must have meant there was something wrong with me! If others’ reactions caused me to feel bad about myself, there must be something wrong with me!
This event scarred me that day. I didn’t know what to do in that moment. I didn’t want to relive all those feelings, so I didn’t tell anyone about it. Not even my mom knew!
“Ok, fair enough. But is it really such a big deal? Wasn’t it a one-time event”
It turns out I have what is called, “hyperhidrosis,” or excessive underarm sweat. It isn’t something I can really control. So I have learned to go through life trying to hide this part of me. I do my best to be successful in a lot of things so that people can see me and think, “Wow, he is so great!” But a close friend of mine told me that I keep people at arm’s length. That was a true statement because I didn’t want people to get close enough to possibly discover a part of me that I have no control over and I am not proud of.
Why would they want to hang out with me if they knew this part about me? I do not want to go through that pain again. I don’t want them to find out that I am gross or that I am disgusting.
I still have hyperhidrosis. Throughout the years, I tried to live a “normal” life in spite of this part of me. I would go to group activities like game nights or dances. I would try to be involved and have a good time, but I hated it when we would do something where I couldn’t hide my sweaty armpits.
Whenever someone discovered it, they would react like they were grossed out. It brought back all the painful memories of that event in elementary school. Each time it happened, it made me want to hide it even more because my feelings of embarrassment and shame got stronger and stronger. I still couldn’t tell anyone about it.
To try to hide from those unresolved emotions, I would hide behind my shield of success. I even entered the world of addiction to try to “feel better.” I have discovered that many people may turn to binge-watching tv, eating, or video games to “feel better.” If those don’t work, they try drugs, alcohol, or pornography. They may even turn to violence or suicide.
How I Overcame My Emotional Pain
A year or two ago, I was working with my therapist and I decided to tell him about my emotional pain. Now, I had tried to hide this part of me for 20 years, so I went into that conversation very defensive and ready for him to laugh at me or think I was disgusting.
But after I told him that story he didn’t treat me any differently.
My brain was going crazy saying things like, “Wait, you aren’t going to laugh? You don’t think I am gross or disgusting? You are really treating me like I am a normal person?”
My therapist then did something extremely helpful. He helped me reprogram my brain and rewrite my memories. You see, emotional pain lasts so long because the brain connects memories to emotions and pain. If we experience something traumatic, the brain tries to hide it or numb it because it hasn’t been able to relieve it. If we trigger anything related to that experience, all the memories and emotions can flood open and overwhelm us.
The only way to overcome that is to do what therapists call “reassociation.”
The brain has learned that x = y. If x happens, y will happen. If I go to a game night and someone discovers my hyperhidrosis, they will laugh or be disgusted and I will be embarrassed. Nobody would want to be with me. You see how quickly that happens? We then try to cope with all those emotions in our old ways.
My therapist helped me reprogram my mind by telling me to close my eyes and imagine I went back to my 10 year old self right after this event by the gym had occurred. I would take him to a safe place and tell him, “You just experienced something really hard and you have every right to feel the way you do. But I want you to know that it is over. You are loved. And you are going to accomplish some amazing things in your life.”
When my therapist told me to tell myself that, my brain said, “Bologna! I can’t lie to myself! It isn’t over and why in the world would anyone love me?” But as my therapist had me repeat this exercise a few times, he helped me experience the emotions I had been suppressing all those years and since I got them out I could reprogram my brain.
That experience is no longer traumatic for me.
I have learned to turn that memory from a ghost that haunted me into an ancestor that I can learn from.