“The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places”, wrote Ernest Hemingway. Unfortunately, there are people who never recover from the blows that life gives them, they are not able to allow their wounds to heal and these end up conditioning both their present and their future.
Emotional pain can become much more resistant and intense than physical pain. Unfortunately, we have been educated to avoid pain, instead of deal with it and use it as a springboard for growth. Therefore, it is not strange that when we face situations that cause us suffering, we activate strategies that make us feel even worse and delay the emotional healing.
10 harmful ways of dealing with emotional pain
Emotional pain usually generates different answers. If we have not developed our psychological coping resources, it is likely that we will act automatically, repeating the behaviors we have learned from our parents or those close to us. In these cases, it is very easy to fall into a cycle of negativity in which we do not find the exit.
1. Escape. It becomes an attempt to get away with every means from the painful event, from the situation that is causing us this suffering. But since emotional pain has a great subjective component, there is no place in the world where we can escape from ourselves, so this avoidance strategy is usually not very effective.
2. Repression. It is a defense mechanism that we activate when we believe to be unable to deal with the emotional pain. It consists in trying to forget the events, so that they do not cause suffering. The problem, again, is that we cannot simply forget why those contents will remain active, since we did not process them as part of our life narrative.
3. Denial. We have chosen to ignore suffering, acting as if it did not exist. Whenever we feel a twinge of pain, we tell ourselves that nothing is happening, that everything is going well. Obviously, denying the reality will not make it disappear.
4. Projection. In this case the emotional pain is projected onto others. When we put this mechanism into action we tell ourselves that we are fine, that others are suffering. We believe that by not recognizing suffering, this will disappear as if by magic.
5. Regression. When emotional pain is very strong, we sometimes take refuge in earlier periods of our lives, where we feel much more comfortable and safe. Nostalgia and the need to look back and feel good, often indicate that we are living a present that we do not like. However, to overcome any kind of emotional pain it is essential to look ahead, not get stuck in the past.
6. Isolation. The deeper the wound, the more private the pain is. Sometimes we do not find a way to express that suffering, so we end up isolating ourselves, living it in private and allowing it to consume ourselves. The problem is that isolation generates loneliness and loneliness triggers depression, putting us in a vicious circle that fuels suffering.
7. Rationalization. If we believe we are a profoundly rational person who cannot be influenced by emotions, we will reject emotional pain and look for rational causes that comfort us. The problem is that this process often leads to self-blaming, which generates even greater problems on an emotional level.
8. Displacement. In this case we will try to find a guilty outside, to which we can put the responsibility of our pain. But the truth is that the search for the scapegoat prevents us from taking our share of responsibility and learning from the experience. Therefore, that pain will have been useless.
9. Replacement. In this case, the strategy we choose to deal with the emotional pain is to replace the thoughts that hurt us with others, to avoid suffering. At the beginning, there would be nothing wrong with this, the problem occurs when that substitution of thoughts is done with the aim of denying the event or when we use naive statements like “you are very well, nothing happens”.
10. Repetition. It is one of the worst strategies we can use to deal with emotional pain because it consists of reviewing the event over and over again. Our mind is transformed into a cinema in which we continuously project the facts, trying to reconstruct even the smallest detail, to find consolation or an explanation. Obviously, this strategy only feeds the problem.
3 steps to overcome emotional pain
1. Pain is not your friend, but neither is your enemy
The pain is within us, we cannot escape it, even if in some cases it is convenient to move away from the source that causes it. However, it is always necessary to do an interior work.
Denying pain is not the best way to deal with suffering. Emotional pain is a symptom, a sign that something is wrong and we must “repair it”. Therefore, the first step to overcome it is to accept its existence and learn to live with it until it gradually disappears.
When we suffer a traumatic experience, those painful traces remain etched in our brains. Harvard University neuroscientists asked people who had suffered a trauma to hear a description of what happened while their brains were being scanned. They discovered that when people were unable to turn the page, the amygdala, the core of fear and the visual cortex were activated, which meant they were reliving these events in a particularly intense way.
On the contrary, in people who had managed to overcome the trauma, was activated the Broca’s area, responsible for the language. This means that these people turned the painful event into a narrative experience that they incorporated into their life story, in order to be able to lighten it, at least in part, of its emotional impact.
At the beginning, the idea is to take note of the pain, as we could take note of the rest of the things that surround us, but trying not to dramatize even more. For example: “I feel pain, I am aware of it and it is a normal response that will vanish with the passing of the days”. Of course, it is not about accepting only that pain but also all the feelings that it brings with it, from anger to frustration.
2. Radical acceptance: extreme ills, extreme remedies
The psychologist William James wrote: “Acceptance of what happened is the first step to overcoming the consequences of any misfortune”. If we continue to ruminate on what has happened, we will never be able to turn the page.
Tara Brach proposes to embrace the radical acceptance, which consists in “Clearly recognizing what we feel in the present, so that we can face that experience with compassion”. This means accepting everything that happens to us in life without resisting. It does not mean resigning, but assuming that certain things have happened and we cannot change them, instead of continuously issuing value judgments that plunge us into a cycle of negativity, such as: “It shouldn’t have been like that”, “It’s not right” or ” Why me?”
When we accept an event, however painful, we will be able to understand that this event is part of the past and that what conditions our present are the thoughts and emotions we are nourishing. Of course, it is not easy, acceptance does not come at once, is a process that requires a difficult psychological work.
But while you accept that this fact is part of the past, your brain will process it until you can “disconnect” it from your present. When you accept that you cannot change what has happened, the brain will stop looking for solutions, which means that you will stop brooding and relive the painful experience in your mind.
3. Reassemble the broken pieces that the pain leaves behind
Adversity affects everyone, but we must learn not only to survive, but only emerge strengthened from the experience. Being survivors who carry that emotional pain with them can become a nightmare.
There are people who have the natural ability to recompose the broken pieces, they are resilient people who have extraordinary resources for emotional recovery. Others must develop those skills. According to psychologist Guy Winch, “Loss and trauma can tear our lives to pieces, devastate our relationships and subvert our own identity”, but it is necessary to reconstruct those pieces.
In reality, the traumatic experiences that leave great suffering behind them are so painful, among other reasons, because they tear apart our beliefs about the world, making us realize that it is not such a safe place as we thought. This discovery can be quite destabilizing because it is not just about recovering from the blow, but it makes us aware that life can inflict even more painful blows on us.
To cure that wound, we need time and a profound introspective work. In fact, very often it is not about putting the broken pieces back into place, as we would do with a broken vase, but finding new ways to match those pieces. This means you could find a new meaning in your life, understand how this experience made you stronger or even feel encouraged to undertake new projects. If you use pain as an opportunity to grow, instead of just seeing it as an annoying stone on your way, it will not have been in vain.
Biro, D. (2010) Is There Such a Thing as Psychological Pain? and Why It Matters. Cult Med Psychiatry; 34(4): 658–667.
Brach, T. (2003) Aceptación radical: Abrazando tu vida con el corazón de un Buda. Madrid: Gaia Ediciones.
Rauch, S. L. et. Al. (1996) A symptom provocation study of posttraumatic stress disorder using positron emission tomography and script-driven imagery. Arch Gen Psychiatry; 53(5): 380-387.