We all know physical pain is a great teacher: Touch a hot stove and you quickly learn not to do that again. What (and how) can we learn from our emotional pain?
There are a lot of different kinds of emotional pain, but I’m going to focus on three types: the kind that you feel repeatedly based on a chronic stressor/situation; the kind that comes from something sudden, cruel, and random; and the kind that is a result of previous trauma that’s difficult to let go.
If you’re in a situation that continues to cause pain, it might be a sign that you haven’t yet learned what you need to. Maybe the pain is trying to tell you that you have to do something that you don’t want to do or don’t yet feel strong enough to do (for example, cut out a toxic person from your life, leave an abusive relationship.) The pain wants you to know who you can and can’t trust. It’s telling you to stop touching the hot stove.
I know there are situations where you have to touch that stove (like when you have a drug-addicted teenager and you need to keep fighting to get him/her help.) In that case, pain is teaching you that there’s more to do, you can’t give up yet. You need to keep searching for answers, even if that answer might wind up being patience and acceptance.
Emotional pain is lessened through connection with others. That might be a loved one. It might be a community of people who understand what you’re going through. You can find many support groups online or in person. It might be time to seek them out, especially if you’re in an abusive situation that you feel you can’t leave.
Then there’s the kind of pain we feel when we’re hit with something terrible and senseless. We are plunged into a grief we can’t begin to comprehend.
But we can learn from the very fact of the senselessness. I’ve heard from people that they used to be much more judgmental of other people before they were struck themselves. They would assume others must have done something wrong and that’s why a bad thing happened. But no, sometimes bad things really do happen to good people.
Abstractly, we might know this. But pain makes us aware on a whole different level. Carrying that knowledge forward can make us much kinder, more empathetic, and more sympathetic to others.
It can also make us kinder toward ourselves. Some people have a tendency toward self-blame. But when something catastrophic happens, they realize that no, they couldn’t have caused that. Or at least, they should strive to realize that.
And once they really internalize that (possibly with the help of counseling), they can use that awareness in their daily lives. They can see that if they weren’t to blame in that situation, they’re not necessarily to blame in all the other small situations in life. That awareness can become a ritualized self-compassion, a daily mindfulness.
But what if you can’t learn from what you’ve gone through? What if past pain is a constant companion?
Letting go is not one big act; it is similar to what I’ve described above: a daily practice, a mindfulness. It’s regularly reminding yourself that you are here, in the present, and that when you look around, the present is actually okay. You’re safe. (That’s unless you’re not safe, and perhaps are recreating your trauma with the people you’ve chosen in your present.)
If you can’t ever believe you’re safe, you might be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and a trained trauma specialist could help.
I think there’s something to the idea that we can learn that we’re stronger and more resilient than we thought, but it can also be damaging for people who are still struggling. They think, “I must be weak if I’m still in so much pain.” We’re all weak sometimes, and there’s nothing wrong with that. No one is uniformly strong or weak. Strength is about how we keep going every day.
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Last reviewed: 26 Jul 2014