I can almost feel the distress of many new patients as they either trudge or hustle through my door in search of relief. In differing ways, they are each deeply affected by sadness, anxiety, anger, and other emotions. With desperation, they often ask: How can I get out of this pain? Or, sometimes: Can I get out of this pain?

Invariably, before coming to therapy, they had tried to do what most of us try to do when faced with such pain; avoid it. The problem with this was that they could not hide from themselves forever. Somewhere inside, they sensed their distress. Even if they couldn’t quite identify the problem, they could feel that something was wrong. So, in the end, evading their deepest emotions only compounded their pain by disconnecting them from that part of themselves; and by creating an inner tension.

When they finally acquiesced to getting help, they learned that the only way past their pain was to go through it. They had to approach the pain, get to know it, and even learn to feel loving toward it and themselves. They didn’t have to like the pain, but rather be willing to accept and feel compassion for it.

The same lesson is true for everyone. To overcome chronic distress, you must become emotionally and intellectually self-aware; by both experiencing your emotions and intellectually understanding your struggles. In addition, you must respond to these experiences from a compassionate perspective.

If the healing that this compassionate self-awareness offers sounds beyond your reach, you are in good company. It is a tough sell to anyone feeling overwhelmed by their emotions. No one wants to walk through fire—even if they are promised that it will help them forge a new, happier life.

But, like so much else in life that is worth doing, you do not need to tackle it all at once. In fact, it’s not healthy to even try to venture so deep in one extended inward dive. Instead, try the following: 

• Find a person or people who you can trust to talk with about your most personal experiences. Use them as a support.

• Consciously register whenever you have an unsettling or upsetting experience. If you can label the emotions (e.g. sadness, hurt) or recognize particular patterns of thought (e.g. self-criticism), all the better.

• Set aside time with no distractions to really allow yourself to feel your emotions. You might want to set a timer for as little (perhaps 5 minutes) or as much (perhaps 30 minutes) time as you feel comfortable doing this. You can just sit and think; or, you can journal.

• Before sitting down to reflect, plan to do something enjoyable and active afterward. This will help you to transition out of deep, sometimes painful experiences.

• Be gentle and patient as you do this. You would offer others this; do the same for yourself.

• If you become too overwhelmed or remain stuck, seriously consider going to therapy so that someone with more experience with this can help guide you.

By opening up to your experiences, you offer yourself a path through them. It is an adventure that requires courage, but it also offers an incredible reward – a happy, resilient you!


To help you better understand the process of healing through compassionate self-awareness, I offer you the following poem. Although the author was coming to this topic from a different background and perspective, he does a wonderful job capturing the healing power offered by compassionate self-awareness to those who are profoundly struggling.

Not Running From Here

Your only duty
Is to not run from here
Even if the hole
Of loss burns deep
In your belly
And on waking
You feel the dread
Of walking into the day
Stripped bare
Feeling the wind
Pierce those
Empty places within
You can always pretend
Try putting on a face
Other than your own
But that's a game
That's never worked
And only burns
A deeper hole inside
The pocket of longing
And makes the shell
You've chosen to live in
Even more hollow
But when you touch
The emptiness inside
You've spent a lifetime
Running from
With delicate hands of love
The way the evening fog
Envelops the solitary tree
Without flinching
Pressing into and
Loving every gnarled crevice
Every twisted branch
Even the forgotten needles
Fallen to the ground
This is the first step
That begins the slow
Journey of completeness
Keeps inviting you deeper
Into the roots of yourself
Claiming your place
That has always been
Waiting right here

Poem by Mark Coleman

Dr. Leslie Becker-Phelps is a clinical psychologist in private practice and is on the medical staff at Somerset Medical Center in Somerville, NJ. She also writes a blog for WebMD (The Art of Relationships) and is the relationship expert on WebMD’s Relationships and Coping Community.

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