5 Steps to Process Pain in a Healthy Way
We are all subject to emotional and mental pain at some point in our lives, it’s completely and one hundred percent inevitable. Knowing this, I think it’s detrimental to our wellbeing to know how to process pain because, and I say this from personal experience, pain makes people do things they would never otherwise do- nasty, hurtful, malicious things. When people operate out of pain, it’s dysfunctional and disastrous. I would argue that most character flaws can be traced back to a painful experience. Pain changes us, but it’s up to you whether that change is positive or negative and if you choose positive, be ready to work for it.
What happens when we don’t process pain? Well, I already mentioned some things in the paragraph above, we do things we wouldn’t normally do, destructive things. But what else in the long run? Unprocessed pain can easily lead to unhealthy coping mechanisms. When we don’t process pain, we have to “deal” with it in other ways, by basically covering it up. We silence it. The most common way people do that is by turning to pleasure or they numb out. When we choose not to process our pain, we suppress it with the need for pleasure, mask it or medicate it by numbing out which can actually look the same as pleasure seeking. Some forms of pleasure seeking/ numbing out that people turn to are porn, drugs, alcohol, food, or work. It can look like someone in a relationship simply reaching out to someone other than their partner for emotional comfort and can go as far as an affair. It can look like someone posting a sexualized picture on social media to get attention. It can look like manipulation, or controlling or simply checking out and becoming extremely disconnected.
“The pleasure principle is a term originally used by Sigmund Freud to characterize the tendency people to seek pleasure and avoid pain. Freud argued that people will sometimes go to great lengths to avoid even momentary pain, particularly at times of psychological weakness or vulnerability.(1)” According to Freud, the pleasure principle is driven by instinct, selfishness, narcissism, and a focus on behavior above relationships (2).
I think we would agree that none of these “coping” mechanisms are healthy and would lead to anything that is nourishing and positively challenging for our souls. On the contrary, it often leads to addiction, broken relationships, sickness and ultimately, more pain.
Now that I’ve convinced you that it’s important to learn how to process your pain, I’ll explain how I’ve learned how to do that..
- Identify Your Coping Mechanisms (the harmful ones) and your pleasure seeking tendencies. The first step to changing something is awareness. This takes a lot of introspection and being honest with yourself. We are all human, we all have harmful coping mechanisms and ways to avoid pain. A lot of these ways were developed before we were old enough to know better. Avoiding pain in completely instinctual, you can’t blame yourself for the habits you’ve created. I didn’t learn my coping until I went to therapy, so know that that may be a necessary step in this process for you. Once you know your tendencies, when they arise in life, you can call yourself out and be encouraged to find other, healthier ways to cope.
- Identify and Practice Healthy Coping Mechanisms. Basically, make a plan for when shit hits the fan. Write it down even. Be intentional about it. For example, “When shit hits the fan, instead of coping by eating my emotions in ice cream, I will go on a walk and listen to my favorite worship album. Or I will call _______ and make plans to hang out and just be with people as much as possible. Or I will first, stop and pray, and then text my friends to pray for me. Or I will journal my feelings and then go surfing.” A key part in this step is knowing the things in life that fill you up. These are the things to turn to when pain strikes.
- Feel It. You can’t process pain without feeling it. This is the hardest part for a lot of people because it goes against our natural instincts which means we must be intentional about it. Some people have a hard time even identifying their emotions because they’ve covered them up for so long. They can’t even say “I am angry.” That may be the first (sub)step for you- identifying your emotions. This allows you to be honest with yourself, which will better pave a path for you to process. It may help to write it down- take it from your mind to the paper. For example, “I’m so sad. My heart is broken because ___________ happened. I’m so angry because ____________.” Journaling can be so therapeutic and it manifests honesty. Life’s too short to deny what you’re feeling or pretend everything is ok. Expressing your emotions is part of feeling them, so let yourself cry or scream or hit something (that won’t hurt you or someone else). Honor your feelings, they’re legitimate.
Where you have to be careful, is if your mind creates false statements because of your pain. It’s easy to think things like [hypothetical example] “I can’t believe he cheated on me. He must not love me, I am not worthy of love, I’m not good enough.” Our pain tries to sabotage our identity. We must catch our minds from going down these rabbit holes. Truthfully, this is the only way to not fall into shame and negative self-image. The Bible refers to it as, “taking every thought captive.” Nothing controls our minds but us, however, the enemy can manipulate our minds by pain and suffering. We have to train our minds to believe the truth and combat everything that threatens it.
- Yes, he cheated, but that DOES NOT mean I’m not enough and it DOES NOT even mean that he doesn’t love me. When put simply, he cheated out of his pain, his issues. It doesn’t mean anything about me…..
One thing you can do to combat the negative thinking is practice affirmations.
- Give Yourself TIME and SPACE. Pain requires an amount of time spent in a setting that allows you to wrestle with your thoughts, being honest with yourself, identifying your feelings and give them permission to come and be felt. I don’t necessarily mean “space” as in distance from people ( and I definitely do not mean isolation), but simply, creating space, whatever that may look like for you, that allows you to think, feel and process. For me this is what it looks like – me alone in my room. my Bible open. my journal open, with a pen handy. Kleenex nearby. My phone there to either use guided meditations or put on music that helps open my soul. Guided meditations can be really helpful to open you up and break down the walls that want to keep you in a bubble of numbness. There are some really good ones for emotional healing on the Insight Timer app. For you, this “space” could look like a walk on the beach, or a solo weekend getaway, going to a prayer/ worship night at church or extra sessions with your therapists. Wherever it is, it needs to feel safe and be uninterrupted for a time.
After an emotional trauma, allow yourself to take the time you need to process that trauma.
- Let Go. Everything I’ve said up to this point can be referred to as “sitting in your pain,” dealing with it, facing it, feeling it, expressing it, accepting it. After you’ve done that, in order to move on, you must let go. You must forgive yourself and the people that have wronged you. Unforgiveness establishes a deep root of bitterness and you’re the only person that is hurt by it. It’s powerful and will imprison you for the rest of your life if you don’t a) prevent it from taking root or b) take it to war and fight against it. The easiest way to avoid bitterness is option a) prevent it from taking root. Don’t be a victim. You have a choice to continue feeling sorry for yourself or to let go, take responsibility for your own happiness and move on.
Something that helps me is knowing that God is a God of justice. He fights for me. I don’t have to defend myself because he’s defending me. It’s not my job. I choose to trust the One who is perfectly just and perfectly loving to fight my battles. Truthfully though, I’m thankful that Jesus makes a way for humans not to get what they deserve because if that were the case, I’d be burning with everyone else.
Pain has the power to do 2 things: break you or make you stronger. You choose. Don’t waste your pain.