I excel at hiding pain. It’s pretty easy as an active, fit, thirty-something who tries to rock a positive outlook on life – I don’t fit the profile of a person in chronic pain. But for nearly 20 years, I suffered intensely with intermittent, undiagnosed abdominal pain. It would come to visit for five days at a time, making its presence known as a tight fist under my rib cage, at times breathtakingly intense. But most of the time, it was merely a persistent, exquisite distraction – a wincing seven on a scale of one to ten, making it impossible to be fully present with other people, or even to think.

Every time I saw a doctor, I’d be sent for an ultrasound, and every time, I was told that “everything’s fine.” That was as far as any physician was willing to go. I was left with no diagnosis, no treatment, and no advice as to what to do.

Over the years, I tried cutting out all sorts of different foods and tried every treatment modality I could think of. Making the rounds to different health care providers became an expensive and not-at-all-fun hobby. So I quit trying to figure it out.

Meanwhile, here’s how I made my suffering worse:

I would try to ignore it and carry on as normally as possible — an exhausting and at times impossible strategy.

I isolated myself. I would retreat behind a closed door, not wanting to burden anyone else with my pain. Plus, it didn’t fit the image of strength I was trying to project. So I cut myself off from love, empathy, and caring just when I needed it most.

I felt victimized, wondered “why me?” and felt desperate to learn whatever lesson I needed to in order to make it stop.

I resented the pain for getting in the way of my ability to be fully present for daily life, as well as the highlights: yoga teacher training, my honeymoon, a trip to Italy, visits to my family back East.

I shamed myself for not knowing what to do, for not doing enough to figure it out. I raked myself over the coals for any dietary sins: “If only you hadn’t had that cup of coffee this morning or that piece of chocolate last night, you might not be in this mess.”

I let the pain undermine my confidence as a clinician. After all, if I can’t figure myself out, what kind of a healer could I possibly be?

When I finally got decent health insurance (and a few expensive tests not previously suggested), I found out that my gall bladder didn’t work. Like, at all. (It scored an impressive zero on the HIDA scan.) I had it removed last year and have been free of this pain ever since.

I don’t miss the pain. But I am grateful for the following lessons:

1) Pain is an invitation to learn about yourself. You honor it by listening. Stay curious and keep investigating. Trust your own experience, and find health care practitioners who will trust you as well. Just because conventional medicine doesn’t have an answer doesn’t mean there isn’t one. Try different modalities, as well as different practitioners within those modalities — everyone looks through a different lens depending on his/her background and training, and everyone has their biases and blind spots. Advocate for yourself. It could save you decades of suffering.

2) You’re not alone. Pain sucks. So does feeling like you’re missing out on fully participating in life. But trust me on this: you’re so not the only one. As a clinician, I hear people describing various ailments and feeling lonely and victimized because everyone else can eat whatever they want, stay up as late as they want, overwork as much as they want, and feel fine. But here’s the secret truth: they don’t. Most people suffer unpleasant consequences for such behaviors – they just don’t talk about it. In the US, more people suffer from chronic pain than cancer, heart disease, and diabetes combined.

3) Allow the experience. Pretending it isn’t there is trying to argue with reality. It’s exhausting, isolating, and increases suffering many times over. I’m not suggesting you embrace it, love, it, or build a shrine to it; just be willing to acknowledge its existence. Give it a nod. As your resistance softens, you may even feel a bit more ease.

4) Stop blaming yourself. It’s hard enough to deal with pain without slathering on a layer of guilt. You can be doing everything “right” and still be in pain. It doesn’t mean you’re flawed; it means you’re human. It’s an inescapable part of the human experience – one that every person on the planet will experience from time to time.

5) Practice self-compassion. When someone else is in pain, what are the first feelings that come up? Empathy? A desire to help? You are just as worthy of that; give it to yourself, then do what you need to do to take care of yourself.

6) Own it. Admitting to a good friend or a partner “this sucks. I wish I could be connecting with you right now, but I can’t focus through this blinding pain,” and having them say “wow, yeah, that does suck. I get it. It’s okay.” Letting people in on what’s going on can take the pressure off of needing to feel “normal.” And it’s so much more honest and intimate than “I’m fine.”


