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Three Ways to Manage Emotional Pain

Emotional pain can come in all sorts of "flavours": shame, guilt, fear, disappointment, sadness, grief, envy, bitterness... Most of us have tasted these feelings. We know how overwhelming they can be. Experiencing emotional pain is part of being human. There is no end to the type and number of situations that can trigger it.


When we experience emotional pain, we have a choice in how we respond to it.

We might not realise we have a choice - and it certainly might not feel like we have a choice. We might just find ourselves doing what we’ve always done, responding in old, familiar ways which just seem right. In fact our initial reaction might be so automatic and speedy that there's not time to even notice, let alone consciously choose how to respond. But if we then take a moment, slow things down, and give ourselves a chance to stop and think, a choice emerges.


There are three main ways in which we can respond to our emotional pain.


Option 1 is to attack.

We might criticise, mock or belittle ourselves:

"You’re weak, stupid, hopeless". "You shouldn’t have done that." "Why did you trust them?" "You never learn. You’ll never get better.”

We might ruminate on whatever caused the pain: our thoughts going round and round, reliving what happened in a self-critical way.

We might punish ourselves in other ways, for example, through self-harm or sabotage. We might also attack others, lashing out and blaming them.

Does this help?

Attack might just feel “right”.

It might feel like a welcome distraction from the cause of the pain itself.

Self-attack can be an attempt to really learn a lesson so that we never get hurt again. It can come bearing the veiled hope that if we just punish ourselves enough, we could be a better person.

Self-attack can feel like a safer option than getting in touch with angry feelings towards other people.

Yet, not surprisingly, kicking ourselves when we are down does not usually make us feel better:

Self-criticism reinforces unhelpful negative beliefs about ourselves, (e.g."I'm a failure") and fuels low self-worth. As we feel the force of our inner critic attacking us, our emotional pain just increases.

Attacking others is damaging to our relationships and our need for connectedness.

If we want to learn (or teach) a lesson, punishment and ridicule is not the best strategy.

Attacking ourselves or others is not an effective, long-term solution to emotional pain.


Option 2 is to escape from the pain. To “sweep it under the carpet”, push it out, pretend it isn’t there, deny it.

There are lots of ways we might do this. We might numb ourselves or get a temporary high with alcohol, food or other drugs. We might use self-harm as a way of feeling a different sort of pain, somehow more tolerable than the emotional pain. We might get really busy, for example staying longer at work, doing domestic chores, or looking after the needs of others. We might zone out: sleeping, binge-watching TV, or playing computer games.

Does this help?

In the short term, escape can give us a wonderful, welcome break from emotional pain.

Escape can take our mind off the pain, and off whatever caused it, and this may be what we need for a while.

It might help us regulate our feelings so that we are calmer, giving us a breathing space so we have a chance to think clearly.

But like sitting on a smouldering volcano, there’s a risk that all those feelings will erupt when you least expect them. They're right there under the surface, waiting.

Escape and avoidance are not effective long-term solutions to emotional pain.


Option 3 is to respond to our emotional pain with compassion.

What this means is that first, we pay attention to our pain and acknowledge it.

We name our feelings.

We speak warmly and kindly to ourselves, as we would to a friend.

Though our words are important, what's even more important is our attitude and the way we speak to ourselves - our tone of voice. Gentle. Accepting. Not judging.

We use our heads as well as our hearts, thinking constructively about the best way forward.

We remind ourselves that we are not alone in our struggle: others have felt his way and are feeling this way right now. This is part of what it means to be human.

Does this help?

  • Through self-compassion, our painful feelings are heard, validated, and met with warmth and care.

  • We feel less alone.

  • We begin to feel accepted and valued.

  • We begin to chip away at unhelpful beliefs and build more helpful ones. (e.g. "I'm worthy of care").

  • We break unhelpful patterns and have a better chance of meeting our emotional needs.

  • Our eyes are lifted from the pain of our immediate situation to a bigger, more hopeful picture.

  • We make the most of a difficult situation.

  • We grow our inner "Healthy Adult" voice.

Self-compassion does not necessarily fix our problems, it does not change whatever just happened to us, but it is a constructive and effective response to pain, and a vital step in the journey of healing.



What is your usual response to feeling emotional pain? Think of a recent example.

If it's attack: are you more likely to criticise yourself or others?

If it's escape: which methods of escape do you usually use?

If it's with compassion: has this always been the case or have you learned this along the way?

Whichever response you use, where did you learn this? Who or what influenced you?

Next time you feel emotional pain, experiment with responding compassionately. You might find that you are well into attack or escape by the time you remember to do this, but it is not too late. Change direction, and begin to speak to yourself with kindness and warmth: as you might speak to a friend or family member.

How does that feel?


Maybe self-compassion seems impossible. That's not unusual: common blocks and obstacles to self-compassion will be the topic of my next post. For now, just experiment, knowing that like a skill or muscle, our capacity for self-compassion will grow with time and practice.


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