What I learned in therapy Lesson 5 – The relationship of love and pain

This is lesson five of what I learned in therapy: Pain is not a part of love, love is the answer to pain.

This lesson actually came later in my healing and my work with the Boundary Ninja. I’m writing about it now as it’s been a subject that has been both coming up in a lot of conversations I’ve had lately and because I am learning to experience it as a lived truth. If forced to choose, I think I would pick this understanding as the most powerful that I learned in therapy. It is also extremely difficult to explain because at its heart is a mystery that lives at the heart of our existence. It’s not so much a truth that you understand, as much as you learn to accept.

I hit a point in my therapy where I had come to terms with the losses of my childhood, I understood that I wouldn’t be able to completely eradicate the effects of my childhood but that I was becoming better and faster at dealing with the fall out such that it no longer interfered with my living a full life as much as it had previously. I was feeling more secure with the Boundary Ninja, going longer without contact, and probably the most significant, was able to see that I really was functioning much better.

For example, I hit a week during which both my husband and I were working OT but since my hours weren’t as bad as his, I was mainly in charge of the house. I managed to work through the week, keep the house in good shape, I had prepared meals the weekend before, so we ate pretty well. At the end of the week, I had to take my younger daughter for her permit, was running my other daughter hither and you, ended up having to remove a tick from one daughter, and in the middle of all that our dishwasher started to leak across my kitchen floor. I started to go into my normal meltdown of “this is too overwhelming, I can’t handle it” which usually precedes me freezing up. But this time I was able to recognize that the feeling of being overwhelmed and not being able to cope was a memory from childhood. That although things were stressful, I am a reasonably competent woman and could handle it. And I did all that without contacting the BN. We had one of those rare but wonderful “hey, look how far I’ve come” sessions.

Having my growth and progress affirmed by the BN, got me wondering if it was time to leave therapy (a favorite obsession of mine for lo, these many years; eventually I figured it out). But as soon as I started contemplating leaving, I would get overwhelmed at the thought of leaving the BN. I started circling between feeling like I was doing so well, that things had really changed and I was ready to go out on my own, then slamming into the boundaries and experiencing such intense longings, of wanting more in the relationship that the boundaries would allow. And oddly enough, I couldn’t figure out what that “more” was.  The more I tried to figure out what it was I really wanted, beyond knowing I couldn’t have anything but therapy, the more confused I got. The truth was that the longings from the past and the longings here in the present seemed to be inextricably intertwined and so were almost impossible to separate or understand. I had been assuming that as I worked through my grief over the losses in my past, I would also work through all my feelings about the BN, and stop wanting anything beyond therapy. That as I grieved, not only would it heal the loss, it would “heal” the feelings I had for him.

But part of what was sinking in was that I finally felt safe loving the BN (I very much use the word in a paternal, trusting sense rather than a romantic/erotic sense, although I had those feelings also). That feeling loving toward him, allowing him to matter deeply to me, to accept the reality of the relationship was safe. Which ran counter to all the lessons of my childhood.

But even as I realized this, I was also grappling with knowing the relationship would have to end someday and being scared of how painful I knew that ending would be. Which brought me face to face with my very deep belief that to know love, to know intimacy, to know comfort is to also open yourself to pain. So what was the point? Why do something, and allow it to mean anything to you, knowing that inevitably, you would be in pain? I realized that to love the BN, to accept that I needed him felt like I also needed to accept that I would be hurt by him. But then I would circle around again to the fact that he also provided joy, comfort, understanding, healing and reassurance. To avoid the pain was to also avoid receiving the good. So there I was,  face to face with all that I had lost by not letting myself feel safe enough to truly love someone. I grieved for that shutting down.

