Emotional Pain

The initial causes of emotional pain are not what maintains it.

Posted May 20, 2020

What prolongs emotional pain are repetitive memories, which, ironically, evolved to keep us safe in the future.

If you step on a nail with bare feet, you’ll focus on healing the wound by seeking bandages, antiseptics, or antibiotics. Long after the physical wound is healed, you may experience distressing memories whenever you see or think of a nail. The painful memories will persist until you’re sure you can walk safely by watching your step.

There are two big differences with emotional pain. Obviously, we have many more reminders of the hurt. More insidiously, we focus on justifying the hurt, rather than healing it and preventing future injury.

The tragic notion that we need to justify emotional pain probably comes from cruel social messages that painful and vulnerable emotions are signs of weakness.

In any case, the urge to justify emotional pain underlies the greatest barriers to healing and growth.

Remarkably, the same obstacles to emotional healing apply to individuals, couples, families, communities, and nations:

  • Addiction to blame.
  • Misinterpretation of shame signals.
  • Substitution of power for value.

The Most Common Addiction

Blame is an attempt to transfer painful emotions to someone else. We need adrenaline to overcome the inhibition to hurting others, especially when we’re blaming loved ones.

Adrenaline gives us a temporary boost in energy and confidence—we feel that we’re right when we blame. If we don’t feel energetic or confident without adrenaline, the brain will look for things to blame, just to get the energy shot. That’s why we’re most prone to blaming when energy and confidence are low.

As with any energy-booster, we build tolerance to adrenaline over time. We need more of it to reach the same level of energy and confidence. The blame addiction worsens, until it seems that we can’t function without it.

The Self-Defeating Nature of Blame

We can’t blame and heal or improve at the same time.

Blame is focused on something that’s happened in the recent or distant past.
Healing and improvement must occur in the present and future.

Blame is focused on presumed causes.
Healing and improvement must focus on solutions.

Blame renders us powerless. The people we blame live rent-free in our heads, influencing the way we think and feel.
Healing and improvement empower us.

Blame is socially defeating. It makes people defensive. While defensive, they can’t listen. Although we feel right when we blame, we appear self-righteous, if not hypocritical. When we blame someone, we’re almost always blamed in return. Blame begets blame.

The road to personal harm and relationship ruin begins with blame.

Misinterpretation of Shame Signals

Shame is a painful experience of the self as a failure, inadequate, or unlovable.

The social function of shame is to control other people’s behavior by making them feel diminished or inferior. It rarely works, due to potent, albeit temporary, defenses against shame: anger, resentment, avoidance/distraction, alcohol/drugs.

There's an unfortunate psychological blunder we’re all prone to make, due to the use of shame as a means of social control. We're likely to construe shame as punishment, which must be avoided or, if experienced, avenged.

Shame is not punishment. It’s a motivation to become successful, competent, lovable. It’s not to be avoided; it’s to be acted on. In love relationships, the only thing that heals the pain of shame is to be compassionate, kind, and loving.

Substitution of Power for Value

When we feel devalued, we need to feel more valuable. Instead, we try to feel powerful, which requires adrenaline. That’s how shame turns into blame. Only the shamed shame others.

Adrenaline makes us impulsive and unlikely to act in our long-term best interests. Revved on adrenaline, we’re more likely to make a bad situation worse than improve it.

Imagine how much better the world would be, if, rather than choosing to feel temporarily more powerful, we consistently chose behavior that makes us feel more valuable—behavior that’s compassionate and kind, supportive and encouraging, empowering, and respectful.