Emotional Pain Cannot Be Killed
A recent NY Times article stated that “Drug overdose fatalities in New York City tripled between 1990 and 2006, a new study reports, and most of the increase came from the growing abuse of prescription pain medicines.” These statistics simply reinforce what we already know anecdotally: medications designed to alleviate physical pain are increasingly being used to deal with (escape from) emotional pain. Reading this led me to reflect on the concept of “painkillers” (the killing of pain) and to realize how diametrically opposite it is to notions from eastern philosophy (mindfulness) and contemporary psychotherapy (acceptance) that essentially encourage us to embrace emotional pain rather than try to rid ourselves of it.
Yes, this can sound strange. That is, until you give it a serious try and find out for yourself that embracing (i.e. opening your heart and mind to) your own emotional pain serves to transform it from an unwanted annoyance into a crucial aspect of lifelong learning and personal growth.
Poor conceptualization of a problem almost guarantees that attempted solutions will fail. Haven’t our infamous “wars” on poverty and drugs shown this to be true? In a similar vein, attempts to kill emotional pain (i.e. popping painkillers for depression, anxiety, irritability, loneliness, stress, etc.) are actually the surest ways to exacerbate and perpetuate the pain and all its negative consequences.
The truth is that depressive, anxious and other negative feelings are normal and unavoidable aspects of life, and we must learn to recognize and process them effectively on an ongoing basis. Process them? But how? That is a major aspect of what therapy is all about. The short answer is that we manage our moods most healthily via (1) the nature of our ongoing internal dialogues, and (2) the quality and dynamics of our closest relationships. Yes, there are many more factors, but these are the two main columns.
If we fail to cultivate sufficient mood management skills (sometimes called emotional regulation skills), and instead we try to rigidly control (or kill!) our negative feelings—then our negative feelings will progressively increase in occurrence, duration and intensity. It is this snowball effect that leads people, over time, to a level of suffering where they begin to meet the criteria for the medical disorders of Major Depression or Generalized Anxiety. In other words, what begins as kindling can turn into a raging fire if not handled effectively. Thus, working with people who see me for therapy in NYC for depression and anxiety (or anger management) always involves helping them develop reliable strategies for identifying and neutralizing negative feelings in the early stages, before they’ve grown into bigger issues.
The science of attachment theory shows us that infant development is greatly aided by the repetition of mom and dad’s loving interactions with the child. This is common sense on the one hand, but at the same time from a scientific perspective we are only in the very earliest stages of understanding the physiological mechanisms underlying the amazing process by which love and warmth aid the development of the human brain, nervous system and personality.
I bring this up because very similar mysteries exist with regard to why and how practicing mindfulness and acceptance not only neutralizes emotional pain, but also helps human beings to learn and grow (to develop wisdom and maturity) from it. Even though the brain mechanisms are currently unclear to us, more and more psychologists, psychiatrists and therapists in NYC (and beyond) are realizing that the most consistent and reliable pain reliever (for emotional pain) starts with the practice of being present with whatever you feel while assuming an attitude of good will toward yourself. From this place we can much more easily seek social support, reflect on our attitudes, take constructive actions and practice a higher level of self-care than when we are engaged in the turmoil of an internal war.
Stop trying to kill painful feelings. It doesn’t work. Rather than produce intrapersonal or interpersonal harmony, it leads to increased conflict within and without. Emotional pain is a resource—it is your body’s way of reminding you that you need to grow. When we humans fail to do the personal growth work required of us, we miss out on cultivating that priceless sense of self-efficacy (what some call self-mastery) that underlies optimal living and healthy relationships.
Think of it this way: it is a counter-intuitive (but uncontroversial) truth that when circumstances are such that we’d expect ourselves to panic (like a fire in a theatre), it’s exactly when we need to NOT panic so that we have the wherewithal to take effective action toward safety. Similarly, when feelings are such that we’d expect that we’d want to kill them, it’s exactly when we most need to intervene with ourselves in a spirit of compassionate self-acceptance.