Recognizing that grief made me realize that I was not yet ready to give up this relationship or to leave it. Whatever this “weird duck” of a relationship is that we call therapy, I wanted to keep it for a while longer. I remembered BN’s promise – made not long after we started individual work together -that he would never ask me to leave, that I was welcome to come as long as I wanted to. Thinking about leaving got so scary, that I ended up making an emergency call to the BN. He called me back and was very warm and reassuring. I explained about feeling safe in loving him but knowing how well I was handling the grief felt like I was close to being done. But that thinking about the end was so scary and painful that I realized I wasn’t ready to leave so I was calling for reassurance that it really was my choice when to leave and that I could stay until I was ready to go. He very gently told me that absolutely, it was my choice and completely up to me. As I started to think about it, I ramped up really quickly, then stopped myself and said “I really don’t have to deal with this until I feel ready to face it.” The BN told me that was true, that it was ok however long it took me and he understood why I had needed to call him and hear him say it again. (One of his strongest gifts was his ability to normalize what I was doing so that I didn’t feel quite so much like a total freak. :))

When I ended that call, I actually ended up quite distressed. Every time I went to him for reassurance and he responded so perfectly, made it that much harder to leave him. Sometimes, I could get furious at him for being so wonderful. Best I can figure, I entered the bargaining stage of grief and started trying to figure out some way to keep this relationship. As I struggled with these feelings, it felt as if I was groping after something elusive, some understanding that was dancing just beyond my reach, eluding my grasp and my understanding while at the same time, that looking  directly upon that truth would be to destroy it.

When I reached a point of not being able to articulate what I was feeling, I would turn to poetry to try to explain the inexplicable. So I ended up writing a poem, which I include below. Just a side note, I don’t think this is particularly good poetry but it did turn out to be good therapeutic material. 🙂

I love, yet love in fear
Feeling long sought safety, I flee from the greater pain to come
But love does not follow,
Holding fast, securing ground
To flee from pain is to leave love behind
Receding ever further, more distant, more faint
I turn back to see pain barring the way
Poised on a knife-edge,
To go back to love holding fast is to pass through pain
To return, I must accept its presence
Pain walks beside me as love, and life, draw me back
Standing with love, I find the strength to be pain’s companion
Only to learn that pain is love’s handmaiden
Acceptance dances just out of reach
elusive, ephemeral, refusing to be grasped
Shall I leave both love and pain behind?
Or find stillness, that acceptance may find a place to alight?

I ended up emailing the poem to the BN and asking him to read it so we could discuss it at my next session. I was pretty scared heading down to that session. The BN was pretty cheerful that day and when I told him I was feeling scared, he asked me what I was scared about? I told him that I needed to talk to him (again!) about my feelings for him and that was really uncomfortable. At least for me, he never seemed to get uncomfortable about it. 🙂 I told him I was having a difficult time figuring out how I felt, which made it even scarier because I didn’t know where I was going to end up. I told him about realizing that it was safe to love him, that it wasn’t a trap. But that there were still longings for something beyond therapy, but they weren’t going away the way I expected as I worked through my grief. That I had been assuming that ALL my feelings were about transference, but know I was grappling with the fact that some of these feelings were real and weren’t going to go away. That I was trying really hard to find a place of acceptance but couldn’t seem to find one.

He had a printout of the poem with him and it quickly became obvious that he had read it and had been thinking deeply about it. He centered in on the line “pain is love’s handmaiden” and told me that he had realized that I had a deep belief that pain is an integral part of love. But that the truth is that pain is an integral part of life, all human beings experience pain. Love is the answer and solution to that pain. That when we find ourselves in pain, we move toward connection, because it is in experiencing being loved that we can bear the pain. He actually used being born as an example. That we can’t really know what a baby is feeling, but that they go from a place of warmth, and security where all their needs are met and are thrust out into the cold. That a newborn cries out in distress at this sudden change and when that happens, they are picked up and swaddled and then drawn in to a comforting warm embrace, with another human being working to sooth them.

And there it was, he had identified the point of my deepest loss. That when I was in pain, it was caused by the person that was supposed to love and protect me. So instead of love being a solution, love and pain were horribly mixed in together. There had been no one to pull me in, to comfort and soothe me. This was the center of my grief. It’s why I wanted so badly for the BN to provide things beyond the bounds of therapy. I was in pain and wanted to move towards him to be comforted in the way a child is comforted. To be told he loved me, that he thinks I am special, that I am important to him, that he will protect me no matter the cost, that I am beautiful to him, and that I am delightful to him. Which I realized was really the list of what I had longed for from my father.

