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Emotional Pain: Imprisonment or Transcendence?

Humans did not evolve an internal punishment system.

Key points

  • We focus on healing when in physical pain but on justifying our emotional pain.
  • We need to identify with the human capacity to transcend pain and suffering.
  • Transcend emotional pain by following the motivations of sorrow, anxiety, guilt, and shame.

We have a choice; we can view emotional pain as a prison or as a means of transcendence.

It can feel like a prison when we misinterpret the repetitive nature of painful memories, which evolved to keep us safe in the present. If you step on a nail in bare feet, you’ll focus on healing the wound with things like bandages, antiseptics, and antibiotics. You’ll have unpleasant memories of having stepped on the nail long after the physical wound is healed. Those memories will persist until your brain is assured that you can walk safely by watching where you step.

The difference with emotional pain is that we focus on justifying the hurt, rather than healing it and preventing future injury. The tragic notion that we need to justify emotional pain underlies the following barriers to transcending it.

Misinterpretation of Shame Signals

Shame is a painful experience of self as failing, inadequate, or unlovable. But shame is not a punishment; it’s a motivation to succeed and become competent and lovable. Shame is not to be denied or numbed with anger; it’s to be acted on for personal growth and transcendence. It motivates learning and hard work. In love relationships, the only way to feel lovable is to be compassionate, kind, or loving. When we are, shame immediately dissipates. When we justify the behaviors that cause our shame or blame them on others, emotional pain becomes a prison.

The Most Common Problem: Blame

Blame is a functional transference of shame from self to others. An "addictive" element of blame is adrenaline. We need adrenaline to overcome the natural inhibition of shaming people, especially loved ones. Adrenaline temporarily eases pain and boosts energy and confidence. If we don’t feel energetic or confident without adrenaline, the brain will look for someone to blame for something. We’re most apt to blame when in pain and when energy and confidence are low.

We may build tolerance to adrenaline and need more and more of it to get acceptable levels of pain relief, energy, and confidence. At that point, blame turns emotional pain into a prison.

Substituting Power for Value

Feeling powerful is a temporary state that requires a boost of adrenaline, which makes us impulsive and likely to act against our long-term best interest. The amphetamine effect of adrenaline sets us up for a crash; feelings of power inevitably resolve in diminished confidence and energy.

When we feel devalued or rejected, we need to do something that will make us feel more valuable, rather than more powerful. We need to be compassionate, kind, supportive, encouraging, empowering, and respectful.

Imagine how much better the world would be if we consistently chose behavior that made us feel more valuable, rather than temporarily more powerful.

Victimization vs. Victim-Identity

A great many people are victimized over the course of their lives. (I grew up in violent, abusive, alcoholic homes.) The injustice of pain inflicted by others turns it into a prison when we identify with being a victim.

Due to its focus on injury and damage, rather than strengths and resilience, victim-identity prevents healing. It requires open wounds, both to serve as fuel for anger and resentment and to justify continual resentment and anger. It impairs the ability to create value and meaning in life.

How to Develop Transcendent Attitudes

  1. The inevitable pain of life is fuel for growth.
  2. Identify with your ability to transcend pain and suffering.

We transcend psychological pain by following the motivations of sorrow, anxiety, guilt, and shame.

Sorrow (acute sadness) occurs when we’ve lost something or someone we value. If we don’t blame, deny, or avoid it, sorrow self-corrects over time. For example, once we fully grieve the loss of loved ones, we’ll find other people to value, not as substitutes for lost loved ones but as catalysts for our desire to love. To transcend sadness and sorrow, experience compassion and kindness for others.

Anxiety is a feeling that something bad will happen, which will exceed or deplete our capacity to cope. We’re conscious of it as worry, nervousness, restlessness, agitation, thought-racing, confusion, difficulty focusing. To transcend anxiety, view it as a yellow light, not a red light. Figure out what bad thing might happen, learn more about it, decide how likely it is to happen, and develop plans to cope with it if it should happen.

Guilt results from violating values. When consciously aware of guilt, it feels like regret and remorse. When unconscious, we tend to cope with it by denying it or blaming someone. To transcend guilt, be true to your most humane values.

Shame results from perceived failure, defects, incompetence, or inadequacy. We’re rarely aware of our shame because we expend so much energy avoiding it with deceit, anger, resentment, alcohol, drugs, and compulsive behavior.

To Transcend Shame

Decide how important the perceived failure, defect, or inadequacy is, relative to the course of your life. Consider alternative interpretations of whatever has stimulated the shame. Develop action plans to correct failures.

Rest, replenish, redouble efforts. The brain often confuses low physical resources with failure and inadequacy. After resting and replenishing, try again. The brain learns by making a series of estimations, with built-in failure; failure is a step toward success.

Feel the shame briefly. The experience of shame disarms maladaptive defenses, making it easier to regulate. Shame takes a lifetime to avoid but only moments to transcend.

To transcend is to grow beyond limitations, to become greater, to become the most empowered, humane people we can be.

If you feel stuck in habits of blaming, misinterpreting shame signals, and substituting power for value, Love Without Hurt Boot Camp, can also help.

More from Steven Stosny, Ph.D.
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