How to Sit with Painful Emotions

When I am feeling sadness, I actually feel it in my chest. It sits heavy on me. A friend of mine who is a trauma therapist tells me this is actually a “good” thing. She tells me that some people are not in touch with their emotions. This causes health problems, among other things.

Unprocessed grief, pain, sadness, or trauma never goes away. You can do your best to ignore it, but unprocessed pain will not be ignored. There are people in the world — you may know some of them — who say things like, “Don’t let it bother you,” or “Quit being so emotional,” or “C’mon. Let’s go have a drink. You’ll feel better.” None of these ideas is helpful with respect to processing something painful such as the death of a loved one, a painful break-up, or old pain from a personal traumatic childhood event.

The world is full of people who think they can white-knuckle themselves into ignoring painful emotions. Unfortunately, they will never succeed in pushing away the pain. The pain will always remain until it is allowed to be felt and processed. Experts in the fields of psychology, co-dependence, trauma, and addiction recovery know this and have powerful tools to help those who are brave enough to face these painful emotions. Think of it in the same way as the pain of lifting weights in order to develop strong muscles. There are no quick fixes, but there are tools you can use to become stronger and happier. I don’t know about you, but I prefer to believe the experts over people who have very little self-awareness or who foolishly believe that a person should just “snap out of it” when trying to process a painful life event.

For your own good health, don’t ignore what your “self” is trying to bring to your attention. Unprocessed pain does not drown in alcohol or disappear because a person does their best to ignore it. Here’s a link to an excellent article about how to sit in your painful emotions in order to move through them and leave them behind.

How to Sit with Painful Emotions

 

Feeling the Pain

It’s natural to want to escape the pain of something uncomfortable: a headache, housework, an angry co-worker, an unpleasant customer. We might try to avoid these things by putting them out of our minds or avoiding them. We do the same thing with uncomfortable emotions. To escape emotional pain we do things like smoke cigarettes, eat too much, shop outside of what we can afford, drink too much, and a number of other things in an attempt to escape the pain. The problem with this is that the unprocessed emotional pain is just that: unprocessed. And so it sits there and waits for just the right moment to grab our attention. Emotional pain is not going away just because we ignore it or just because we say things like, “Just focus on the positive,” or “Be happy.” I’m not saying we shouldn’t focus on the positive. We definitely need to count our blessings and be grateful for the good things in our lives every single day. What I’m saying is that doing so should never take the place of proper grieving or processing of painful events. Maybe it is a very old pain from when you were a small child. Maybe it is a pain from last year when you were fired from a job. Maybe your life-long dream of becoming a professional baseball player is now out of your reach and you are forced to face the reality that you will not get to have the thing you have dreamed of your whole life.

Life is painful. I don’t like the fact very much that I don’t get to be a rock star like Katy Perry. That’s not a joke. My entire life I thought that I would end up on stage, touring the world singing most every night and living on a tour bus. The problem with my dream is that I didn’t set specific goals for it. I was naive. I thought “it would just happen.” And this realization was and is painful for me.

Anyway, that’s not the point of this blog post. The point of this blog post is that we all have hurt. The hurt will never lessen or become a non-issue until we look at it, sit with it, and process it. Sometimes it takes months or years in therapy to process pain. Some events may be able to be processed in as little as a few visits with a therapist. You may also learn techniques and coping skills to process future pain. There is no “normal” for the timing. Another person might find himself or herself in jail because they’ve wrecked their car and are facing DUI charges because they drink to “medicate” emotional pain. Maybe divorce is the catalyst that propels a person into therapy or into a 12-step recovery program.

Depending on how emotionally sensitive you are, some things may bother you that don’t bother others. I sometimes have to give myself permission to feel unhappy when I’m trying to process disappointments. I find emotional pain extremely uncomfortable. Sometimes it’s hard to breath and my chest feels heavy with emotion yuckiness. I hate the feeling! It hurts! But I have to remind myself that I cannot avoid the pain. I tried that for many years and it didn’t work. I have to remind myself that I must feel my feelings. I must process them. I must sit in them and move through them and them through me. It cannot be avoided. Emotional pain does not go away simply because we think we are ignoring it.

Whatever your hurt, don’t try to quiet it by saying, “Well, I’m just going to try to be positive.” You can’t suffocate unprocessed grief or trauma. If you have unprocessed pain, please take it seriously and contact a therapist you trust to help you through the unpacking process of facing the pain and making some kind of peace with it. If you love someone who drinks too much, get yourself to an Al-Anon meeting. If you drink too much, get yourself to an AA meeting. Don’t ignore your wounded self. She/he needs you.

