Having traveled down the path-of-the-wounded-healer herself, the thing that makes Michelle D’Avella such an effective teacher and healer is her ability to articulate with compassion the wisdom she’s gained from her own painful experiences as a way of helping others confront theirs. One of the things Michelle is particularly knowledgeable about is the unique pain that comes after the loss of romantic intimacy, which makes her the perfect candidate to interview for our month exploring intimacy in all its difficulties and joys.
Regularly featured at ENDPAIN, you can read an excerpt from Michelle’s book, The Bright Side of a Broken Heart here, or check out this feature written by Jessica DeFino on her experience as one of Michelle’s Breathwork students. You can also learn more about Michelle by reading and listening to the numerous articles and podcasts she’s created on everything from self-growth to friendships by visiting her website, PushingBeauty.com.
Read below to find out how Michelle defines intimacy, why romantic love can be so painful, and why becoming intimate with your own pain is the first step to healing.
Fraser Hammersly (FH): What called you to following the path of a Breathwork teacher?
Michelle D’Avella (MD): I never expected to become a Breathwork Teacher. I never expected to even practice Breathwork, but it found its way into my life and profoundly changed me. After only a few sessions I began to notice my relationship with the people in my life were shifting, the way I viewed myself began to change, and I knew I had to keep practicing. My path into practicing and teaching Breathwork feels truly divinely guided. It’s the one constant practice in my life that continues to open my heart, clear out old stories, and help me understand who I am and why I am here. It has become clear to me that a big reason I am here is to help people heal, and that’s why I teach Breathwork. To me, it’s the ultimate healing tool (and it’s all yours!).
FH: Where were you in your life when you discovered Breathwork?
MD: I was a graphic designer at the time and was in a lot of pain from pinched nerves in my neck, possibly from grinding my teeth. I found a cranio-sacral therapist who turned out to be a healer who pointed me to Breathwork. The way it all happened is a long story, but I was very resistant to Breathwork. I had never heard of it and imagined monks breathing slowly. I didn’t believe my breath could change my life, but this guy read me in a way no one had before so I trusted him enough to give it a try. Plus, it was just my time to open.
FH: What is your definition of “intimacy”? What examples can you give of the ways in which you experience intimacy personally?
MD: To me, intimacy is an exchange of hearts. It happens through a shared safe connection. It’s not about dumping details on people. Instead, it’s a soul connection in which both people feel seen and heard in the deepest way. This requires deep listening skills so that we can truly hear one another. I experience intimacy when I can share how I am really feeling in the moment and the other person hears me without trying to fix or change me. I feel close to another person when they are sharing things with me and I am willing to really hear them. Sometimes intimacy can be simply looking into someone’s eyes without saying anything or sharing a sacred moment together. Intimacy occurs when two or more people can feel safe enough to come together to share their hearts.
FH: As a healer, what have you encountered as people’s “fears” to intimacy? How do you help your clients face those fears?
MD: No one wants to get hurt. That’s human. Many people are unconscious of the depth of their fears when it comes to intimacy. I would actually say that many people don’t realize how much more intimate they can be with themselves, let alone another person. How do we let someone else know us when we don’t truly know ourselves? These fears show up as avoidance and resistance. We jump back into relationships before healing from the last. We go out drinking with friends instead of feeling our feelings. We storm out of the room when our partner says something that we don’t want to hear, and we never address the core issue.
I try to help people see that they have the power to manage their emotions, get to know who they are, and love and accept themselves. From this place of connection to our self-worth we’re able to manage our fears more easily. True intimacy with others isn’t really possible until we are willing to be honest with ourselves. I never try to push anyone to see what they are not willing to see, but I always encourage my clients to continue to do the work even when they feel resistance and fear. Some of my most powerful healings have come through facing the truth about myself even though I was terrified to do so.
FH: What part of intimacy has been the hardest for you? What part of intimacy has been the most healing?
There are various milestones on the healing journey and they are different for everyone. I have always been a very natural communicator. I come from a family where we always talked through our problems and had resolutions before going to bed. I thrive off of communication. Even so, as a kid I felt like my emotions weren’t validated so I became very defensive and protective of myself. That has taken a long time to shed. For most of my life I was very unwilling to hear perspectives that I didn’t agree with and would become reactive very quickly.
It’s been such an incredible experience to allow myself to be vulnerable in conversation with my parents and siblings and truly hear them instead of assuming they are rejecting my thoughts and feelings. This has brought a much deeper connection in my familial relationships and has allowed me to get to know my family for who they truly are instead of the stories I have had about them. I think the hardest things are often the most healing.
FH: You write often about romantic love, and specifically, how to heal after a broken heart. What is the difference between intimacy in romantic relationships and other types of intimacy, and why is it particularly painful to lose?
