Why do we have painful emotions? Suffering is optional.

The idea that we should feel happy all the time is pretty pervasive in our society… What if challenging emotions are needed to learn about ourselves?
Painful emotions

Why don’t we feel good all the time and what are these painful emotions about anyway?

In my work I often come across people really struggling to deal with their painful emotions. Anxiety, stress, depression and relationship issues can all trigger strong emotions that we might repress or feel overwhelmed by. Getting lost in their triggers and their wounds. Perhaps resorting to numbing out with alcohol, food or other dependencies as a painkiller and getting caught up in old patterns that don’t serve them.

The idea that we should feel happy all the time is pretty pervasive in our society… If we were just that bit richer, sexier, younger we would be in bliss… And its just around the corner! Perhaps counselling can make us permanently happy?

Sorry to disappoint you, but while I find that counselling can help us to be more fulfilled, content, to find that things are ok even if they hurt sometimes, I don’t see it as a way of feeling good all the time…. Perhaps that isn’t even desirable….

More on that later.

So why do we feel pain? What is it for? There are a few answers to that … depending on what is going on. Some of it is to do with our wiring as a species. Some of it is to do with our trauma history. And finally some of it is actually about the event that is triggering us! But probably less than we think at the time, when we are upset with our partner or whatever!

We are hardwired to look for problems…

The hunter gatherer who was on the lookout for danger tended to live longer and to reproduce. They passed on their genes. Meanwhile the happy go lucky hunter gatherer tended to get eaten by wild animals! So we do have a tendency to focus on the negative, and to produce a fight/flight or stress response to problems. That can  cause unnecessary drama in modern life! Nowadays our problems tend to be about relationships and problem solving rather than life threatening emergencies. Mindfulness can help us to dissolve these patterns of stress and painful emotions. It can create a peaceful container around the event so we can see if the drama is really necessary.

Even so, painful emotions can be useful, in three different ways:

  1. Calls to action

    Just like physical pain is a sign that something is not right, painful emotions can be a way of telling us to do something different. If our boss is bullying us at work then we are likely to get stressed, upset or angry. Hopefully, we will then talk to our boss or get a new job!
    Alternatively, if we deal with this by cutting off from our emotions we might stay in the situation. We might even deal with it bye drinking more. This would be self-destructive! A bit like holding our hands in a flame, and taking painkillers to deal with it! So listen to those emotions, they are there to tell you something.

  2. Wounds from the past:

    Where it can be complicated is that this pain may be more connected to your past than what is happening. For instance, if your partner has not returned your urgent texts and calls all day. You know they are in meetings so have a good reason not to reply, but you might feel triggered anyway. It might bring up feelings of hurt… being unloved and unimportant. This probably has more to do with unresolved childhood wounds than to do with our current relationship. Much as we’d like to blame it all on our partner.

    SO it is important to discern between what is to do with current reality and what is about our own past. Rather than just dumping our emotions on our partner. These emotions however are still a sign that something needs to be done… In this case probably get some counselling around your childhood wounds.

  3. Grief:

    It may be that someone has died, or we have had another form of loss… A job, a relationship, moving house or other big changes can be a loss that needs grieving. Death and loss are natural processes. Things will always change so we will suffer losses in life. In a way there is nothing wrong… but it is still a loss and it still hurts.
    So we need to give space to the grief in order to process it. In this way the emotion is there to help us to come to terms with the loss and to let go. The only way to do this is to feel the pain and to process it. If this feels really hard to do or overwhelming, then perhaps we never got the tools to process big emotions from our parents. So we might need counselling to support us through the process.

  4. Conclusion

    So, painful emotions are there for a reason! By feeling them we learn lessons from them and we process the changes that we go through in life. It is natural to feel painful emotions and there would be something wrong if we didn’t feel them. As we mature and we create more space for these emotions, they are not as overwhelming, and they rock us less, but they still hurt. Mindful awareness can even help us to see that the emotions are not our core self.
    Amazingly, we can learn to sense emotions as being more on the periphery. We are the still center of the storm. In this way we can even feel ok with whatever is happening. However much it hurts we are bigger than the emotion….

    Pain is inevitable but suffering is optional!

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Ajay Hawkes
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Ajay Hawkes

Ajay Hawkes

Accredited mental health social workerAjay Hawkes

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Fully accredited therapist with extensive experience in personal growth and mindfulness meditation.

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