For many, the natural tendency is to ignore, minimize, remove, or numb discomfort. People use a great variety of strategies to take the edge off of pain: food, alcohol, shopping, gambling, perfectionism, staying busy, distraction, excessive exercising, looking for the silver lining etc. However, completely numbing the discomfort can be akin to removing the batteries from a smoke alarm that is sounding.
When in pain, get curious. Lean in. Allow yourself some time to really look at the discomfort and acknowledge it. Attuning to our inner world can help us identify if something is out of alignment in life. Are there needs that have not been previously recognized, old habits that are no longer beneficial, or perhaps growing pains as you challenge yourself to reach for something new? Feeling discomfort can be a catalyst for change or a key to determining what you really need…if you allow yourself and others to feel it. In some cases, such as grieving, emotional pain is the natural result of loss.
While you are experiencing emotional pain, it is especially important to remember to take good care of yourself physically and emotionally. Self-care can look like regular exercise, eating healthful balanced meals, connecting with others, engaging in enjoyed activities etc. In his insightful and sometimes humorous TED Talk “Why We All Need to Practice Emotional First Aid,” licensed psychologist Guy Winch, illustrates how we commonly overlook our psychological wounds and provides recommendations for psychological self-care. He urges listeners to stop emotional bleeding, protect self-esteem, and battle negative thinking. You can find the complete talk at: https://www.ted.com/talks/guy_winch_the_case_for_emotional_hygiene
When in emotional pain, it is crucial to have awareness about your mental self-talk. Oftentimes, people find that they can be quite critical and judgmental of their own perceived flaws and shortcomings. Dr. Winch illustrates negative self-talk in his speech using the example of a woman who was rejected 10 minutes into a first date. When she was humiliated and suffering, she began to mentally list all of the traits that justified such a hurtful rejection. Instead, we can benefit by pausing to consider how we might respond to a friend in such pain and treating ourselves with the same kindness. Researcher Dr. Kristin Neff, has created a series of self-compassion exercises that can facilitate a more accepting and compassionate relationship with ourselves. These exercises and recorded guided meditations can be found at: http://self-compassion.org/category/exercises/#exercises
At other times, we will be present for the pain of others. Clients will sometimes confide that they are truly afraid that they will say the “wrong thing” to someone who is hurting. That fear is understandable, considering their goal is to provide comfort to someone already hurting. When someone comes to you in emotional pain, most often what they really need is an empathetic response that allows them to be seen and accepted. In her short film that explains the difference between sympathy and empathy, Brené Brown states, “Rarely can a response make something better. What makes something better is connection.” (https://brenebrown.com/videos/rsa-short-empathy/) She also explains that an empathetic response will rarely begin with “at least”. Years ago, as my maternity leave ended, I expressed my sadness about leaving my baby boy. I will always remember a response that a well-meaning commentator made, “at least you had 5 months, that is more than most mothers get”. Ouch. Finding the silver-lining in the situation is an expression of sympathy, but not empathy. To learn more about how you can provide connection to others in emotional pain, check out the above link to the short Brown video clip mentioned.
Emotional pain can be a teacher if we are able to listen. However, it can be a long and bumpy road if you are facing some difficult changes. Be sure to lean in, get curious, be gentle with yourself, and seek out the love and support you so deserve from others. Take good care of yourself, knowing that this pain may be with you for a short while, or perhaps a longer time. If you find that you are having difficulty functioning, or wonder if your discomfort is the onset of depression, please consider reaching out for counseling support. If others share their pain with you, know that you can provide comfort by simply being present with that person to witness their discomfort.
Jenny M., MA, joined Empathia in 2013 and is one of our Performance Specialists; her previous position here was as an EAP Counselor. She has a bachelor’s degree in Psychology and a master’s degree in Counseling with an emphasis in School Counseling. Prior to joining Empathia, she worked as a School Counselor with children ranging in age from 4-18 years old. Jenny enjoys photography, travel, hiking, reading, adventures with her sons, and spending time with her family.
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