Many people are surprised to learn that their favorite coping mechanism for handling emotional pain actually causes more problems than it solves.
Let’s look at four solid steps to effectively dealing with emotional pain and five reactions that trick you into prolonging it.
Imagine that someone hurts your feelings. To deal with it effectively you might 1) notice the emotional pain without denying it. Then 2) express your feelings maturely, 3) clear up any misunderstandings, and 4) set new expectations and a plan to move ahead. Then, you can let the emotional pain go, feeling like you have dealt with the situation.
Most people don’t take these steps out of their emotional pain. Why?
Why on earth would you hang on to emotional pain? The gist of it is that it maintains the status quo. At some point in life, probably before you can remember, you grew accustomed to a certain brand of emotional pain, and your mind simply assimilated it as part of the deal.
You developed a tolerance for it and perhaps even developed an identity around suffering emotional pain. Now, if you have not consciously come to terms with it, you trick yourself in to maintaining the status quo. In fact, some people cannot fathom life outside the box of emotional pain they live in.
To see how this plays out, let’s look at a hypothetical example. Imagine that someone you know rudely interrupts you in the middle of a sentence and it hurts your feelings.
Here are five ways you trick yourself into hanging onto emotional pain.
So there you are. You’ve just been rudely interrupted. How can you virtually guarantee that you will revel in it for some time to come?
1. Outright denial. A sure way to keep your emotional pain festering is to deny its existence. Just pretend you didn’t notice the interruption. If someone asks if it bothered you later, you say, “Oh, no. I don’t let that kind of thing get to me. Life is too short to make a fuss!” Make nice and completely bury your feelings. Hopefully you will forget all about it. But you won’t. It will eat at you. It will fester. It will turn into resentment that will pop out unexpectedly and create more pain. You have tricked yourself into carrying this one and adding it to the pile of other stressors you have denied.
2. Refusing to express. Ok, you have acknowledged to yourself that the rude interruption hurt your feelings, but you won’t speak up. You tell yourself that you shouldn’t have to say anything or that he wouldn’t care anyway.
You try to continue to conversation, but are distracted by what a rude jerk you are dealing with. If he ask what is wrong, you say something like, “Nothing, sorry I’m just a bit tired. Don’t mind me.”
You are still stuck in stress and now it is building.
Regardless, expressing the emotional pain at the source is a key factor in letting it go. If you find a reason to withhold yourself, you are also finding a reason to hang onto the hurt.
3. The freak out. In this case, you do the opposite of withholding and just let it rip. You fly off the handle or exaggerate the situation. You say, “How dare you! Who do you think you are to sit there and ignore every word I say and then cut me off like I don’t matter? Where were you raised? In a barn?
This encourages your adversary to defend himself, accuse you of being insane and pretend he is no longer obligated to listen to such a lunatic. Does this alleviate your stress or just invite more?
4. Making excuses. “He’s under a lot of pressure and he’s nervous, so who am I to add to it by making more demands? Give the guy a break, nobody’s perfect.”
Letting him off the hook by making excuses for him may help avoid a conflict, but won’t ease your stress. How will you stand up for yourself if you keep finding reasons that others are justified in hurting your feelings?
5. Sugar-coating. Mary Poppins sang, “A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down,” but I don’t think emotional pain was the medicine she had in mind.
Just the same, sugar coating emotional pain makes it more tolerable. Believe it or not, human beings (including you) are masters at it. How could you sugar-coat a rude interruption?
Oh, it’s not that big of a deal. It happens all the time. Lighten up.
I have to keep a positive attitude here! Nothing has power to bother me!
Patience is a virtue and this is a good opportunity to practice.
You’ve just made your stress tolerable, instead of dealing with it, like candy-coating small doses of cyanide – it’s easier to swallow.
If you catch yourself doing any of the above, ask yourself if it will really help to resolve your emotional pain, or to hang onto it. When you come to see that your efforts to cope only prolong the stress, you may opt for a different path.
If you need help to apply the principles in this article, consider personal coaching with Mike Bundrant. To inquire, fill out the form below and someone will be in touch soon.
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