It’s common knowledge that herpes outbreaks tend to occur during periods of stress. You could say it represents in a physical way what many of us already carry on the inside.

“Don’t turn away. Keep your gaze on the bandaged place. That’s where the light enters you.” — Rumi

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It’s a common reaction to look away from herpes, to wish it goes away soon so you can get back to your life. But how about we look at herpes as a metaphor? Let’s pretend that it’s trying to tell us something. What if it’s a sign that we might be holding something back?

By its very nature, if herpes and shame go hand in hand, then it is the shame we need to look at. If herpes creates anger, then we start there. Of course, to be clear, herpes doesn’t actually “create” any of these feelings, even though it might seem to be the culprit; it only heightens them, makes them more immediate, makes them real so that we must look. Denial only goes so far before we simply must pay attention to something deeper, something beneath the surface. So, if herpes brings emotion bubbling up, then herpes is like an emotional shovel, burrowing down inside to pull up feelings that we haven’t yet confronted. And actually feeling these feelings — even the crumbiest of the crumby — is the way through the shame into self-acceptance and self-love. A sneaky suspicion of “Hey, I’m okay!” will start to take hold.

We tend to identify herpes as being the culprit when it comes to our negative self-perceptions. With herpes we convince ourselves that we are undesirable, dirty, undeserving of love and happiness. Herpes amplifies the feelings that were already there to begin with, maybe even uncovers them and has them shout in your face. There is a part of each of us that feels undeserving of pleasure and goodness in our lives. Welcome to being a human. We tend to doubt our gifts by listening to that little devil on our shoulder … but it’s also in us to see our gifts and carry them out, regardless of the obstacles that seem to be in our way. As Randy Pausch says in the Last Lecture, “The obstacles are there to see how badly you really want [your goals].”

Look at this quote from Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach through the suffering you might be experiencing with herpes. Amazing the uncanny parallels in Brach’s words:

Over the years, I’ve come to see my [painful] experience … as a window into how much I had betrayed myself. In the face of [the experience], my habitual defensive strategies crumbled, and I hit bottom. While I was plunged into excruciating pain, it served to reveal the pain of unworthiness I had been living with for years. Fear of being a flawed person lay at the root of my trance, and I had sacrificed many moments over the years in trying to prove my worth. I inhabited a self-made prison that stopped me from living fully.”

Another great quote further reinforces all of this: “The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.” — Joseph Campbell

If we take the thread that joins all of these thoughts together, we get a big hit of how to make peace with herpes by developing a better relationship to ourselves and our own feelings. What cave are you afraid to enter? How might you be inhabiting a self-made prison that is stopping you from living fully? Let yourself live.

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