I know how you feel. I’ve been there.
In his book The Untethered Soul, Michael Singer shares a fabulous analogy of a thorn in our arm to illustrate how we can construct elaborate barriers in our lives in order to hang on to a disturbance that we’d rather not deal with or release.
It goes like this:
Imagine you have a thorn stuck in your arm, and every time it gets bumped it creates a shooting pain. You have two options: you could either remove the thorn or you could leave it where it is and prevent it from ever being touched. You decide that it will probably hurt to pull it out, so you will leave it in place. However, you are worried because if someone tries to hug you they may touch your thorn. So you stop hugging people. You are worried your clothes may disturb it, so you rip all the sleeves off your shirts and jackets. What if you roll over in your sleep and bump the thorn? Uh oh… now you must build a device to put around your arm to protect it at night, which also comes in handy if you are in a crowded place or anywhere you might brush up against something. You walk around with this contraption all the time to avoid any potential contact with the thorn, which prevents you from fitting into most places, such as movie theaters, airplanes, elevators, etc. (Paraphrased from Michael Singer)
I love this analogy because when you consider the idea of building a physical structure that enables you to go through life without prodding at a tiny little thorn embedded in your arm, it seems laughably ridiculous. Who would do such a thing?!
But when we consider how many of us do this metaphorically to protect our ‘inner thorns’ — those fears that get in the way of living our fullest lives; or those disparaging identities that we have assigned ourselves in order to excuse ourselves from growth; or those negating behaviors that slow down our forward motion — when we consider the sidestepping and defense-building we do every day in order to avoid the pain of touching that stuff inside of us, we can see how much work we put into hanging onto our thorns.
Wouldn’t we be so much happier if we simply removed that thorn? Why are we keeping it intact and bothersome for so much of our lives?
The thorn could be an unhealthy relationship, an unpleasant feeling like loneliness or anxiety, a behavior that isn’t serving you (alcohol use, overeating, social media), or even an identity (perhaps given to you long ago by family: she’s the anxious one/ the flighty one/ the sexy one).
I’ve held on to many thorns throughout my life, not the least of which was my alcohol use. I had to protect my alcohol use, because it hurt if it was poked or prodded. I knew deep down that it was damaging my life. The thorn was infected – it had gone septic.
But I did not want to remove it; I didn’t even want to look at it too closely. I felt like if I could build a barrier around it big enough, I could forget it was there. So I would seek out people who liked to drink as much as me — if they had too much restraint, I had to keep them at arms length, because I didn’t want them noticing my ‘problem.’ Sometimes I would have several drinks before I went out, or do shots at the bar on the way to the bathroom so it didn’t appear that I was drinking more than everyone else. I arranged ‘carpools’ and public transportation schedules so I wouldn’t have to stay sober enough to drive. Sometimes I rearranged my teaching curriculum if I knew I’d be hungover on a Monday morning.
I designed my life around drinking, controlling things as best I could to ensure that I could keep this thorn unfettered and firmly embedded within me.
Sometimes our thorns are big – and obvious to everyone but us; like my alcohol abuse, or that emotionally abusive narcissist I dated for years in Chicago. Other times, they are under the skin, camouflaged and harder to identify.Naming the thorn is the first step to release it. If you have been protecting this thorn for years, for decades even, it could be buried pretty far down. And like a deep splinter, it might be painful to dig out. But think of how much better you will feel when it’s finally gone! Not only will the pain abate, but now you can begin to disassemble the protective contraptions you have built around yourself. This is the work of liberation.
This is how you find freedom and rediscover the joy of living.
As a coach, I help you to find these thorns and remove them. While you must do the hard work of feeling the emotions and owning your strength, I will act as your guide and and your mirror.
I can be your lantern in the darkness. I know the darkness — I spent years in it. It was so familiar, at times I believed I belonged there. But now I know there is a way out, and I can help you find it.
If this is you, if you know there is a light on the other side but you can’t quite see it; if your life is shifting but you are feeling lost and hesitant; if you sense there is something you need to change but you can’t figure out how to do it, please contact me for a FREE 30-MINUTE DISCOVERY CALL.