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The Malady of Thinking “It Hurts”

The benefits of getting specific about how we feel.

 Dr. Debbie Joffe Ellis
Source: Photo: Dr. Debbie Joffe Ellis

“It hurts.” A common expression we use when things don’t go the way we prefer: when we get what we don’t want, when some undesired or unexpected disappointment or traumatic event befalls us, or when we don’t get what we do want. “It hurts."

In so doing, we lead ourselves down a path of disempowerment and prolonged suffering. As long as we think that circumstances lead to our feeling hurt — stuck there we will be, in all likelihood, making ourselves victims in our own minds. Many people exacerbate sadness about unwanted situations by keeping themselves in a state of ache, without realizing that they have a choice that could enable them to empower and free themselves from debilitating attitudes and emotions. How sad to be unaware that it is not the undesired events that create the “hurt,” but our perspective on them that creates the subsequent emotions. Saying we feel “hurt” is a general and broad label of our experience, and less specific than is helpful if we want to take charge of our emotional well-being and suffer less emotional misery.

Please don’t misunderstand me — I am not prescribing Pollyanna-ish attitudes when bad things happen. What I do urge, and wish that more people would learn, is that there is a vast difference between healthy and unhealthy emotions, and that we have the power to create one or the other according to the way we think.

The approach of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT) teaches us that the way to create the healthy emotions is to think in rational ways about the event — to consider a realistic and hopeful perspective, changing what we can, whilst accepting the things we cannot change. It reminds us that life does contain suffering, but also much that is good. It encourages us to make the effort to experience greater unconditional acceptance of ourselves, others, and life when things don’t go as we wish. The unhealthy emotions are created when we think in irrational ways — demanding that we or others or life shouldn’t be the way it is when it is the way it is moment by moment, catastrophizing, awfulizing, and holding damnation of self, others, and/or life within our minds and hearts.

I have been working with a client who came for therapy telling me she “felt hurt “and in great pain emotionally. She relayed the circumstances to me — admittedly very difficult ones. Writing about them here, they remind me of what is going on right now (October 2018) in American judicial proceedings and politics, covered heavily by the media, involving the consideration of Judge Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court. Dr. Christine Blasey Ford has shared traumatic events involving him that she says she definitely remembers, and many people are expressing skepticism, mockery, or worse towards her.

In response to the situation and to what Dr. Ford has shared, many writers, including psychologists, are asserting that sexual assault and harassment may have lasting health repercussions for women, and cite research as evidence supporting that. However, I have also seen other research, the conclusions of which are supported by my personal experience working with clients, and the experiences of many great therapists I know and have known (including the genius Albert Ellis who heralded in psychotherapy’s cognitive revolution), which indicate that with appropriate therapy and ongoing self-effort — such traumatic events need not have debilitating or permanent negative impact, and what I describe below serves as a probable example of this.

Back to my client. She had been sexually abused in her not-distant past, recounted the situation to family and some friends, was not believed by some family members, and, as a result, she felt deeply "hurt."

Holding onto that frame of mind and emotion was not getting her anywhere but stuck. I encouraged her to get more specific about her feelings. At first, she replied that she just felt hurt. But with further encouragement, she expressed that she might be feeling a number of emotions at different times, including sadness, despair, disappointment, feeling worthless and tainted, a victim, furious, indignant, despondent, hopeless, and depressed.

Deep sadness and disappointment are very healthy emotions after such a circumstance of being violated and then of incurring the doubts and skepticism of others. However, to feel those other emotions without striving to change them, potentially could keep her feeling stuck, low, helpless and worthless for the rest of her life.

By taking one unhealthy emotion at a time, and identifying the irrational thoughts that contribute to creating it, and by regular and vigorous disputing of each of those thoughts – over time and with persistence, she was able to adopt a non-victim-like attitude. She reported feeling calm and a sense of equanimity. She mainly felt sadness instead of the previous despair, despondency, hopelessness, and depression. She was willing and, over time, able to remove the gut-wrenching fury by accepting (without liking) that life contains suffering and injustice at times – though not ALL the time. She was willing to contemplate that, as bad as her circumstances had been – and they had been very bad – they were not the worst that could have happened, she did survive, and was choosing to refuse to feel in any way diminished.

Through much effort, she increasingly felt acceptance of herself, of the people involved, and of the situation – and continues to work on refusing to put herself down and feel worthless. Increasingly, she convinced herself of the truth: that she is a worthwhile person simply because she exists, and bad events or the opinions of others are not indicators of her being tainted and worthless. She experiences that she can remain tranquil unless she lets herself believe the distorted views and judgments of others. She has made the choice, and it was a determined choice, to continue to work on accepting herself unconditionally, despite and including the cruel events of the past and the demeaning words and attitudes of others. She continues to make steady progress.

In this day and age of much hostility, divisiveness, intolerance, and bewilderment, it serves each of us well to think about our thinking when bad things happen, to be precise in identifying our feelings and attitudes, to make effort to minimize suffering through applying logic, rational thinking and great compassion to ourselves, to others, and to life itself. We can choose to boldly refuse to think that we are permanently disadvantaged victims of brutal circumstances, and can choose to stand, head held high, comfortable in our own skin. Otherwise, we will simply, tragically and gravely, hurt ourselves.

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