The Upside of Emotional Pain

“Nothing in the world is worth having or with doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty… I have never in my life envied a human being who led an easy life. I have envied a great many people who led difficult lives and led them well.” – Theodore Roosevelt

What thoughts or emotions arise within you as you read… really read… the statement listed above and consider taking steps toward applying Roosevelt’s sentiment toward your own life? You’re not alone if uncomfortable or defensive responses begin to emerge from your consciousness. After all, what does HE know?

If we take a moment to separate the individual from the statement – however noble or admirable that (or any) individual is considered to be – it’s the underlying message that matters. It matters because it offers us an opportunity to take an honest look at the degree to which we are living our lives authentically and in accordance with our most deeply cherished values… the stuff of life that matters the most.

Authenticity & Confidence

The thing is – even those closest to us – may never know the full extent of what that personal authenticity means… and that’s ok. In fact, that’s wonderful. It means that you have an inner world all of your own. Thos connection with your inner world of thoughts, feelings, dreams, hopes, and fears is undoubtedly valuable. However, those private images, emotions, and beliefs can become skewed… especially when life is particularly challenging.

As a fellow human being traversing my own life’s journey, I empathize with the ebb and flow between doubt and confidence. While I wouldn’t be so brazen as to imply this is how “all” people are, I’m willing to posit that it is a natural part of the human condition to doubt… to question ideals that we’ve held dear… and to have circumstances in life smack us in the face when we aren’t quite ready.

The beauty of it all is that this human experience is a natural part of life… a part of what it means to be alive. The manner in which we define “success” is generally rooted in our most deeply held values in life. In other words, it’s the stuff that matters the most when push comes to shove. As adults, we are responsible for our own behaviors, emotions, and interpretations of pivotal life events… they serve to shape the way in which we view ourselves and the development of our basic self-concept.

Embracing Self-Doubt

Let’s challenge ourselves to reflect upon this idea… who are we to recognize when we are truly “ready” – and for what, exactly? It depends… I view an admirable and noble aspect of humanity as inextricably linked to self-doubt. Yes – admirable. Without the willingness, awareness, and ability to venture toward – and even embrace – self-doubt, personal development, growth, and learning from past mistakes might be unnecessarily painful. I don’t purport to know.

Consider this… perhaps some of the people in our lives who cause, or have caused, the greatest emotional pain – however transitory or acute – just might unwittingly offer opportunities to become better versions of ourselves. The idea here is not that any individual who caused great pain is trivial; if that were so, their words would likely have little impact… it wouldn’t hit home. The solution may lie in separating the messenger from the message.

Mindfulness & Painful Emotions

The key toward moving forward from painful experiences that hit at your core self involves applying mindfulness and fearless self-reflection to the present moment – be it positive, negative, or neutral. This can be understandably challenging… imagine it as akin to taking off a bandage swiftly versus very slowly. Which approach might you prefer? Try to let go of any urges to play detective, examining your previous experiences with scrutiny. Rather, simply attend to whatever thoughts, sensations, or emotions arise within you in this moment.

In fact, when those charged emotions toward a person dubbed as the bearer of “bad” news begin to lessen (as they tend to do with the passage of time), there is a monumental opportunity to transform a potentially fruitless experience once categorized as unwanted pain into a personal blessing and catalyst for growth. And yes, sometimes such blessings can remain undetected for quite some time… that’s ok. Give yourself permission to have faith that you will become aware of the message or meaning that you need when the time is right.

For some people, this process is connected to a subconscious unwillingness to let go, or detach from, the pain. In this way, it’s not unusual for intense pain to become integrated into one’s core identity. If you identify with this experience, I encourage you to pause and ask yourself, “How does my attachment and identification with this emotional pain serve my best interests?”

Moving through emotional pain that challenges your self-concept and shakes you to the core is a trial in life that is conceptually “simple.” Essentially, such experiences can be as gut wrenching or liberating as you interpret them to be. However, I offer compassion in wholeheartedly conveying that the process of growing from emotional pain is not necessarily “easy.”

Untapped Strengths & Emotional Pain

If this resonates with your own experience, consider this… the fact that you experience emotions on a deep level may be pointing toward one of your greatest untapped strengths: the capacity to express love, experience hope, and perhaps even love another unconditionally. Have faith that emotional pain has the potential to uncover strong and resilient parts of your psyche that you may have never known existed otherwise.

If you have been significantly impacted by emotional pain in a way that has created unnecessary suffering, perhaps now is the ideal time for you to direct the utmost compassion towards yourself. Regardless of the messages you may have received from others, you deserve to grant yourself the joy, compassion, and unconditional love that you may have hoped to receive in the past. When you direct kindness and forgiveness toward yourself, you may be surprised to find that – unbeknownst to you – your natural, loving energy ultimately attracts a partner truly worthy of you… and vice versa.

Simple… but not necessarily easy.

Try taking a few moments this week to reflect on your habitual relationship patterns, expectations, and tendencies. Consider specific examples of ways in which you may be offering the very thing(s) that you dream of receiving. Challenge yourself to direct the qualities, attention, and care that you so desire from another toward yourself. Pause to reflect on differences within your relationships – subtle or overt.

If thoughts arise in your mind that begin to draw you into a (perhaps familiar) pattern of unworthiness, use those thoughts as doorways to explore any potential defensiveness or self-blame that you may be holding onto… give yourself permission to release it. There is no time like the present. Although this sentiment may have become a cliché, the truth of the matter is that the present moment is all we have… and that’s incredible.

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Graham, L. (2013). Bouncing back: Rewiring your brain for maximum resilience. Novato, CA: New World Library.

Featured image: consumer confidence! by Chris & Karen Highland / CC BY-SA 2.0

About Laura K. Schenck, Ph.D., LPC

I am a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) with a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Northern Colorado. Some of my academic interests include: Dialectical Behavior Therapy, mindfulness, stress reduction, work/life balance, mood disorders, identity development, supervision & training, and self-care.

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