13 Reasons Why

If you enjoyed the novel or the Netflix series, 13 Reasons Why, you will want to read Julie Butler’s debut novel entitled Paper Girl. Butler’s novel exposes the perfect storm of cruelty, misunderstanding, and manipulation that contributes to a young girl’s unspoken raw pain. The music of Kurt Cobain is central to the book’s story line.

Butler is a long-time fan of Kurt Cobain, the front man of the group Nirvana. She, like millions of others, understands what it’s like to feel “stupid and contagious” (lyrics from Nirvana’s teen anthem, “Smells Like Teen Spirit”). Although the author understands all too well the debilitating power of “The Bully,” as she refers to depression in the novel, she has spent many hours combing articles and Cobain biographies in an attempt to understand his specific pain and where it may have begun. How did Cobain’s illness and addiction develop and ultimately cause him to end his own life?

Paper Girl will make you feel Nikki’s pain. You will cheer for her on every page. You will understand how cruelty and the inability to fully be yourself in the world contributes to unbearable pain for those who are paying attention. In a way, the author is a bit envious of those who don’t notice the homeless or the elderly. At times she has wished to be unfeeling and oblivious to the ways in which people cause harm to one another. Below is a quote from Michael Stipe during Nirvana’s induction to the Hall of Fame.

“It is the highest calling for an artist…to expose our struggles, our aspirations, our desires…Cobain, Novoselic, and Grohl were Nirvana…Nirvana defined a moment, a movement for outsiders: for the fags; for the fat girls for the broken toys; the shy nerds; the Goth kids from Tennessee and Kentucky; for the rockers and the awkward; for the fed-up; the too-smart kids and the bullied.” (Michael Stipe)

Quotes about Quiet

As a writer, I do a lot of quiet observing. There’s a gentleman I call Tupperware Man who works at the local grocery in my town. He may end up as a future character in a story I write. He’s probably in his 50s. He brings his own Tupperware container to the high school basketball games. He buys food at the concession stand, but then he puts it in his Tupperware container and heads back to the stands where he eats his meal and watches the game. I noticed him about five years ago and I always check to see if he has his container when I see him at the games. He always does. You can’t make these types of observations if you’re always talking. Here are some thought-provoking quotes about quiet.

  • Quiet people notice everything.
  • Speak only if it improves the silence.
  • The quieter you become, the more you can hear.
  • Never assume that loud is strong and quiet is weak.
  • Quiet the mind and the soul will speak.
  • Everything in your head doesn’t need to be said.
  • Just because I am quiet does not mean I am not a force to be reckoned with.

 

Praying Attention

I don’t sit down to pray specific prayers very often, but I do find myself noticing people every day. My heart goes out to the elderly woman standing on the street corner selling newspapers for two dollars. She smiles but I see that she is lonely. I often wonder about the childhood of the drunk man stumbling down the street with nowhere to live. What horrible things happened to him that no one knows? I also notice elderly shoppers checking their coupons in the grocery store. I am interested in these people. Sometimes I speak to them. Sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I give the woman selling newspapers some money. Other times I don’t. But I always notice them.

I love a post I saw on Twitter from Glennon Doyle Melton@Momastery recently.

“Noticing and feeling the joy and pain of the world is a prayer. I call it praying attention. I understand now that I’m not a mess but a deeply feeling person in a messy world. When someone asks me why I cry so often, I say, ‘For the same reason I laugh so often – because I’m paying attention.'”

Melton calls it “praying attention,” and I have adopted the phrase, too. Don’t be so quick to try to fix people and fix their “problems.” Sit with them emotionally in their stuff. Go ahead and feel sad for them. The reason it hurts is because you are praying attention. As Melton also said, “Stay woke, loves.”

You Are Worth It

People who are depressed cannot simply “pull themselves together” and be cured. Without proper treatment, including antidepressants and/or psychotherapy, untreated clinical depression can last for weeks, months, or years. Appropriate treatment, however, can help most people with depression. (WebMD) – If your doctor shames you for feeling depressed, find another doctor. Some pediatricians and internists simply don’t understand depression and they may not take you seriously. Find another doctor! Find a psychiatrist who listens and validates you and your feelings. You are worth it.

WebMD Depression Guide