There is a particular emotional state, which through my years as both a therapist and a client of therapy I have come to recognize as a distinct state that we don’t seem to have a name for. It happens in the milliseconds following the experience of getting something we’ve needed for a significant length of time, almost in tandem with the needed relief. I’ve decided to begin calling it entherapalgia, meaning “the pain within healing.”
Somatically-speaking, it tends to show up as an opening sensation in the chest and/or stomach, often accompanied by a little gasp and a sigh that brings some muscle relaxation. Sometimes that relaxation is the softening feeling that precedes crying. Similarly, entherapalgia can feel like a sigh of relief and a punch in the stomach in tandem. As you might imagine if you can feel into those particular sensations, it can be difficult to tolerate.
Because it involves a lot of vulnerability, we will sometimes tense up when we predict that an experience will evoke the feeling of entherapalgia, or we try to clamp down on it once it’s begun. Both pleasure and pain share one entry point in vulnerability, so even though staying open is how we heal, it doesn’t always feel safe enough to do so.
Since I began using this word for myself and my clients, I’ve found that it’s quite helpful to expect healing to be a little painful. Why shouldn’t it be? Physical healing almost always is, especially when what we’re healing is something that we’ve been organizing ourselves around for a long time (my posture-correcting physical therapy comes to mind). When something pleasurable or relieving makes contact with something that hurts, of course we’d feel both. It’s an extra challenging one to be sure, as it seems that the experience of being vulnerable doesn’t really get easier, just more familiar. Though familiarity does bring some amount of comfort.
Part of the beauty of somatic work is in making space for healing by learning and practicing how to experience pain in a tolerable way. The aim is always for experiences to be embodied rather than solely intellectual, and the intellect and senses can be helpfully bridged with the right words. So I hope this term and its framing can be a support in our ever-progressing process of learning how to be vulnerable.