We all know what it’s like to feel emotional pain. If you think of a situation where you were rejected or alone, you can immediately feel the sensations pain, just as if you had been physically hurt.
Emotional pain occurs when our fragile human psyche feels injured. The injury can be self-inflicted, as with a pattern of negative thinking. Or it can start with an external person or situation, like your spouse cheating on you. Regardless of the cause, YOU are the one in pain and it is YOUR responsibility to overcome the pain.
Surprisingly, this pain can be a blessing. It is a positive feedback mechanism that something in your life is not quite right – something needs to change. When you put your hand in a fire, you receive a signal of pain that encourages you to quickly correct your actions. Emotional pain works the same way, it shows you what is not working and helps you make better decisions.
I want to help you gain a better understanding of emotional pain, learn how to recognize the source, find the courage to overcome the pain, and cultivate habits that prevent it from returning.
What is Pain?
Whether physical or emotional, it is important to understand where pain comes from and what purpose it serves. In our bodies, we have developed finely-tuned mechanisms that alert us to situations that will likely cause us physical damage.
Notice that pain is merely an electrical signal within our nervous system. By itself, pain is nothing harmful or destructive. Painful sensations are an extremely positive system that prevent us from doing things that would damage our bodies. It works like this…
Through trial and error, we have learned that if we experience the sensation of extreme heat (pain) by putting our hand in the fire, the danger is that our hands will burn and become damaged. This would be bad, so pain alerts us to take action before damage happens.
This is quite an extraordinary system. Generally, we get the feedback (pain) before the real damage takes place. Because of this, our minds have developed the close link between pain and real harm. This warning system allows us to sidestep many actions that would be disastrous.
To us, the pain seems negative because it must. If we took a relaxed approach to the feeling of our hand burning in the fire, we’d be too late. Instead, we perceive it as an incredibly unpleasant feeling that must be acted upon RIGHT NOW.
It is important to see that pain usually precedes harm, but it is not harm by itself. It merely signifies that something harmful is in danger of happening. Thus, we need to prevent the real injury from taking place through quick action. This understanding is very important in dealing with emotional pain because the process works the same way.
Research shows that, biologically, our bodies treat physical and emotional pain in the same ways. We can all tell the similar feelings between having a burned hand and a broken heart. In either case, we must take action (i.e. remove our hand from the fire) to end the pain and prevent further damage.
Find the Emotional Fire
The first step to overcoming emotional pain is figuring out what proverbial fire is about to burn you.
Unfortunately, unlike physical pain, the source of the emotional kind is not always obvious. It is easy to see and respond to a physical fire. Yet the fires that cause emotional pain are often more vague and complex.
How do you discover the fire that you need to step away from? Sometimes it is easy to see, like an abusive boyfriend or a dead-end job. In these cases, you know the source of the pain because whenever you’re close to them (or thinking about them) it causes the same level of pain.
Other times, the source can be more complex and twisted. This is often the case when the entire course of your life is just not working for you. The pain is warning you to get off your current path and have the courage to try something totally new.
Sometimes it might take some trial and error to discover the true source of your pain, but it never takes too long. There’s a quick technique that I use to identify areas of emotional pain:
Sit down and quietly reflect on all aspects of your life. Be as honest and open with yourself as you can be. For each piece of your life, think about how it really makes you feel.
You may want to spend an entire afternoon or evening doing this. Grab a notebook and record your results into two columns: things that make you feel good and things that cause you pain. Two hours of this process will likely yield a clearer picture of your life that you’ve seen in years.
“I don’t know where my pain is coming from” is not a valid excuse. You can continue saying that for many years if you like, but it will only cause the pain to increase each day until you’re finally ready to do something about it.
Don’t Numb the Pain with a Glove
Once you discover the source(s) of pain, ignoring the problem only makes it worse. Each further step down that path will only increase the pain, like sticking your hand deeper into the fire. To prevent irreparable damage down the road, action must be taken now. There is simply no other option.
This is where I could give you the 14-step plan for taking the right actions to overcome the pain. But the truth is, the moment you found the source of pain, you instinctively knew what to do to correct it. You don’t need any advice on getting it done, you just need courage to do it.
Before we can talk about taking action to overcome the pain, it is important to be aware of a major trap that many people fall into. Some of us have gotten very good at tricking our nervous system into stopping the pain without actually making any improvements. How?
We essentially put a glove on our hand and keep it by the fire. This numbs the pain for a while without changing the underlying circumstances. As soon as the fire burns through the glove, the pain will return stronger than ever and we’ll be in the same place all over again.
The glove I am talking about is the fake personal growth that we are all so familiar with. It is when we recognize that our finances are in disarray, for example, and causing us great emotional pain, so we go buy the latest book on financial planning. To our nervous system, we’ve taken an honest first step and it eases up on the pain.
Yet, months go by and we never even open the book and certainly never take the action. Eventually the fire burns through that glove and we’re back in the same situation. Then, we find another glove that will ease the pain… on and on it goes. This can continue for decades, always increasing the underlying pain.
There are no shortcuts. Don’t cheat yourself like this. Discover the courage to take real, meaningful actions that will improve your life.
Other People Cannot Hurt You
This heading sounds a little trite, but it’s the absolute truth. Sure, someone can send abusive, negative, or harmful things your way, but it is your response-ability to determine how you respond.
This is important to recognize. Many times it will seem as if all your pain is caused by other people in your life, but this is never the case. Deep-rooted emotional pain is always and only caused by your own responses and choices.
