Being with What Hurts: Soften and Touch by Marina Smerling

Sometimes, all the tools of self-help and personal growth and relational realigning are just too much.  My good God, all the books we could read, all the seminars we could take. 

In my life and in my coaching work, I look for themes. Anything to help make this complex endeavor called Being a Human on Earth in 2018 a slightly more bearable or even graceful journey.

In a sense, so many of the questions can be boiled down to: when I hurt, what do I do?

Over the years, I’ve written about manifold, many-stepped processes involving various role plays and affirmations and perhaps even a guardian spirit porcupine or two, and yet I am finding that, so often, a simple two-step process helps most in the moments when our hearts ache, our hands tremble, and our bellies rage.


When we are triggered, our bodies tend to tighten, our chests constrict, and we harden around our emotions.  I find with many clients, and in my own being, that there is often a sense of aloneness that accompanies our pain, and then a defendedness, a kind of, “If you’re not gonna see me in here, I’m not gonna show you anyway.”  Indeed, the showing of our hurt would be too risky, too painful.  And so we harden, put up walls, hide in order to protect our sweet, suffering hearts.  But the irony is, we hurt even more in our aloneness. 

With my partner, for instance, when I am tight and guarded with him, I experience the most anguish.  “Why can’t you be with me in here?” I plead silently, even as my overt words debate the logic of who’s right and who’s wrong.  He can’t feel me because my walls are up.  I feel anguish, wanting his company, but all he hears is my argument, my poke, my defendedness. 

Softening is the process of allowing our feelings, offering gentleness around them, giving them permission to be here.  You might imagine warm hands embracing the hard stone in your throat.  You might remind yourself, “It’s okay, Fear/Anger/Grief, etc.  You get to be here, just as you are.” 

This is often the hardest of the two steps.  Moving away from our animal instinct to curl up and retract in the face of a poke to our hearts and psyches, and instead allowing our feelings to be here.  Softening *around* the curling up, instead of tightening around it.  The curl may remain tightly bound, but it will nonetheless notice the presence of softness just outside.

When I practice softening when my partner and I have had a disconnect, it might take the form of me envisioning a pillowy cloud around a little girl with her brows furrowed and chin down.  Or simply reminding myself, "It's okay, sweetheart. Your fear is welcome here."  Or dropping an intention of allowance and welcoming into the waters of my heart. So many ways to soften.


We were born and designed to be regulated through contact, through kind and loving presence and attention from another.  We were not meant to fend for ourselves, alone.  Despite our conditioning to “go it alone,” “figure it out yourself,” and “pull up on your bootstraps, kid,” in truth, we were meant to have many other hands around those bootstraps, many other hands and arms and hearts to accompany our own.

Thus once we’ve softened, unfolded, revealed the ache, the burn, the terror inside… our feelings need contact. 

We can find contact in several ways.

One, we can call upon our very own selves.  This is self-empathy, self-compassion, our physical hands on our hearts, on our bellies, our imaginary hands cupping our young selves, the ones aching for touch and acknowledgment.  This may look like saying to ourselves, “There there, I see you, and I’m not leaving.”

Two, if we are so lucky, we can call upon another.  This might be a friend, a family member, a therapist or a coach, someone who can lend us their kind, attuned, empathic attention to the places we hurt most.  These are our trusted listeners, and they help us remember what it is to be loved in the places we feel most unlovable, to have company in the places we feel most destined to eternal solitude.

Three, if we have a spiritual practice, we can open our hurt to God.  Saying to God, “See God, it hurts right here.  Will you touch the hurt?”  We open, and then we let God touch what hurts.  Letting God touch, caress, kiss the owies that are too big for us to figure out alone.  Handing them over.  “Here God, you take it.”  I use the word God, but you might say Spirit, Creation, the Universe, or something else.     

Something happens in the touching – whether it’s contact from ourselves, from another, or from a sense of the divine.  Sometimes clarity arrives – a long-awaited answer.  Sometimes, it’s a deep and unfathomable self-tenderness.  Sometimes, there is a sudden and unprecedented letting go where just moments before our palms were tightly gripped.

One step, two step.  Soften.  Touch.

When we soften and touch in the presence of another, even if it is we ourselves who do the contacting, suddenly, we can let others see us, see in.  When I can do this with my partner when we’ve had a disconnect, everything shifts.  He can see me, and is naturally moved toward tenderness with me.  When we let trusted others in, we often find even more contact in the places where we’ve felt unbearably alone.

This softening and touching is, I believe, the greatest gift we can offer our tender, hurting, inevitably fallible human selves.  Not denying the pain, not “getting over it,” not shoving it into the closet.  But letting it be here and offering it the kind and merciful presence that is and was always its birthright. 

It’s here that the magic unfolds.  Our suffering finds hands to hold (within or without).  From an embodied sense of a larger “we,” new wisdom emerges.  The alchemy of softening, then contacting allows new possibilities to emerge in moments of adversity, lending long-awaited mercy to the places where we have believed we were all alone.