During that session, the BN asked me what would happen if I allowed myself to experience the longing? I didn’t have an answer for him (OK, what was running through my head was “WTF? I’ll be in pain, you rat bastard! Aren’t you listening to me? Do you WANT me to be in pain?!” but I decided to keep that to myself at the time. :)) He left to go on vacation and that question haunted me while he was gone. It finally hit me that what we was really saying to me was that instead of fighting how I was feeling, what would it be like to let the feelings in and see what they said. When I realized that, I ended up doing a lot of writing in my journal and talking to a few close friends, and I finally realized what was going on.

If I allowed myself to move closer to someone, then the longings for what I didn’t get as child were awoken. So I was allowing myself to move closer to the BN, allowing myself to realize how important he was to me, but that was evoking all the unfulfilled longings. Many of which were now impossible to fulfill, so there was an enormous amount of grief and loss associated with them.

I had tried the solution of never allowing myself to get close to anyone but although I hated myself for it, I couldn’t completely shut down my own needs that could only be met by another person. So plan B was to move closer, but stay far enough away that the longings would lie dormant. I realized I had spent my whole life looking for that optimal distance which would protect me both from my loneliness and my longings, but such a place does not exist.  To love and know I am loved evoked these painful feelings.

I finally accepted that I was not wrong to have those longings as child. They were normal and healthy. I was not wrong to have those longings in my relationship with the BN, they were my continued attempt to get my needs met. This was the reason that the BN was NOT uncomfortable about my feelings for him, he understood their source and what was driving the intensity. It wasn’t that I was some crazed, nut job stalker; I was dealing with life and death imperatives from a very young age.

So the reality was that I had a very real relationship with BN, one in which it was safe to love and feel loved and to experience a deep intimacy. Which was exactly why all these confusing feelings were coming up. But the solution to them was not going to be that the BN would do all those things for me and run over his boundaries. The boundaries would stay intact to keep me safe. BUT, this was the point at which I could apply my new understanding that love is the answer to pain. No, the BN could not fulfill the longings and make the pain and loss not have been. But he could stay and help me with the feelings, provide understanding and care, hear my grief and soothe my pain. It was through this loving relationship that I would find the strength to face my grief and allow my mourning to heal me.

No matter how much someone loves us or how good the relationship is , we WILL get hurt in relationship, because the person, being human, will fail us, or life will get in the way or both. BUT, by being IN relationship, we also receive love, comfort, understanding and acceptance, which are all the things that give us the strength to face the pain. Safety does not lie in never getting hurt, it lies in knowing that we can endure the hurt and that the hurt will pass and we’ll know joy again. That pain isn’t all there is. When we didn’t receive what we needed as kids, it’s REALLY hard if not impossible to believe that. That’s why healing can be so confusing and difficult. Life hurts, which sucks, but better to accept it in order to also experience that life can be beautiful and also contain piercing joy. Neither happen all the time.

In my work on the phone line, I have started to really live this truth. To understand that being available to listen, to understand, to simply provide a safe place for a hurting person to express their feelings seems like so little to do. You have to fight the feeling that it is inadequate in the face of the pain that people bring. But here is one of the mysteries at the heart of being human. I don’t know why it has the effect that it does, I do not understand the process, but I understand the process works. I have lived it from both sides. There is something about being heard and understood, about knowing you matter to another human being that opens you to healing. Our connections with each other open the space into which love can flow, the infinite source of love that heals. It is a wonder and a privilege to watch it happen. Understanding the real role of love was key to my healing and now is the key to living a full life. Yes I will be hurt, but there will always be love in answer to that pain.

“Here is the mystery that is holding the stars apart, I carry your heart, I carry it in my heart.” EE Cummings

  1. December 8, 2011 at 3:54 pm

    Wow! on so many levels. Thank you


    • December 8, 2011 at 11:19 pm

      Hi Normal,
      Thank you. And so many levels is right. This was difficult to write because in some ways learning this was interwoven into all my work with the BN. I just happened to focus on when it finally penetrated my understanding. I am still learning it and think I will be as long as I draw breath.



  2. Strummergirl
    December 8, 2011 at 9:04 pm

    This was beautiful, AG. It is so helpful to see how we’ve come to (erroneously) mistake pain as being a part of love because of the abusive/neglectful situations in which we’ve grown up. It is so healing and hopeful – and freeing – to realize that pain is actually inevitable no matter what, but that love is separate from, and so can be a response to, the pain!