This makes perfect sense in light of how we defined pain in the beginning of this article. Remember? Pain is a sign that something is about to happen that will cause you harm. Other people’s comments about your stupid hairstyle do not fit in this category of serious injury. They might upset you for a moment, but the momentary ruffling of your feathers is not emotional pain.
If this spiteful comment does turn into lasting emotional pain, it arises out of your own feelings about yourself. You might think that your hair IS stupid, and that you’re ugly and worthless. See how those thoughts will cause yourself long-term harm? Your nervous system recognizes this and tries to get your attention by signaling pain.
In this scenario with the mean comment and the subsequent downward spiral of harmful thoughts about yourself, notice how quickly you could dissolve the emotional pain. Simply stand in front of a mirror, look into your eyes, smile at yourself, and say “you’re beautiful.”
See? The pain would be gone. The comment would still have been said by the other person, but that was never the source of the pain anyways. The real harm (which was your own thoughts) is gone and you feel much better.
Blaming others for your own pain can be another form of a glove that numbs the pain without making any real progress.
Ultimately emotional pain is always and only the cause of your own feelings, responses, or actions towards your own life. If the pain persists, it is only because you continue to hold your hand near the emotional fire. The moment you find the courage to take it away (by making a new decision) the pain will subside.
This is at once the easiest and most difficult step of all. The moment you discovered the source of your pain, you knew what needed to be done. You may have tried to hide the answer, but it is right out in the open. The issue never was, and ever will be, one of ignorance. It is always an issue of courage.
The only way to prevent your hand from becoming seriously burned is to find the courage necessary to take it away from the fire. To say “NO”, to say “I quit”, to say “this relationship isn’t working for me”, or to turn around and walk in a new direction.
Don’t be courageous just to be courageous, however. That can get you into trouble. You don’t want to take rash or random actions just to feel like you’re making progress. Breaking the harmful patterns that cause you pain and making positive course corrections is what matters here.
There’s a quick way to tell if your intended action, no matter how scary it seems, will set you on the right track:
When you think about the action, it immediately lowers the level of emotional pain you have been experiencing. In fact, the perfect action will turn the pain into pleasure. You’ll start to feel really good about your decision, even before you take action.
If this is the case, you’re headed in the right direction. This makes the actual action itself pretty easy to take. It still might be scary, but you will feel an overwhelming force pushing you in the newer, more positive direction.
Sometimes, it can be as simple as making a commitment to changing your eating habits, for example. This will take a little courage, but nothing extraordinary. Other times, the pain will come from a more complex source, like a long-term relationship that needs to end. Then, it’ll require some major courage, but it will still feel like the right thing to do.
Unfortunately, I cannot teach you how to be courageous. It is a fundamental action and there are no separate parts that can be studied. It is simple: you are either taking courageous action or you are not. There’s nothing else you need to learn.
It makes it so much easier when you go through the above process and realize that the action will undoubtedly remove the pain, increase your happiness, and set yourself up for the life you know you’re capable of living.
Making changes that remove pain will always be difficult and scary. Accept that. Know that the alternative is to experience pain for another decade. To me, at least, that’s a much scarier proposition that simply standing up and saying “no” once and for all.
Preventing Future Emotional Pain
Once you have experienced the devastating feelings of emotional pain, the last thing you want to do is experience it all over again! When you conquer your pain, make sure it doesn’t become a pattern. The smartest step you can take is setting up barriers around the fires, making it much harder for you to get burned.
Here are a few simple habits that will keep your life happy, on track, and far from the destructive habits that cause emotional pain:
Cultivate the Habit of Awareness – it may seem strange, but pain can go on for years without our conscious mind waking up and realizing that we are in pain. Of course, noticing the pain is a prerequisite to actually overcoming it. Learn to ask yourself “what is going on inside of me right now” throughout the day. This can be a profound habit to create. With awareness of how you feel, you’ll quickly be able to identify and process the things that are leading you down the path of pain. This is the best way to curtail the patterns of pain before they become too large.
Cultivate the Habit of Self Appreciation – In almost every case of emotional pain, the individual is thinking destructive thoughts about themselves. It can be radically transformative to make the commitment to love and appreciate yourself exactly the way you are. Not only can this immediately cure emotional pain, it can also prevent it from ever arising in the first place.
Cultivate the Habit of Gratitude – It is hard to be in emotional pain while feeling a state of gratitude for the things that are going right in your life. This is crucial because when something painful hits you, it can be overwhelming. The sadness and hurt can engulf all happy emotions, making it even harder to overcome the pain. The habit of gratitude can prevent the pain from taking too large a chunk of your life. This is not the same as putting a glove over it and pretending to be happy. You can (and must) recognize the reality of your situation, but it’s not the end of the world. Learn to focus on the things that do make you happy and you’ll start to notice more of them.
Cultivate the Habit of Courageous Action – As we’ve discussed, courage is fundamental to halting a pattern that is leading to pain. The funny thing about courage is that it can only be learned through practice. A book on courage will do you no good, you just gotta go do it. Start practicing in every area of your life. Start today. If you think courageous action is something you can do at any time other than right now, you’re missing the point.
Finally, I want to emphasize that pain is not the enemy. It is a beautiful process: the deeper part of yourself cares so much for your happiness and well-being that it alerts you when things get off course. When you make the change, you once again find the happiness and fulfillment that you were meant to experience.