What to Do When You Can’t Make Peace With It

How to overcome emotional pain

John P. Weiss
Oct 10, 2020 · 7 min read
Illustrations by John P. Weiss

You carry it inside you, like a benign tumor. Except it’s not entirely benign. Emotional pain hurts. The source and intensity will vary from person to person, but the symptoms are similar.

Sadness, grief, despair, anger, hopelessness, and regret. To name a few.

No one gets to escape emotional pain. Sooner or later we all experience it. Some of us get off lightly. Maybe we lose our job or navigate a divorce. No fun, but survivable.

For others, things can be devastating. They lose a spouse to cancer, or endure years of horrific victimization.

Traumatizing events may pass, but the memories remain. They feel like a heavy weight, pulling you below the surface waters of your life, into depths of suffocating sadness.

How do we survive emotional pain when we can’t make peace with it?

Ironic process theory

It seems the more we try not to focus on something, we only end up magnifying it. Like when someone tells you not to think of pink elephants, all you can do is think of pink elephants.

According to an article in elevatecounselingaz.com, our inability to inhibit certain thoughts has a name:

“In psychology, this phenomenon is known as the ‘ironic process theory,’ whereby deliberate attempts to suppress certain thoughts actually make them more likely to surface!”

The reality is that we have to face our pain, not run from it. Often, people turn to drugs or alcohol to escape their pain. Unfortunately, anesthetizing ourselves with drugs or alcohol only makes the problem worse.

An article in verywellmind.com notes:

“Although a drink or dose of opiates might seem to relieve your pain almost instantly, the effect will only last as long as you are under the influence. As soon as the drink or drug wears off, the emotional pain will come back, possibly worse than it was before.”

The article adds:

“People can go for years cycling through the vicious cycle of pain, shame, disappointment, and more pain, before finally realizing the effect will always wear off, and you will be left with the feelings underneath. Some people never discover this.”

A way through it

If you’re going to overcome emotional pain, don’t run from it. Muster the courage to face it. Don’t hide from it in a bottle of booze or mind-altering substance.

What follows are three useful tips to help you overcome emotional pain and start living again.

Acceptance

Acceptance is not the same thing as resignation. According to an article in verywellmind.com:

“Acceptance means letting go of attempts to control your emotions and learning that emotions themselves cannot harm you, although the things you do to try to get rid of emotions, such as abusing alcohol, can harm you.”

Resignation is about giving up. People who resign themselves to their unhappiness stop trying to heal, whereas people who accept their emotions know that with time and effort, they’ll feel differently in the future.

“Acceptance doesn’t mean resignation; it means understanding that something is what it is and that there’s got to be a way through it.” -Michael J. Fox

In the early stages of a divorce, many people feel deep sadness and anger. Accepting these emotions reflects an understanding that the end of a relationship is difficult.

It’s normal to feel sadness and anger. But it’s also normal to work through these feelings and recognize that with time and effort, life will go on. The emotional pain will subside.

Take action

When we’re in the throes of emotional pain, there’s something intensely therapeutic about taking action. Rather than sitting on the couch feeling sorry for ourselves, coming up with an action plan, and committing to it can help us overcome emotional pain.

One of the best action plans you can take is to seek the help of others, both loved ones and professionals. Consider this advice from wikiHow.com:

“A strong support network can help you cope with your pain more effectively. It is important for you to let others know what you are trying to achieve.”

Instead of blaming the world and everyone in it for your pain, turn to others to help you. WikiHow.com adds:

“The process of checking in with someone focuses your mind on making progress. There is an opportunity to live up to an expectation, which can result in you feeling positive about yourself and your efforts. Consider asking the person to hold you to a check-in schedule. For example, one time per week you will report your progress to the person. It’s up to you to tell them what you need from them in terms of feedback.”

Taking action is different than a mindless reaction. If you are feeling sad and react to that by eating a box of donuts and drinking a six-pack of beer, that’s not very productive.

Recognizing your sadness and saying, “I’m going to do something about this. I’ll get off this couch, go for a run, and then call my friend,” will result in a more positive outcome.

Author Mark Manson has written:

“So, it’s very paradoxical, but the key is to actually just let go of trying to control the emotions. Just let them — it sounds super cliche — but flow through you. And then actually focus more on ‘What are the behaviors that you’re doing to react to however you feel?’”

Develop scar tissue

Last year I had a small skin cancer removed from my shoulder. The dermatologist successfully removed the cancer, and the surgery resulted in stitches.

The wound required care and at times was uncomfortable. Eventually, the stitches were removed, but a scar remains.

I’m fair-skinned, and as much as I love the sun, I realize I can never sunbathe the way I used to. My scar is a constant reminder of the skin cancer removed.

“It has been said that time heals all wounds. I don’t agree. The wounds remain. Time — the mind, protecting its sanity — covers them with some scar tissue and the pain lessens, but it is never gone.” -Rose Kennedy

Emotional pain is a lot like a scar from skin cancer. You can treat the emotional pain, but some evidence of it will stay with you. You just learn how to carry it and move on with your life.

Surrender to what is

The most well-adjusted, effective people I know share an important trait:

Pragmatism

Such people don’t waste time complaining about how unfair things are. They don’t give in to feeling sorry for themselves. Rather, they accept the reality of their situation and focus on sensible and realistic solutions.

Being pragmatic won’t insulate you from sadness and sorrow, but it will focus you on a path forward.

“Surrender to what is. Say ‘yes’ to life — and see how life suddenly starts working for you rather than against you.” -Eckhart Tolle

For example, pragmatic people facing divorce get busy with the next steps. Dealing with legal matters. Figuring out a roadmap for dividing property, work changes, and new schedules. Leaning on friends to talk to.

Pragmatism distracts us from emotional pain and invites the best outcomes possible.

Whatever hardships or emotional pain you’re dealing with, you’re not alone. Many people before you have shared your experiences. So will many after you. This is life, and sometimes, there’s no rhyme or reason to it.

You can make peace with your emotional pain through acceptance, taking action, and developing scar tissue. Mix in a little pragmatism, and eventually, things will improve.

Your life will get better, and at some point you might be able to help someone else as they wrestle with their own emotional pain. Doing so will not only help them, but strengthen your own healing.

(Originally published at JohnPWeiss.com)

Before you go

I’m John P. Weiss. I draw cartoons, paint, and write about life. Get on my free email list here for the latest artwork and writing.

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