    • December 8, 2011 at 11:21 pm

      Hi SG,
      You made my day! 🙂 But I should have let you write the post and save me 2850 words. 😉 You very succinctly said in one paragraph what it took me a ginormous post to convey. 🙂 I’m really glad it gave you hope.



  3. Worthy
    December 9, 2011 at 7:52 pm

    Thanks for such an amazing post. It has given me some internal peace. It’s allowed me to breathe and calm my inner child who desperately wants it all to make sense. I want you to know what a blessing you are to me, and to many others. You have a gift of knowing how to write from your heart and along the way, teach those who read it, that there’s hope, grace and compassion, from our therapist as well as from ourselves. You demonstrate what self compassion looks like after so many years of destructive and critical inner voices telling us we’re not worth it. I look forward to each new post, knowing you’ll speak to a deep part of my wounded(but healing) soul. Know you make a difference in this world.


    • December 10, 2011 at 12:52 am

      Hi Worthy,
      Love your name. 🙂 Thank you so much for your incredibly kind and generous words, you have no idea just how encouraging it was to read this. I am grateful to know that I am passing along the healing I was given. I hope that what I write continues to give you hope, as I know that there really is hope. You can heal. Thanks again for taking the time to write.

      Peace, AG


  4. Hopeful
    December 12, 2011 at 9:52 pm

    You always have the most amazing way of telling us about your experiences. I love all the details you give. It helps to give myself and others a bit of courage and to see that we can get there too.


    • December 13, 2011 at 12:16 am

      (((Hopeful))) Thank you, you’re such an encouragement to me! I’m so glad that what I’m writing is helping you. AG


  5. True North
    December 13, 2011 at 1:02 am

    AG this was an amazing piece of writing and I would not shorten even ONE of those 2850 words. As someone grappling with the pain and grief of one too many abusers, this gives me a lot to think about in relation to what I am getting and feeling from my T. It’s so hard to accept his care and feel love for him because it leads directly to fear of the pain that in my world comes from loving someone… especially an attachment figure. Thanks for writing all of this out so I can come back to it when I need to. Hugs.


    • December 13, 2011 at 1:07 pm

      ((((TN))))) So glad that it helped, and I get how hard it is to take in his care and allow yourself to move closer. But I am sure that you are in the care of BN’s equal in terms of therapeutic care. So take what time you need to learn to trust and to take in the good, your T will hold steady while you learn what you need to. AG


  6. Free2bMe
    December 13, 2011 at 9:57 am

    AG, I’ve been in therapy for about the same amount of years as you. The experiences are very similar. If I could write about it as much as you do, and as clearly – I would write a book. You already have the title. Think about it. What an accomplishment that would be for you!


    • December 13, 2011 at 1:13 pm

      Love your username. Thanks for reading and commenting. My condolences for having achieved my longevity in therapy. 🙂 Nice to know it’s not just me though, so thank you for sharing. As for a book… thank you, it was incredibly flattering that you suggest I write one. But right now I’m still trying to wrap my head around the fact that there are actually people out there who would read a blog by me. I’m going to have to work my way up to a book. 🙂


  7. Sarah
    December 27, 2011 at 10:51 am

    Hi AG, and THANK YOU for this post and your amazing blogg.

    You really have a natural gift of describing the therapy process and everything that happens in it. You have been such an inspiration to me. I have learned so much from reading your posts.

    I can really relate to what you wrote I am struggling with letting my T in – to let go of the control and finally experiencing the full impact of my longing; to embrace my needs and my longings without any shame or guilt. As you wrote, coming to this stage is an effect of all the work already done and has been interwoven into the process from the start. I can honestly say that I am SO tired of this process and looking forward to the end of it.

    If you dont mind, may I ask how many years you spent with BN before it felt safe loving him and allowing yourself to really experience the “final” longing, if you know what I mean?

    Again, thanks for an excellent blogg! And yes, you should definitely write a book. 🙂



    • December 27, 2011 at 1:25 pm

      Hi Summerkid,
      Welcome to my blog, and thanks for commenting (and for being so very kind when you did so! I appreciate the encouragement).