When we are willing to acknowledge our experience of pain, we give others permission to do the same. In doing so, we poke holes in the cultural illusion that “everything’s fine,” reducing that social pressure to pretend that nothing is ever wrong or difficult. Pain then becomes a less lonely experience and induces far less guilt and shame, which makes it easier to bear. In showing up with our whole selves, even the vulnerable parts that we’d prefer were different, we allow for deeper intimacy with those around us and help create a more compassionate culture.



Did you happen to catch Monica Lewinsky’s TED talk that’s been making the rounds on Facebook recently? I loved it. In her talk, Monica asks who among us hasn’t done something regretful at the age of 22? She calls for us all to have greater empathy and compassion for people whose missteps or out-of-context statements become fodder for viral videos and internet memes. She says this with the authority of someone who was humiliated nearly to the point of suicide. I couldn’t agree more on this call to create a more compassionate culture.

While I have not (yet) been publicly shamed on a global scale, I do know what it’s like to face relentless criticism at every turn, to be torn down and bullied 24/7, as I used to do this to myself. You may not know this about me, as it’s not exactly a point of pride, but I (used to) have a raging inner critic. I have been trying to get her off my back for years, and slowly but surely, it’s working. She used to be really loud and obnoxious, tearing me down even in front of other people. (Now she speaks in whispers.)

One night a few years ago still stands out in my memory: I was doing my best to make two dinners at the same time: one bland for the kids, one with actual flavors for my husband and me. Food bubbled on all four burners of the stove while veggies sizzled in the oven. The timer for the roasting veggies beeped just as a pot threatened to boil over, so I quickly quieted the timer, turned the heat down on the stove and gave the pot a stir. Then somebody asked a question, which I answered while adding the cilantro and lime juice to the curry. The veggies in the oven, completely forgotten, charred beyond the point of edible.

“Seriously???” I demanded of myself, loudly. “I can’t believe I let this happen. I even set a timer. How hard is it to take something out of the oven?”

Sensing my distress, my step-son Jack sprang up, threw his arms around me and reassured me, “It’s OK, Brodie. You’re still an amazingly awesome person!”

At that moment it sunk in: now that I’m a parent, I need to do something about this inner critic bullshit, because I now have witnesses. I definitely don’t want my new 9-year-old feeling like he needs to take care of his step-mom.

The irony is that compassion is one of my super-powers. Empathy for others is incredibly natural for me, and I would never dream of inflicting such a harsh tone or shaming questions on anyone else. Clearly, I had (and sometimes still have) a different set of standards for myself than I do for anyone else on the planet.

I have been doing this work on self-compassion for years. The work has taken many forms: breathing, meditation practices, self-compassion rituals, heart-opening qi gong, applying essential oils to acupoints, in addition to acupuncture and herbs. And I have made remarkable progress. My inner critic is no longer the loudest voice in my head.

In moments of shame when I am tempted to self-flagellate, I am able to meet myself with compassion. I know that perfection is not the metric. I can see when I’m putting WAY too much pressure on myself, and scale it back. I can even laugh about it. And I am a way better parent now that I can role model self-compassion.

After many years of walking this path myself, I’m ready to share with you the practices that have helped me in my journey. This summer at Breitenbush Hot Springs, we’ll cultivate the qi of self-compassion. We’ll also practice being super sweet to ourselves, laugh, get curious, and explore a whole toolbox of strategies.

What do I mean by self-compassion? Self-compassion isn’t merely the absence of an inner critic; it’s embracing who you are. It involves knowing yourself, respecting yourself, recognizing your humanity, and getting the ego out of the way. It’s also about self-care, knowing and respecting your energy and its limits, and knowing what you need to do to show up as the best version of yourself. Getting good at self-compassion is the opposite of self-indulgent; it helps everyone around you.

Join me for a self-compassion retreat at Breitenbush Hot Springs, August 23rd – 26th.