MD: Man, this is a great question. On one hand there is something unique that can occur in terms of intimacy in a romantic partnership, but I also want to be cautious about drawing too fine a line here. We have a habit of compartmentalizing love. For some people romantic partnership comes easily. For many of us, it does not, and I believe that is because there is something important for us to learn about ourselves.
In order to have a truly healthy romantic partnership, I believe we have to do the deep digging on our own first. We have to learn to love ourselves, ask ourselves the big questions, and take responsibility for ourselves. When we’re able to do that and experience intimacy with our family and friends it primes us to thrive in a romantic partnership where we’re much more likely to project, become enmeshed, or create unrealistic expectations.
There are a lot of reasons why romantic relationships are particularly painful to lose, but the first is that this is the place many of us seek to be known in a way we aren’t necessarily anywhere else. There is this mirroring desire, and if we experience this it’s going to feel like a part of us has died when we lose them. This will depend on where you are at in your healing journey, but for me I felt it was so painful because my self-worth was tied up in my relationship. I believed that when he left it was because I was not worthy of love. It really had little to do with him. So, it can hurt really badly because we don’t know how deep our wounds actually are. It can also hurt because we become attached emotionally, spiritually, and physiologically.
FH: What is the purpose of romantic intimacy, from your experience?
MD: Ha! Well, the truth for me is that I was using my romantic partners to help me believe I was worthy of love. It didn’t really work. Now, I am interested in romantic intimacy for an entirely different reason. I’m excited for the creative exploration that can occur between lovers. When you are building a life with someone there is a depth that can open that I don’t see being explored in our mainstream culture. Instead of asking our partners to satisfy our superficial or even deeply wounded desires, I’m interested in exploring how two people who love who they are and their lives individually can come together to create an even more amazing life together. There’s an ability to experience intimacy in all levels: intellectually, emotionally, spiritually, and physically.
FH: How do you set boundaries between intimacy with others and a sense of privacy with the self?
MD: I’m not a very private person, but I have sacred time to myself whether it’s by taking a bath, doing a ritual, practicing Breathwork, reading a book, being in nature, or practicing yoga. I try to not post everything on social media and give myself a lot of time and space just for me. I also do my best to honor my energy and spend time with people and do things that nourish me instead of deplete me.
FH: You say on your website that, “nothing that stays hidden ever heals.” Why is it so important to our healing to reveal the hurt or painful parts of ourselves to another person?
MD: Well, I think it’s most important to reveal these parts to ourselves first and foremost. In a safe space we can certainly do so with other people and that process can be incredibly healing. When we allow ourselves to express our pain and hurt with other people we often discover that we’re not alone in those feelings. Our fears are not unique and neither is our pain. When we can connect that our pain isn’t personal we’re able to find the strength within ourselves to recognize that we can overcome our fears to create the lives we truly want for ourselves.
FH: In what ways can Breathwork help someone cultivate a deeper sense of intimacy with themselves and others?
MD: Breathwork shines light on the truth. It creates a container of love where we become willing to see and feel our pain. It shuts the mind off enough to begin to feel into the truth within ourselves and gives us enough space to begin to recognize the truths we’ve been hiding from. We are then able to come out of the sessions with a deeper connection to ourselves, a clearer understanding of why we are the way we are, and more compassion for ourselves, the people in our lives, and humanity. Breathwork allows those of us who have caked over hearts to reconnect to the human experience. We become more loving, compassionate, and sensitive which makes us better able to empathize, relate, and connect with other people.
FH: What does “intimacy of the self” look like to you?
MD: It’s a dialogue with yourself. For many people the inner experience is one of combatting negative self-talk. Exploring who we are and learning to love ourselves creates a sense of connection with who you are. The more we heal and embrace ourselves through our life journey from womb to present moment, we are better able to love and forgive all of the parts of ourselves and experiences we’ve had throughout our lives. To me, intimacy with myself is knowing what I love, what makes me tick, how I feel, what feels really good to me in my life and honoring those things. I check in with myself to see if I still feel the same as I used to. I let myself change my mind and my feelings. I do my best to be really compassionate and loving to myself. I honor my needs.
FH: What does intimacy look like in the healer (teacher)/client (student) relationship?
MD: People want to feel seen and heard. All humans, but especially sensitive people who have felt misunderstood or shamed throughout their lives. I do my best to really hear people and listen to all of the things they are saying even non-verbally. I do my best to connect to my clients from a heart space rather than from the intellect. I’m here to support them instead of fix them.
Personally, I am the kind of healer/teacher who shares from my own experience. My experience is where my wisdom comes from. It’s my biggest asset and gift to my clients so I never shy away from sharing what has worked for me. I lean into my intuition and am willing to risk saying or sharing things that might not be explicit. I think all of this builds trust which is foundational in the healer/client relationship. I know for myself I am most impacted by other people’s stories and life experiences. When someone has been to the dark side of what it means to be human and is willing to express that and how they got through it, I am able to respect them so much more than someone who teaches from an intellectual perspective that feels devoid of heart and soul human expression.