There are many ways to deal with pain. Sure, you could meditate to work through whatever is bothering you — science says it can relieve stress, improve focus, help you think better and, more positively, boost self-confidence, but sometimes chocolate gelato just wins. The indulgent dessert is not the enemy. It’s important to know that whatever you resist persists. Ignoring emotional discomfort will not just make it go away. Instead, consider embracing pain as these three women have.
“It’s important to know that whatever you resist persists.”
We recently sat down with Golden Globe-winning actress and producer Tracee Ellis Ross of “Black-ish,” New York Times best-selling author of “The Universe Has Your Back,” Gabrielle Bernstein and body-positive advocate and yoga instructor Jessamyn Stanley as part of a #WomanInProgress campaign with Motrin. Here are some highlights from their conversation about how learning to work through life’s most challenging moments — whether it’s at work, the gym or the dinner table — is one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself.
Q: What attracted you to this #WomanInProgress campaign?
Tracee Ellis Ross: We all experience pain of different kinds, big and small, physical and emotional, in our lives and our days. The way we often connect with pain is that it’s a stopping point — that it’s something you should run from. I really believe that pain is part of the journey. It’s often the beginning of when the blossoming happens. To me, it really speaks to the way I go about my life.
Gabrielle Bernstein: I think our painful moments in life offer us great opportunity for transformation and personal growth. When we hit bottom or a pain point, it’s an opportunity to pivot. At any given moment, we can look at those moments and say, “I’m not going to go there. I’m going to push this down.” But it will keep showing up. And I always say we have to show up for what’s up or it will continue to show up. Show up for the painful moments with grace and enthusiasm. When we say “yes” to those painful moments, we have a clear direction on how to get through them. It’s about having the willingness to feel discomfort and be brave enough to wonder what’s underneath it.
Q: Jessamyn, you’ve experienced a kind of pain that many women can relate to — that pain of judgment and self-doubt. It’s been a strong part of your journey. Can you talk to us about a defining moment?
Jessamyn Stanley: I never aspired to be a yoga teacher. I wasn’t even interested in practicing at all. The time that I started, I was going through a very difficult period of trying to understand who I actually was versus who I’ve been taught or thought I needed to be. That conflict created so much unhappiness in my life. So, yeah, I did use yoga as a conduit to get to a better place.
In that practice, it brought me to so many places of emotional and physical pain, and really the kind of conflict that you cannot walk away from. Being able to see myself on the other side of that was so empowering. Everything that I thought was wrong with me is actually awesome. If I had not been in that place of conflict, I never would have come to terms with that. So I actually think that pain is a gift in a lot of ways. If you allow yourself to be open to it, it can teach you so many things about yourself.
Q: Tracee, as a very physically active person, how does that resonate with you?
Ross: Most of my life’s most delicious or miraculous or joyful moments have pain in them. Looking at it as this way to face it and dive deeper is really where all of it happens. Pain is big and small, physical and emotional. I have trouble with my knees, for example. I ran track all through growing up. I love running. But I can’t run anymore. I used to feel so free — put my shoes on, go anywhere and run. But at that point, when I started having trouble with my knees, I could have decided “no more exercising.” But instead, it opened up this wealth of different choices and ways to continue moving.
The pain of disappointment is another example. A guy not calling, a relationship not working out. Or landing at a certain age, and thinking, “Oh, my life doesn’t quite look the way I thought it should look.” This is an opportunity to frame this that something is wrong with me or I need to do something different. It’s an opportunity to look at who I am, what’s important to me, what I want more of and what choices I need to make that work for me.
Q: When people fall, how do you inspire them to get back up and try again?
Stanley: This is something that comes up for me constantly As a larger black woman, I end up teaching a lot of larger people in general, especially people who are also marginalized. When someone first walks into a yoga studio, they might think, “I can’t do this.” And when they attempt it and something hurts, they might think, “Oh, this hurts. I’m not doing it right.” You have to encourage them, “No, you’re good. Keep going.”
And then they might fall — and it’s an epic fall that really hurts, and they think, “I’m not supposed to be here!” But you have to get back up. I say this a lot when practicing inversions. How can you really learn to stand up on another part of your body if you don’t fall down? You’re never going to learn to take the weight out of your head and put it in your shoulders if you don’t fall. Accept that it is supposed to happen. If you just allow yourself to have this experience, you will come out of it so much stronger and more powerful.
Ross: As you were talking, I was thinking about feasible goals. Expectations get me in trouble. It’s a dangerous trap for me. Optimism and expectation are actually really difficult for me. I think that’s where a lot of my hurt and pain has comes from because I had an idea that something different should have been happening. And so I’m faced with matching up with what I thought it should be vs. what it is. The fear and terror that comes in between because the reason that is I didn’t do enough. There’s so many things in life that we can’t control. That I can’t try hard enough to make happen.
This made me think of my experience with yoga. The idea of being quiet for an hour and a half, I thought, “Are you kidding me?! Why?” Not only “why” but also “that’s painful… to be alone and quiet — that’s awful.” And poses that looked so complicated. I gave myself permission to go for 15 minutes. I did the first 15 minutes of class, and I left my mat by the door so I that I wouldn’t feel embarrassed to leave. I worked my way up in 5-minute increments. I remember when I made it to my first hour and a half, how proud I felt of myself. I was like, “Oh, I did it!” And I don’t remember how long it took me, but I did it.
Q: What are some other tangible tips and tools for people who want to manage their pain in the moment?
Bernstein: Breathe into the pain. Sometimes, if you let yourself just experience a feeling for 90 seconds, that feeling can change. Often we want to do whatever we can to avoid feeling discomfort. We’ll go eat some ice cream or pick up the phone and call a friend or do something to get out of that feeling. The simplicity is to just allow ourselves to be present with the feeling and breathe into it. That’s a mini meditation unto itself — to breathe for 90 seconds into the experience and then let it go.
I do this visual meditation with people and tell them to envision themselves in the ocean right before a wave is about to crash on you. The only way to avoid being knocked down is to dive into the wave. So when you see the wave coming at you, you take a deep breath, feel the discomfort of whatever is up and then dive into the wave. Then you come up, feel that emotion again, and dive into the way. This is something that just came to me when I was in my own meditation practice trying to feel my feelings. All of a sudden, I started seeing the waves, and thought this is a beautiful image of allowing myself to be present in exactly what I’m feeling and dive into it. That creates a power to not be the victim of our emotions. We often feel very alone in our suffering. When we simply acknowledge that we all suffer — we’re all in it together — that in itself takes a lot of the pressure off.
Q: What does being a #WomanInProgress mean to you?
Stanley: So much of it is about understanding that this moment is just a moment. It is not forever. There is a tendency in my own life when I’ve come to a place where I’m like “I’m good here. I can stay here.” That’s just a plateau. Ultimately, there’s going to be a rise or a fall. Accepting that is coming is all about being a woman in progress. Accepting the ups and the downs is the reason that we’re here. It’s not about the destination, it’s about this journey til the very end. You should hope that it’s so interesting and dense and full of different kinds of hurt.
Bernstein: For me, it’s having the willingness to be uncomfortable so that I have growth all the time. I don’t mean to say that I want to be uncomfortable all the time, but just having the willingness to go through it and move through it. That’s where the progress lies.
Ross: I think we live in such a culture that is focused on perfection. And I love that the expression “woman in progress” opens up this idea that in a world that is so rigid there is space and willingness to be with the discomfort and to be with oneself and to have one’s own experience in the journey. It’s not how we see a woman on her journey, but it’s how we are in our journey.