I think it’s safe to say most of us are taught to avoid pain. We grow up being told to be careful, slow down, look before you leap, think before you act–all instructions to follow if we want to prevent pain. If we do suffer pain or injury of some kind, we are then taught strategies to get rid of the pain and fix the injury, usually as fast as possible. We cover up open wounds, take medicine to minimize any feelings of discomfort, and we are given words of encouragement and comfort to help us “forget” about our recent mishap and move on. We are taught that pain is inherently bad. We need to avoid it. We need to erase it. As we get older we are even taught to hide it. After all, when a “big kid” skins their knee they shouldn’t feel any real pain. A teenager doesn’t cry when they suffer an injury during a soccer game. An adult doesn’t complain when they are recovering from surgery. We hear words like “suck it up” or “it’s no big deal” or (and this is the worst) “man up”. Don’t feel your pain. Get rid of it and move on.
This attitude toward pain is the same for emotional pain. We need to avoid it at all costs. We are taught to be strong and brave. We are told to grow “a thick skin” and to stop being too sensitive. Don’t mind the words and opinions of others. Always think positively. Don’t be too vulnerable. And men? Our men are told to not get too emotionally involved with anyone or anything. They need to harden their hearts. Never cry. Never show anyone any sort of emotional distress because then they would be considered weak or worse, feminine.
If we are unlucky enough to actually experience emotional pain we need to push it aside, fight through it, or ignore it and hope it goes away. If our emotional pain begins to interfere with our normal life’s functioning we need to quietly get help. Tell no one. Hide the meds. Sneak in and out of therapy. The stigma surrounding mental health care is directly related to the idea that we, as humans, should be feeling nothing but happiness and comfort.
And that is utter and complete bullshit.
Pain, both physical and emotional, serves a purpose. Pain tells us that something is wrong. Pain reminds us to slow down and make better choices. Pain alerts us to toxicity so we can eliminate it. Pain helps us heal.
As part of my work with teens as a speech-language pathologist, I give lessons on emotional regulation. I firmly believe a person cannot be successful socially (or in any way honestly) if their emotions are not effectively and efficiently managed. And I don’t believe that hiding away or squashing our emotions related to pain is ever a good strategy. Instead I preach, “you need to feel so you can heal”. That emotional pain is serving a purpose. You need to figure out what that purpose is and you can’t do that if you chase it away too quickly. Once you figure out why you’re feeling the pain you can then find the way back to happiness. In the meantime, you need to find a way to function while you manage your pain. That may mean therapy, medication, or maybe just some thoughtful self-care. Feel your pain, process your thoughts, give yourself the gift of falling apart. Then, put yourself back together in a way that makes you better. The scars that form on our skin to repair an injury are strong and tough. They are reminders of a bad choice or an accident. They are reminders of a pain we do not want to repeat. Emotional scars are the same.
Of course this is great in theory but in practice feeling your pain can be so difficult. In my experience, I would prefer physical pain. You aren’t always expected to work through a physical injury. You are offered pain killing medicine and allowed time to rest and recover. Those suffering through emotional pain are not always allowed that luxury. Dry your tears, get out of bed, get to work (or school). And if you’re a parent? Well, you need to keep on parenting no matter how much you may need time to process and heal.
And that can be so hard.
That can feel impossible.
Your mind and body may scream at you to find a way to numb that pain.
But I promise you….
You have to feel before you can heal.
So find someone to listen to you while you talk it out. Rant, rave, cry, and verbalize those feelings and thoughts so you can begin to get some clarity. Put on some sad music and cry away the sadness and tension. Read poetry. Watch an episode (or two or three) of your favorite drama. Exercise and sweat through the ache. Eat the ice cream. Get angry. Be hurt. Let the pain burn itself out.
And then, lift your head, square your shoulders, put one foot in front of the other and move…forward.