Healthy Response to Painful Emotions
BY: T. Franklin Murphy | July 2016 (edited April 10, 2022)
Life repeatedly dredges up painful emotions. We can effectively respond, soothing the hurt.
We live surrounded by others. Our lives exist within the context of relationships. Family, friends and the larger society are essential to existence and survival. Our governments, financial systems, and beliefs are composed of many. Our biological systems evolved complex systems to assist the organism to navigate the intricacies of interaction. Many emotions are social in nature. We feel joy, security and compassion in connection with others. We also feel discomforting emotions of fear, shame, guilt and anger in response to human interactions.
Alone, our quirks are relatively obscure, but when on a public stage, we become self-conscious noticing the good and evil living inside. We feel, act, and engage while carefully examining others to evaluate their acceptance or rejection. Often, fearing shame, we protect, putting on a charade, concealing the self with a thin curtain of deceit. The content of our lives continues to live, eventually exposed and forced into the light; the more intimate the connection; the more open our lives become.
With openness also comes vulnerability. We have an inkling of the angels and demons living inside; but we also tend to hide the traits from ourselves, as well. The hidden humanness, although hidden, continue to stir shame, guilt and fear. We are human, subject to a constant flow of life. While we prefer to bask in the luxury of joy and pleasure, discomfort will continually sear the surface, disrupting peace, and demand a response.
Behavioral Responses to Feelings
Our character isn’t defined by feeling but by the behavioral response to feelings. Do we cower to the pains, hiding from humanity, or do we explode in capricious indignation, punishing and blaming? A better way—the constructive choice—would be to feel the fear, the anger, the sorrow, and then accept our humanity, appreciating the life flowing through our veins, and move forward towards the goals that give life purpose and richness.
The emotions that determine character, are not the flashes of joy; but moments lined with discomfort—sorrow, fear, anger, and disgust. How we respond during these defining moments, displays our character and determines our futures.
We are introduced to discomfort early. During our traumatic entry into the world, our fragile system reacts to the burning discomfort of air filling our tiny lungs. With a slap on the bottom, we experience separation. This is only the beginning of a life time of joys and sorrows. During the coming years, comfort will be routinely interrupted; abandonments, losses, disappointments, and hurts will dot our existence and dampen the excitement of life.
"The emotions that determine character, are not the flashes of joy; but moments lined with discomfort—sorrow, fear, anger, and disgust."
Life Isn't Always as We Would Like
We learn early that experience isn’t always of our choosing. We don’t always get what we want; and this causes discomfort. As a child, “No” is frequently heard. “No, you can’t play in the street.” “No, you can’t eat that cookie.” The stern prohibiting rules often eludes our simple understanding.
Many years must pass before we comprehend the value of restraint, refraining from some impulsive actions. All the young mind knows is, “I want something and can’t have it.” This causes discomfort. Whether raised with abundance or poverty, we are introduced to the trauma of unfulfilled desires. During these precious years of development, we establish patterns of behavior and thought to adapt to disappointment (see Healthy Adaptations).
As an adult, the childhood patterns continue to guide our response to pain; the habits are etched in our brains, and they motivate action.
A critical step to changing unhealthy adaptations to discomfort is awareness—mindfully acknowledging the feelings and the inclinations to act. During distress, organisms naturally seek relief by escaping the pain. The ego is a shortsighted fellow, recklessly ignorant to long-term consequences, seeking comfort in the moment while damaging the future.
The mind—the fabulous mind—smoothly integrates avenues of relief. We don’t consciously create mental escape routes; but quietly, we protect the ego. Defense mechanisms redefine information to soften the impact to the soul. Escaping mental anguish isn’t inherently wrong, too much pain and we shut down; too much shame and we hide.
When Do we Feel Happiness?
Happiness and peace are felt when there is an absent of emotional and physical pain. Isn’t that the existence we seek? Yes, kind of, some of the time. Unfortunately, Life is not a simple choice between pleasure and pain. Each action isn’t autonomous but intricately intertwined with future happiness and sorrow.
Many escapes (while temporarily relieving) wreak havoc on the futures, creating greater emotional disruptions to well-being than the momentary excitements attained. Foregoing the newest version of iPhone, investing the extra money, earning a compound interest, may provide a much greater joy in the future, while suffering only a momentary loss in the present.
Many actions exact a heavy cost on the future for only a measly gain in the present.
When escaping discomfort through practices of projecting, repressing, denying, or burying, we may find relief; but beneath the momentary escape, the unresolved hurts fester. The discomfort alerts of an issue, a conflict between the environment and the person, pushing the organisms to fix the ailment. Escapes provide relief, but the issues remain unreconciled. The conflict may return or continue to exist, exacting energy from our system, quietly waiting to once again manifest its presence.
Lasting escape, requires a more comprehensive response, learning the reasons behind the discomfort. Our expanding knowledge of self, personal histories, and complex environments guides lasting repairs to the fractured thoughts that magnify discomfort and misdirect action.
Just as the unattended sliver festers, buried emotions rumble, accumulate and then explode. Avoidance of discomfort doesn’t serve long-term objectives for a better life. For healing to begin, we must open the wound and remove the intruder. We must feel the discomfort.
Healing may be painful, acknowledging the flaws, hurts and beliefs contributing to repeated disappointments. We can assume buried hurt was disruptive enough in the past for the mind to seek escape, avoiding clarity and difficult action. Bringing the pain to the surface opens wounds we delicately denied existed. We didn’t want the imperfect self on the stage exposed to others, vulnerable to the jeers and sneers of the judgmental crowd.
Some people are mean, glorying in the weakness, and gaining from our shame. We can limit exposure to these monsters. But also available in abundance our safety zones. People that are caring and kind. Here we can find the blessings of vulnerability and trust. Here we can heal. More important than safety from others is creating kindness within, gently accepting, soothing and improving. Only in safety can we courageously accept discomfort and welcome healing as we embark on the fabulous journey of life.
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