Why I’m Attracted to People With a Difficult Past

It happens to me all the time.

A knowing look between virtual strangers. Words left unsaid yet with full meaning comprehended. A nod to the side, understood to reference “all that”in the midst of casual conversation.

It says, “I see you. And I see that you have suffered. And even though I don’t know your story, I know that we are kin.”

People that have a past, that have been through stuff, have a way of finding each other. It’s a club none of signed up for, yet we now all know the secret handshakes and code words used to identify other members.

If I inventoried the people most important to me, their combined tragedies would fill a country music album. There are motherless children, those who have been abused and abandoned, people who are enduring long and painful and scary medical ordeals and others who have suffered great losses.

But suffering isn’t the only thing they have in common.

They also have the overcoming (or at least the first steps) of it.


One of the reasons I was attracted to my first husband was that he had a maturity and perspective that comes from going through difficult experiences. It made him stand out from the largely affluent and untouched kids at my high school. As my own life experiences – a sense of abandonment by my dad, a health crisis and the unexpected deaths of several friends – compounded, I no longer felt as though I had anything in common with the average 16 year old.

Then I met him.

And we had that unspoken conversation. That handshake of pain. A meeting of eyes that had seen more than they should.

We didn’t feel as though we belonged in the worlds we inhabited. But we felt as though we belonged together.

It was an hysterical bonding of sorts. A grasping. A union born from suffering.

Of course, I didn’t see any of that at the time. I just knew that I felt understood. That he could relate to facing challenges greater than deciding what to wear the next day or what to do when you hadn’t studies for a test.

Little did I know that he would later become the source of my greatest life lesson to date.


It’s completely natural for people that have difficult pasts to gravitate towards one another. After all, we often bond over shared experiences and beliefs. And we look for people that can relate to and empathize with our own situations.

That attraction isn’t always healthy; however, sometimes bonds formed from suffering become mired in suffering. The pain simply is transferred from one to another, keeping it nurtured and alive. Sometimes one person takes on a victim role and the other, needing to be needed, plays the savior. The past can become the seed that holds the relationship together and a reticence to release it (and possibly the bond) develops.

I see these unhealthy relationships like two weak swimmers trying to save the other from drowning. The combined efforts only seek to weight them both down.


When I started dating again after divorce, I intentionally looked for men that didn’t have pasts. They were surprisingly common, those guys that had made through 30, 35 even 40 years of life relative unscathed.

They intrigued me.

But they didn’t attract me.

Sure, they weren’t as superficial and two-dimensional as a gaggle of sheltered teenagers.

They were perfectly nice and nothing was glaringly wrong.

But they also didn’t get it.

They had never had to face a loss that made every breath feel as though oxygen had been replaced with concrete. They had never been forced to dig so deep within themselves that they feared they would get lost before they got out. They had an easy assurance that everything was going to be okay. Because for them, it always had been.

I felt separate from them. Different.

And I also felt a strange need to protect them. To let them be in their unaffected worldview for as long as fate allowed.

They seemed fragile to me. Untoughened. Untested.

I was equally uninterested in men who still lived in their pasts and showed no signs of wanting to move on or those who tried to pretend that it wasn’t a big deal. I knew what happened when suffering was damped down and pushed aside – my ex taught me that one. And I had no desire to live someone else’s past.

I found myself attracted to men who had been through the lows of life and had climbed out, one difficult step at a time. Someone who also knew how bad it could be and yet hadn’t given up. Someone who developed strength with every step and wisdom from every glance back. Someone who wouldn’t pull me down or carry me along, but who would walk with me.

We’re often dismissive of difficult pasts as being unwanted baggage.

Yet often the people with the most to carry have the greatest spirits.


When I look around at the amazing people I choose to have in my life, I’m blown away by their resilience and attitudes. I surround myself with them because they understand and also because they inspire.



The Evolution of Suffering

In the beginning, I embodied the pain.

It was thick, viscous, its foulness touching every part of my being until I no longer knew where I ended and the suffering began. I could no more escape its malevolent embrace than I could pull peanut butter from a child’s hair. We were one, the suffering and I. My anguish kept it fed and in return, it kept me company. I may not have had my marriage but I had the suffering that was left behind.

But slowly, ever so slowly, the anguish started to fade. The loss grew more distant and hope grew ever closer. Starved of its preferred sustenance, the suffering started to wither. Its suffocating heft grew to more manageable dimensions and its once viscous nature grew thinner. Weaker.

I felt the pain.

I would have moments, even days, where the suffering was unseen. But its absence was always short-lived and my brain had a trigger-finger that would herald its return at the slightest provocation. My body held the memories like the discs in a juke-box, ready to play with the touch of a button. As long as I didn’t approach, I was okay. But as soon as I recounted the tale, my voice would tremble and the pain would come rushing back as though it had been lying in wait.

