By Michelle Seaton
Here’s something to try. This won’t be fun, but try it anyway: Recall a moment when you felt envious, jealous, or even humiliated. The key is to focus on a painful moment, one you normally refuse to think about. You know the one I’m talking about: the time in seventh grade when you did that stupid thing and everyone laughed at you; the time you saw your boyfriend or girlfriend hitting on someone else; when you were caught in a lie; the moment success came to your rival instead of you; the time you begged him and he still said no.
Now spend a few minutes writing a description of the event. Don’t focus on why it happened or why it was a big deal. Write instead about how you reacted physically in the moment, how your body felt, the fantasies your emotions stirred up. You might even describe how quickly you judged yourself for feeling this way. Definitely describe what you said while in the grip of this unpleasant emotion and how others reacted to you. Spend a page or more in the pain, noting every detail.
I didn’t come up with this exercise. I found it in a new book, by Joseph Burgo, PhD, called Why Do I Do That? Burgo describes how we block painful feelings and how this need to ignore our pain shapes our behavior, almost always to our detriment. It’s not a how-to book about writing more nuanced characters or being a more compassionate artist. And yet it is, because the unpleasant feelings we deny in life we deny doubly on the page. The writer’s need to avoid pain shows up in every first draft of every short story or memoir.
I know this because I suffer from pain aversion, and so does my work. And so does your work, if you’re willing to be honest.
I tried this exercise recently, focusing on painful memories of loss, hatred, envy, apprehension, and—my least favorite—neediness. It was not fun to document my sudden dry mouth, the acid spill in my stomach, the vertigo of rage, the bizarre, unbidden thoughts that fuel my insecurities. But the exercise did show me a picture of these emotions that was truer than I’d ever been able to think about or write about before. I actually moved several sentences from the exercise into a story I was working on that was clever but flat.
Of course, doing the exercises in Burgo’s book might have other consequences. It might allow you to see the motivations behind your infuriating behaviors. It might give you compassion for your foibles and for other people. If it does change your life, consider that a bonus.