      Hmm, my history with BN is a little on the strange side. I had worked with my first T on and off over a span of over 22 years (I recovered memories of the sexual abuse, and processed a lot of the trauma with her). My husband had decided to go to therapy and on a friends recommendation (odd, long story for another time) started seeing the BN almost 15 years ago, although his work with him was pretty sporadic. I had been in for the odd appointment or so when my husband asked me to go but did not know the BN at all well. When we decided to go to marital counseling (that’s sounds so sweet, in reality when kicking and screaming and spitting we went to counseling, I had to “push” the DH just a bit), it felt more comfortable to go to the BN, because my husband trusted him, I had no problem with him and it just seemed easier. So we worked with him for around two years (seeing him once every two to three weeks, we never went more frequently than every two weeks. My husband’s work schedule was difficult so we could only go to a 5:30 evening appt and those were at a premium in the BN’s schedule) when my first T retired. I was going to start working with BN individually but my husband (quite reasonably I might add) wasn’t comfortable about that and the BN didn’t think it was a good idea either. So I went without individual therapy for around nine months. Around then was when I realized I had a growing attraction for the BN and went alone to talk to him about it. That led to us working together individually, every other week at first, then eventually weekly (the marital counseling dropped to once every three weeks, then to monthly as things had improved, which was also why everyone changed their mind about me seeing BN alone). I would say it took me close to a year and a half of individual work until I could *feel* safe loving him and allowing that longing in, although the trust was there in my behavior before that and it very much continued to grow and deepen after that. I can honestly say at this point that although I can still occasionally worry that I’m driving him nuts 🙂 I am very secure in the relationship and feel comfortable bringing up anything. Hope that helps. If we have serious trauma and/or attachment injuries in our backgrounds, it takes a lot of experience, risking and having it turn out ok, to convince our amygdala that it really is safe to move closer to someone. It’s frustrating because we *know* we can trust them, a long time before we can believe deep in our guts that we can trust them.



      • Sarah
        December 28, 2011 at 7:17 pm

        Hi again AG,

        and thanks for your quick replay.

        I have been in the separation/individuation stage now for a while and that’s why I wanted to ask you how you felt about your T and what happened to you during this stage.

        You have done a great job, coming out to the other side. I’m very happy for you. You are so worth it.

        Looking forward to read more on your blog. 



  8. January 25, 2012 at 12:41 am

    Hi AG,
    Having a time tonight and needed something good to read and this post fits what I’m feeling very well although I see I have commented on it before. It is fitting for my emotional stuff right now…feeling better this week but I realize the next step/stage and that feels like grief…I might be looking too far ahead but improvements also lead to feelings of “this will be over” and I don’t want it to be. Thanks again for putting everything out here…your words here are a great resource.


    • January 27, 2012 at 6:27 pm

      Hi Hopeful,
      I’m glad that reading this is helping you get through. I am both glad and sorry that you can relate so well. I really understand the fear of getting well meaning you have to leave. I really did not start to heal until the Boundary Ninja told me that I was always welcome, that he would never ask me to stop coming (a promise he kept btw; actually is still keeping :)). Knowing that getting better didn’t mean leaving, meant it was safe to get better. I would really urge you to discuss that fear with your therapist. I also struggled with feeling like the whole point of therapy was to form the attachment so I could leave it, which turned out not to be true. The point of the attachment was to provide a secure place from which I could venture, not to leave it behind, but to carry as a source of strength. Another good topic for a future post.



      • Wade
        July 10, 2012 at 1:31 am

        Hi I read the first blog and have a very hard time with it for you to care for counselor as much as you do I feel is wrong for me I ask what about the husband and ask myself how would I feel if my wife loved and cared about another counselor or not feel to me it would hurt . But that’s me if husband alright with being an equal in your eyes to another than that’s Jim but very much bother me


