Why Are Painful Emotions So Hard to Handle?

Unbearable painful feelings, guilt, shame and hurt may occur when we fail.

Posted Feb 10, 2016

Painful emotions are one of the most difficult mental states that an individual has to master. When good things happen to us, whether we won a big game, whether we were complimented by a colleague, whether our romantic partner communicated genuine admiration, most of us respond with a sense of well-being and psychological fullness. Of course, there may be situations where guilty feelings interfere with our pleasure.

But what happens when we fail? What happens if we lose? If we are criticized? If our romantic partner abandons us? Mastering unbearable emotional pain is an ongoing challenge throughout our lives.

We may develop unbearable painful feelings which may include guilt, shame, hurt, and/or worry. The challenge for all of us is to develop and nurture psychological mechanisms to help us cope with painful feelings. There are a variety of mechanisms that people use to avoid painful emotions; many of these psychological mechanisms occur outside a person’s awareness. For example, a young boy, while talking to his teacher, with tears in his eyes, about his father’s angry behavior during his Little League game, suddenly walks away and says, “I don’t want to talk about that anymore. I am going to play with my friends." His tears no longer exist. He cannot allow himself to cry in front of his teacher because he feels too un-manly.

In other words, the young boy had to avoid the painful feelings and thus, pushed it out of his mind and turned to his friends. Another boy, despite having pitched his heart out during a game, refused to talk to his coach or his parents. This boy felt so overwhelmed by the painful feelings provoked by the loss that he could only shut down and only allowed comfort to come from within himself; he could not face his parents nor important adults because he felt so ashamed in front of them.

A thirty-something woman felt so humiliated by a miscarriage that she could not face her husband or parents. She retreated to her room for several days. Another person, lost his position at a university; his way of coping was to spend the night at a bar and had to be taken home by friends.

Transient powerful emotions occur in all of us when feel humiliated, sad, or embarrassed. Problems occur when these feelings persist and maladaptive actions predominate. If sad feelings are always avoided or denied, maladaptive responses with potentially self-destructive activities may persist; there may be profound ruptures in relationships; dangerous behavior may occur, such as driving inebriated.

One of the great challenges of parenting is to help children develop greater tolerance of painful feelings. Such tolerance of painful emotions can help children deal more effectively with reality, both the rewards and the disappointments. Throughout development and maturity lessons need to be learned and re-learned as to how best master the inevitable disappointments of life.

Leon Hoffman, MD

Author of Regulation Focused Psychotherapy for Children with Externalizing Behaviors (RFP-C). https://www.routledge.com/products/9781138823747