And so I kept telling the story. And with each retelling, the heartache faded a little more. And the suffering grew weaker. My once constant companion became like a distant friend – we may keep in touch on Facebook, but we have no real need for face to face.

I remembered the pain.

And yet I kept living. I would revisit earlier writings or conversations and marvel at the emotions I carried. I would reflect back on those endless nights and my emaciated and shaking frame. I could speak of the suffering, but only in the past tense, for it no longer touched my soul.

Unencumbered, I learned how to trust again. How to love again. How to be vulnerable again. I learned to tell the story without emotion. Because it didn’t happen to the Lisa of today. It happened to the Lisa of yesterday. And I no longer recognize her.

I appreciated the pain.

Not for the suffering it provided, but for the lessons hidden within. It is a path I would have never chosen, yet it has led to more glorious pastures than I could have ever envisioned.

If you carry it too long, suffering will weigh you down and seek to asphyxiate you with its heft. But carry it long enough, and that weight makes you stronger. Lighter. Better for the experience.

Everything changes.

Even suffering.


Memories Do Not Have to Equal Suffering

I met a recent divorcee the other night. I could feel her suffering behind the memories as she recounted the story of her marriage and its demise. The memories were weighted down with the pain relived in the moments or the anguish at the eventual outcome. The memories themselves were like a minefield, one deviation and you’re faced with an explosion of pain.

I remember being that same way. Every memory was laced with suffering. Every image brought with it the piercing pain as though the blow was freshly delivered. Every recalled fact opened the door to other memories, like dominoes made of lead, quickly burying me under their weight.

For a time, I thought that I would have to forcefully remove all memory of my former life. I wished for some type of amnesia pill to grant me a spotless mind. I saw memories and suffering as eternal bedfellows, forever linked together. After all, they are two things that others can never take from us – our memories and our suffering.

I can’t pinpoint an exact moment when my suffering divorced from my memories. There was no lightbulb moment, no flash of epiphany. Rather, I would sometimes startle with surprise when I realized that a memory came to me without its cruel partner.

I could remember without the pain.

I could see the past without feeling it.

I could allow a thought without it leading to another.

If your memories are entangled with suffering, try the following:

-Retell your story (writing is awesome for this!) until you feel some distance from it. Practice this. Make it matter-of-fact even when it doesn’t feel that way. Rewrite it as dryly as possible, removing the emotion. You’re training your brain how to perceive the pain.

-Pay attention to your physical symptoms when you remember certain facts. Does your stomach drop? Do your hands shake? Does your voice tighten? Focus on relaxing those physical symptoms. It’s often easier than directly addressing the mental pain and it sends the mind the message that it doesn’t need to suffer. (PTSD After Divorce)

-If you find that one thought leads to another and another, institute a distraction policy. You can choose to interrupt the pattern before it goes too far. Change the subject, move your body or switch gears. The more you allow a pattern to occur, the more easily your brain will follow the route in the future. Instead of letting your pain dictate the journey, try building your own road.

-Be selective in your memories. You have thousands to choose from; pick the ones that make you happy. Or select the ones that make you grateful for where you are now. Assign a purpose to a memory. Let it do its job and then file it or release it.

-See yourself as the one operating the slideshow of your life. You are the one that controls the images that appear. You can choose which slide to edit or remove.

-Reframe your memories. Edit out the painful parts. Pan out to see them as part of the larger picture. Zoom in on the smiles.

-And, as much as I hate the sentiment, time really does help heal wounds. In time, the memories will lose their sharp edges and the pain will soften. I promise. (Dulling the Knife’s Edge)

Memories are ghosts from the past. They may frighten, but they cannot really harm you. The suffering comes from within.

Pissing Contest of Pain

Tiger has a funny habit on walks. Whenever we encounter another dog (especially if it is a male, dominant-type animal), he begins to pee on everything around. He reaches his leg high, sometimes almost losing his balance, just to aim the stream as high on the tree or post as possible. It’s as though he wants to send the message that he is the big dog and none can top him.

It’s a humorous habit yet one with deeply ingrained motivations.

We humans don’t tend towards literal pissing contents (well, except for that one epic battle that occurred in the boy’s bathroom in my kindergarten class!) but we are no strangers to the impulse to be the top dog.

Sometimes this competitive drive propels us to reach new heights in business or fitness. Sometimes it can be a powerful motivator to do better. To be better.

Yet we also engage in pissing contests that hold no promise of anything better.

We compete to compete even when doing so holds us back.

We want to be the best even when being the best means that we aim to convince others that our pain is greater. That our suffering cannot be beat. That our torment tops all others.

Pain is such a strange thing – universal and yet personal. Subjective. Well known and yet unknowable.

We have a strange drive to want our pain to be understood.

So we share.

And then others share.

Often times, we empathize, recognizing another in pain and reaching out in solidarity.

But sometimes, especially when the pain is still acute, we respond with defensiveness. Frustration at not being understood. Believing that their pain is but a trickle compared to the torrent surrounding us.

