Let me start by stating (what I hope is) the obvious, which is that I take no pleasure in the suffering or struggling of others. As a therapist, I am often called to sit with clients as they experience disappointment, hurt, anxiety, sadness and fear—in short; I have been witness to the full range of human pain. While I am certainly truly grateful for the life that I lead, I am no stranger to emotional pain of my own.
What I have noticed in the larger culture is a tendency to turn from these emotions. Instead of accepting pain as a necessary and inevitable part of the human condition, we medicate with substances, dull ourselves with television, or tell ourselves that we should not feel pain at all.
For example, I will often hear of individuals who go to their physician and report that they are struggling with a difficult circumstance, such as a break-up or a failure to get promoted at work, and then they obtain a prescription for an antidepressant (a medication typically used to treat depressive and anxiety disorders). It is unclear how often the patient goes in seeking this treatment, or if the physician is simply trying to provide a way to ease their suffering. What is clear is that this ‘shortcut’ can inhibit the person from figuring out how to effectively address the problems in their lives.
To be clear, I am not against the use of antidepressants. Individuals with clinical anxiety and depression can benefit significantly from these medications to manage overwhelming and even debilitating symptoms that may otherwise consume much of their lives. However, the normal circumstances that cause us hardship—going through a divorce, financial struggles, parenting a difficult child—are not typically appropriate for medical intervention.
Listen to the Alarm
Pain is a signal. It asks us to slow down and evaluate our circumstances. It lets us know that something has gone wrong. Instead of dulling or turning from our pain, we need to be present with it, to listen to what it has to tell us.
I can hear the objections. Listen to my pain? What kind of therapist mumbo-jumbo is that?Emotional pain happens for a reason. When we dull or remove pain without addressing its underlying causes or triggers, we run the risk of continuing to participate in activities or behaviors that cause us distress. Let’s take Monica, for instance. Each day, as Monica gets ready to go to work, she has trouble getting out of bed because she feels so exhausted. In the morning and even throughout the day, her heart rate picks up, her hands sweat, and she sometimes finds herself becoming tearful in the bathroom. She typically feels okay at home during the evening, but dreads going to bed and starting the day all over again.
Monica could ignore or numb herself from these signals. She could, as a friend of mine did for a period of time, drink a bottle of wine each night to ‘take the edge off’ and help her sleep. But then, of course, she would not know why she was experiencing this pain or how to effectively address it. If Monica stops to listen to her body, to hear what it is telling her, then she has a better chance of actually dealing with the problem. (Hint: Giving the nature and timing of her symptoms, if I were Monica’s therapist, I would be particularly curious about her work environment and her feelings about her job).
But I already know why I’m in pain. Even if you feel that you have a grasp on why you’re experiencing emotional pain, there is a case to be made for giving it space and consideration instead of shying away from it. For instance, let’s say Monica is able to recognize that she is frustrated and upset with her work as a nurse in a large hospital. She feels undervalued and overwhelmed. What is the harm in easing her sorrows with hours of television on the couch?
The biggest problem I see with mindless numbing is that it typically allows us to perpetuate the very behaviors or circumstances that cause us pain in the first place. We essentially hide from the problem, as opposed to confronting it directly. Instead of addressing her work situation, by finding new employment or looking for opportunities to improve her current position, Monica ‘vegs out’ in front of the television for hours each night. Months or even years later, she remains in the same unhappy role.
Cope or Solve?
With any given problem, there are two basic routes of dealing with it. The first is that we solve the problem. We leave the job that causes us too much stress, we get couple counseling because we’re constantly fighting with our partner, we sell the car that keeps needing repairs. The problem has a ready action for us to take, so we take it. The other avenue is that we cope with the problem. Typically, we employ coping when the problem is either unsolvable, such as the death of a family member, or simply cannot be fixed at present, such as having a high amount of student loan debt and a limited income. When we cope, we look for opportunities to improve the situation as much as possible, such as arranging our finances to allow us to pay our loans more quickly, or finding a way to honor our deceased love one. We may still experience feelings of sadness or frustration, or other types of emotional pain, but we remind ourselves of the steps that we are taking. We take comfort in our efforts to improve or at least manage the situation. We acknowledge our pain, which then allows our body to quiet the alarm. We find ways to relax ourselves so that we are able to be fully present, not numb, not haunting our own lives.
Here’s the other thing about coping and solving. Most likely, we are going to take one of these routes at some point anyway. We will become overly weary of the job or the relationship or the car and we will do something. The problem with numbing and ignoring pain is that allows us to spend too much time doing nothing, hoping the problem will change or fix itself without us giving it time or attention. By meeting the problem head on, and recognizing that there are really only two basic roads to choose from, we become active, as opposed to standing still in the prison of numbing and hopelessness.
Emotional pain is difficult, and in some ways it is natural for us to want to avoid it. But, if we listen to it, we discover what we truly need, and we find within us the courage to directly confront the challenge.