Escaping the Grip of Emotional Pain

Find happiness by facing, feeling, & forging your way through difficult emotions

Posted Jan 14, 2013

To be truly happy, you have to know it when you feel it – and when you don’t, you must know and let yourself feel that other, not-so-good emotion in order to change it. You might wonder, What’s the point? Being upset won’t help anything. So, instead, you might “choose” to regularly avoid, suppress, or try to think your way out of it – and move on with life. But if you remain unhappy – or keep sinking back into unhappiness after trying to boost your mood – you’re not really moving on with life. As counter-intuitive as it might be, labeling and feeling distressing emotions can really help you to feel better in the long run.

By approaching your emotions in this way, you can experience a sense of being in tune with yourself, which often reduces the intensity of your emotions – unlike avoidance, which only feels better as long as you distract yourself. Feeling your emotions also enables you to manage them effectively. For instance, you might choose to share your emotions with your partner, which can strengthen your connection and provide an opportunity to feel understood and cared about.

If you are like many of the people I’ve treated in therapy, you might have difficulty identifying your specific emotions. For instance, you might know that you feel upset, but leave it at that. This is a vague word that could mean hurt, sad, angry, or some other emotion. Or, you might be inclined to mistake your thoughts for feelings – such as responding to a question of how you feel with an assessment of yourself; I feel so stupid. This could mean that you feel embarrassed, ashamed, or guilty (to name just a few possibilities). Such imprecision with emotions can prevent you from being able to attend to psychological bumps and bruises; or even deeper emotional wounds.

So, to help yourself heal from emotional pain, it’s often best to really connect with, and identify, your emotions. If this is difficult for you, try the following:

Pay attention to bodily sensations. Emotions are based in your body’s reactions, so it’s extremely helpful to pay attention to them. Do you feel shaky or tense someplace in your body? Butterflies or nausea in your belly? Or, perhaps a sense of numbness?


Consider what emotions you are feeling. Once you identify your bodily sensations, you might find that particular emotions come to mind that seem associated with them. Tension in your chest might indicate anxiety. Welling up of tears in your eyes and your throat constricting might indicate sadness. Your heart racing might indicate fear or anxiety.

If you still have trouble identifying your feelings, consult a list of emotions. I’ve found that people often find this helpful because it is difficult to think clearly when upset. You can find a list by checking your search engine; one such list is Philosophy 101; Critical Thinking; List of Emotions. To develop this skill of labeling your emotions, you might find it helpful to practice by regularly consulting this list.

Consider what someone else in your circumstance might feel. Still lost as to what you are feeling? Think about what someone else in your situation (maybe a friend or family member) might feel. Sometimes a little distance is exactly what you need to help you identify your own emotions.

Be compassionate to your experience. To heal and move through your emotions, you must treat them kindly. Just as you would approach anyone else who is hurting, be compassionate to your own pain. Though it might not change a thing, it is healing. It’s no different than when you soothe a crying child by offering hugs and kisses and love; or when you feel better after letting yourself have a “good cry.” So, stay with your emotions and reassure yourself that you are okay. By doing this, you will notice that you feel connected with yourself and that being this way feels “right” (though not necessarily good).

Move on.  After feeling your emotions and treating them with compassion, it is time to refocus on other things – preferably situations, activities, or interactions that feel good. If, like many other people, you need to return to the painful feelings again (even repeatedly), be patient with yourself. Working through your feelings takes time.

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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Making Change blog posts are for general educational purposes only. They may or may not be relevant for your particular situation; and they should not be relied upon as a substitute for professional assistance.