  9. July 11, 2012 at 8:13 pm

    Hi Wade,
    Welcome to my blog and thank you for commenting. I can certainly understand you being upset and feeling like it is wrong for me to have such intense feelings about my therapist as a married woman. I understand because I have very much struggled with that issue. In fact, when I first started to realize that these feelings were developing, my first instinct was to quit therapy. I take my marriage vows and fidelity to my husband very seriously. I sought out an older woman whose wisdom I trust and who shares my faith and values to ask for advice. In the end, my understanding has been that so many of my feelings for my therapist are really about the unmet needs of my childhood. Since he is an ethical therapist and will not allow any of these feelings to be acted on, a fact of which my husband is well aware, this is a safe place to explore those feelings and understand my motivations without risking breaking my vows or being unfaithful to my husband. Sometimes I am sure it hasn’t been easy for him, but we are very committed to each other and he trusts my therapist as well as me. My therapist’s importance in my life is also much more related to providing a paternal figure on whom I can rely for security and support, as opposed the more full, romantic relationship I have with my husband. Last but not least, being able to work through these issues has helped me to conquer both my conscious and unconscious fears of intimacy and one of the results is that my relationship with my husband is closer and stronger than it has ever been (we just celebrated our 26th wedding anniversary).

    We do not control our feelings, they just are. It is how we act upon them which defines our character. Having a safe place to explore and understand the feelings I was having was key to my healing. In talking about it here, I hope to help other people dealing with similar problems. So I am grateful for both my ethical therapist and a husband who understood that these feelings were not a threat to him. Thanks for saying what you did though, as I am sure you are not the only one who has thought that in reading my blog and I know it can be scary to speak up this way, I appreciate your candor.



  10. August 25, 2012 at 2:25 pm

    Hi AG,

    I just had to comment because this post brought tears to my eyes. I have felt all these same feelings, longings come up in my therapy. I was often confused as to why I would need my T to say to me as you put it: “To be told he loved me, that he thinks I am special, that I am important to him, that he will protect me no matter the cost, that I am beautiful to him, and that I am delightful to him.”

    I thought the goal of therapy was to learn that I don’t need others to validate me, that I had to find this in myself. Now, because I have gone deeper into the process and have begun to form a strong attachment to my T, which is helping to heal the love and connection I never got as a child, I realize why I want to hear those things as you mentioned above. It is because I never heard them as a child and therefore internalized the opposite, that I am NOT special, I am NOT important to anyone, that I would NOT be protected by anyone, ever. This was the day-to-day reality of my childhood.

    My T is giving me all of this now with his consistency, caring, attention, empathy and warm regard. Because he has, I have finally found that part of me, in the center of being, near my heart, that does believe I am special, that I am important, that I do matter. But now I know it could only happen in relationship; a relationship I never got in childhood, but that I have finally found now.

    I still have a long way to go in my therapy. I don’t feel anywhere near ready to stop seeing my T. I am just coming into the truth of all this. Thank you for posting so truthfully, authentically and courageously. It so resonates with me and I wanted you to know that I am so grateful to read your story and be able to tell you what it means to me. I feel like I am finally able to connect after years of being blocked (As as aside, I am an artist who has been creatively blocked for over 20 years!). You have helped me be able to reach out. Thank you.



  11. Healing15
    September 30, 2014 at 9:11 am

    This is so much how I feel right now – especially the pain mixed in with love after years of dealing with a mom addicted to alcohol & drugs. I’ve had such a hard time expressing my needs & feelings and just realized this week a lot of it is fear. I am so thankful you are able to articulate your feelings so that we readers can realize some of our pain and feelings.


  12. TKM
    July 13, 2021 at 9:46 am

    I’m sure you no longer read this, as it would seem you have moved beyond your therapy journey. But I feel the need to let you know that this blog, and more significantly this entry, have been enormously helpful to me. I actually read parts of it to my T yesterday and we discussed how closely your process resembles mine. The confusion and pain I often feel and can’t make sense of- you articulate it so beautifully. And coincidentally, just before he left on vacation a few weeks ago, when I was having a really HARD time (like little kid having a tantrum at his feet screaming “daddy don’t leave me” kind of tantrum), he asked me something very similar to what the BN asked you about letting the pain and longing in. He phrased it more as a suggestion that I try and let the adult feelings into the therapy space, to feel them and discuss them instead of wallowing in the shame, and see what would happen. While he was away I revisited this blog and found this entry and wow. I am no longer confused. I have a new understanding of the back and forth, the childhood longings coming alive in the present, the wish for more but having no idea what more is. Being overwhelmed by my painful longings only to miss them when they start to fade because letting go of the fantasy that he will save me also means facing the reality that he can’t give me what I missed out on. You put into words everything I have been feeling but couldn’t make sense of. You cannot know how much your honesty about your journey has helped others. Thank you, thank you, thank you ❤️


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