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What to Do When Life Hurts

You can light your way with the pain that burns inside.

"What is to give light must endure burning." –Victor Frankl

I couldn’t have said this better myself, even though it is a truism that I see in action every day. I can feel the turmoil, confusion, and pain of the people I work with. It touches my heart to empathize with their struggles. But what I know, what I feel from the depths of my being, is that opening themselves up to inner tension and friction is a special opportunity. It can create sparks—moments of clarity and awareness. As it continues, those sparks can “catch” and their inner world can become lit.

For example, I have seen many husbands and wives who come to my office because they were no longer able to ignore or suppress their loneliness. The hurt, anger, or betrayal pained them deeply, and they opened up about this. They were able to consider the benefits of their situation (e.g. financial security, being part of a couple), as well as its disadvantages (e.g. a loveless or emotionally empty marriage). In doing so, they also opened the door to change. With a more balanced perspective and clearer mind, they could consider whether to work on their marriage, accept the situation, focus on personal change, or move on. It’s in this way that when people “burn,” they can create light and the opportunity for greater ‘vision’ with new insights.

If you are struggling emotionally, you can help turn the “burn” into light by doing the following:

Take care of yourself emotionally: Show yourself compassion for your pain. Do what you can to soothe your pain, such as by:

  • Giving yourself the opportunity to cry if you need to
  • Being understanding about your emotional pain (rather than lashing out in anger over your “weakness”)
  • Choosing comforting activities (e.g., getting a massage, hiking through a place you love)

Share with a supportive friend: Allow others who care about you to help you through this difficult time. Remember, that’s what friends are for.

Look for the positives in your situation: Pain with a purpose is often easier to bear than pain that seems nonsensical. I see this every day in my office as people share all sorts of overwhelming life circumstances. While nothing can make these experiences feel good, it can help to make note of ways you have benefitted from them. For instance, you might learn that you have greater strength and are more resilient than you thought; or you might realize that your awful job has prepared you for other positions that you might have a passion for. Acknowledging difficult circumstances can also offer a positive direction for you in your life—such as for those in a difficult marriage who finally decide to face the situation and try to nurture a happier future.

Remind yourself that everyone hurts sometimes: Though this will in no way lessen your pain, it can help you to feel less alone. You might seek comfort from others who understand what you are going through. It can also help you to learn how others overcome their difficulties, motivating you to overcome yours.

Seeing any good in a painful situation takes imagination. It takes being able to recognize the present difficulties as transient, changeable, or as something you can transcend. And, it takes the motivation to be compassionate toward your struggles and to find your way through and out of the pain. You can do all of this. You can accept the emotional burn and use the light it generates to guide your way to a greater sense of well-being—but it's up to you to choose it.

Leslie Becker-Phelps, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist in private practice and is on the medical staff at Somerset Medical Center in Somerville, NJ.

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.

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