For those who have been betrayed, this need for their betrayer to experience their pain is strong. Powerful. Even all-consuming.

We respond by holding on to our suffering. Claiming it. Owning it.

Adding to it until its edges cannot be seen.

We reach that leg up high, releasing the pain for all to see.

It is ours. And ours alone.

I have become so aware of this pissing contest of pain in the comment section of The Huffington Post. It seems like readers want to top one another with their tales of woe with no intent of letting go.

Some stay there, content to won the pissing contest. Their pain is the worst. Their territory clearly marked by signs of suffering.

Others become aware that it is a winless contest. That everyone’s pain is their own and that no one will be fully able to feel yours and, more importantly, no one else can remove yours. That you are more than the sum of your sufferings and that despair is not the badge you want to wear.

You learn that the true release of pain comes with acceptance, not competition.

Tiger continues to be driven by his instincts long after the well has run dry, holding his leg high for an invisible stream. We have the ability to outsmart our drives, to keep our legs down and to continue to move forward. It’s not a contest. You don’t win by tallying the most pain.

You win by letting go and moving on. Even if someone’s pissing on the post behind you.



Trigger Points

You Shouldn’t Feel That Way

Are You a Mental Hoarder?




I have runner’s legs.

That’s not necessarily a good thing.

My hamstrings, hips and IT bands are perpetually tight, pulled taut from a combination of balled muscle and stuck fascia. Not only does it hinder my ability to touch my toes, it also leads to biomechanical issues and pain, especially as I get older.

Prior to this fall and its associated craziness, I was making good progress on my legs. I had committed to 30 minutes or more of yoga daily, with an emphasis on loosening the lower body. I was looser. Freer. My body learned to work together as the binds began to unravel.

And then the move happened.

And yoga didn’t.

So now I have runner’s legs.

And mover’s back.

The tension spread when I wasn’t watching, migrating up from the hips, along the spine to settle between the shoulder blades and around the neck.

It’s all connected. I turn my head to the side and I feel the pull all the way down to my hip.

So back to yoga I go.

Hamstring work has always been a challenge for me. They resist. They struggle. When we engage in a battle of wills, they always win.

The harder I push, the more they grip, the golgi bodies responding out of fear to protect the delicate tendons beneath.

There are tricks in hamstring work, techniques to encourage the muscle to relax and lengthen.

These same tricks work for our minds.

Much like the golgi bodies buried within our muscles send signals to protect the surrounding tissue from overstretching, our minds respond to too much pressure by sending out panic signals that encourage gripping. Holding on to whatever is causing the pain.


Status quo.

We can stay there or we can learn how to outsmart those signals and encourage letting go.


Any effective hamstring work has to start with the breath. When your breath is restricted, tight, your body receives a signal to hold on. To everything. When the breath is full and complete, the body and mind relax and feel safe releasing a bit more with each exhale, trusting that the next inhale will come. Everything is connected. You can soften your hamstrings or calm your mind with nothing more than a few moments of mindful breath.

Face, But Don’t Force

When I first started doing yoga, I couldn’t find the right balance to use. I would either back off in difficult poses, afraid of facing the pain or I would meet it head on and engage in a game of chicken.

Neither works.

In order to let go of the pain, you have to face it. Acknowledge it. Greet it. But greet it gently. Just like you don’t respond well to a stranger running up to you, your discomfort won’t like a harsh welcome.

It will hide.

Instead, recognize it. Accept that it is there in whatever form it takes today. And then allow it to soften.

Be Patient

My hamstrings and I have a different perception of time. To me, a few seconds in a forward fold is plenty. To my legs, however, that’s just the first note of an entire concert. I’ve had to learn to operate on their schedule in order to see any progress.

Even when that means holding a single pose for 10+ minutes.

It’s amazing what the mind will kick up when I’m holding a pose.

It throws up excuses.

Reasons to hold onto the pain.

The trick is not to listen.

And breathe.

Releasing mental anguish is no different. We want it to be pulled from our lives in one great swoop, a magician drawing a scarf from a hat.

It takes time. Instead of the magician, picture playing Operation, a steady and careful hand patiently removing each offending piece, careful not to trigger the alarms.

It seems crazy that our minds and bodies want to hold on to what is causing us harm.

But they do.

You see, that’s a known pain. It becomes comfortable.

Whereas letting go risks the unknown.

And that is the scary part.


This one hamstrung me this month. I stopped my daily practice and the pain crept back in. It’s subtle, so you don’t notice at first as you acclimate to the ever-increasing amplitude.

Until you do notice.

It’s so easy to think we’re done. Healed. All offending tissues have been softened and all issues resolved. But much as AA teaches that an addict is an addict for life, we are all healers for life.

It’s a daily process to remind ourselves to let go.

That it’s okay to feel suffering and it’s okay to release it.

It’s alright if you forget. Just acknowledge where you are today and breathe.

And begin again.