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Some observations on emotional pain

Emotional pain hurts
It’s pain – it hurts. As dull or as sharp as physical pain. The McGill pain index provides a fascinating range of descriptors, should you be intrigued. I shan’t elaborate here. You know what pain is. (Fwiw, numbness counts).


Emotional pain can be switched on and off

Expert numb-ers, avoiders, and drowner-outers will testify to this. It’s possible to tune out emotional pain and ignore it completely. If you’re really good at this, you can call it dysthymia.

So you can tune out your emotions. For a while. After your ‘while’ is up, emotional pain will make itself more and more known to you. If you don’t pay it attention, it’ll steal your attention (procrastination, depression, anxiety, erratic behaviour, lack of motivation, fatigue, insomnia, restlessness, addictions, compulsive behaviours, overeating, undereating…) until you’ve got nothing left to steal, or you start to pay it some attention.


Emotional pain can overwhelm

Yes, and no. Yes, because it can really bloody hurt. And no, because you always have the possibility to turn it down, should you choose to (consciously or not). Beware that most methods of tuning out emotional pain can have their own negative impact and consequences too.

Can you tell that I’m a numb-er, not an overwhelmeder? No?


Emotional pain likes attention

It’s not a drama king, queen or jack. It’s a messenger service.

Emotions are messengers from our deepest beliefs, values, and views of the world. If you ignore the messenger, it’ll find a different way to send the message. And another way. And another.

Once you’ve received the message – i.e. you’ve felt the emotion properly – your emotional world stops sending you the message.


Emotional pain doesn’t need a lot of attention

It needs enough attention.

I came across the idea that to fully feel an emotion takes about 90 seconds. And it’s true. (Ok, you lot at the back there: ‘an’ emotion here means ‘a particular aspect of your emotional experience’ kind of like a photon is a bit of light but DO NOT take me literally here.)

Taking emotions as messengers, we can say that it takes up to 90 seconds to deliver the message.

You can manage 90 seconds, right?


Emotional pain has lots of different flavours

It’s not just pain. It’s distress. Despair. Angst. Anger. Rage. Hatred. Disgust. Irritation. Sinking feelings. And the rest.

Know what flavours it comes in. It’s no good telling me that your ice-cream was cold. I want to know if it’s chocolate, strawberry, or pistachio.

If you don’t know what flavour your pain is, you can’t understand its message clearly. This is alexythymia – not being able to label your emotions (and labelling is a key part of interpreting experience, prior to responding to our experience).

Google yourself a nice list of emotions, find out what your favourite (i.e. frequently visited) flavours are.


Emotional pain changes

When you lean into emotional pain and let it run through you, you hear its message, and it changes. It morphs. It changes feeling tone, strength, intensity, or all three. Within 90 seconds, it’ll change.

You might get another emotion coming through, but the first one can fade out entirely once you’ve paid it proper attention. You might get a whole string of emotions, one after the other. Feel it, know it, let it pass. Feel, know, pass.

If emotional pain doesn’t change, you’re not feeling it right.

If your emotional pain isn’t changing after really feeling it for 90 seconds, chances are you’re stuck in a story loop.

There are two parts in our brain-minds (among many) that are relevant here: the storyteller, and the body. The storyteller tells our story. It’s out autobiographer. It tells us: I’m a good worker. I’m a crap husband. I’m really hot at sales. I hate gay people. I’m a waste of space. It tells us what it believes is our truth.

The storyteller can hold us fast in a story loop. You think a bad, painful thought about yourself or your situation. You feel bad, painful feelings. You think the same thought again, or a closely related one. You feel bad, painful feelings. You think painful thoughts about the painful thoughts and feelings you’re having. You feel more painful feelings. Or they might be angry feelings. Whatever, the principle applies.

A story loop is stuck. It loops. It’s familiar. It doesn’t change much at all.

The message (whatever it may be, as it probably isn’t the message you’re currently tuned into) isn’t getting through.

When you’re stuck in a story loop, you’re not feeling your actual feelings. You’re feeling feelings about your thoughts and about your feelings.

If you’re an overwhelmed-er, chances are that you’re a grand storyteller. Stuck in a story, spinning the story loop around and around.

It’s hard to get out of a story loop. You need to get underneath it, or bypass it, to get to your actual feelings.

Logic can help, but not always.

Other people can help, but not always (depends on the person, the nature and quality of your interaction with them).

You need to feel. Really feel.

Starting to really feel after getting stuck in story loops is difficult.

I feel stuck in a story loop about story loops. Let’s challenge the story loop.

Is it true? Is it always true? Sometimes true? A little bit true? Look for the gaps. If your car veers off the road towards a load of trees, look for the gaps, not the trees. Same here.

Challenge the story about your feelings.

I feel numb – but not when I’m with my friend. I feel numb – but not when I’m playing this game. I feel numb, but when I read this book I also feel curious.

It hurts all the time – but not when I’m focused on this project. It hurts all the time – but not when I’m playing with my children. It hurts all the time – but not when I think of all the people I’ve touched.

Apply general logic: all people have a variety of emotions. My other ones must be here somewhere. Go hunting for them.

Notice flickers of other feelings, and see what amplifies them.

Oh yes, the second relevant part. I almost forgot (damn, you’re good, Storyteller). The body.

The body feels. Pain, emotions, pleasure. Feelings.

Your feelings, your emotions, your pain – and pleasure – are all in your body. The more that you are in your body too, the better, generally speaking.

So pay attention to your body. Your posture. Your voice. Your speed. Your hesitation.

Move. Wibble about. Walk. Dance.

Do it with your body NOT YOUR HEAD (yes, trust me, it’s possible to be physically active without being present in your body. Hell, you can have sex while not being in your body. Dissociation is powerful, folks.).

If you’re really good at not feeling your feelings, you’ll dissociate quite easily. Dissociating is when your body and your mind are strangely at a distance from one another. The storyteller is good at dissociating you – you go into a fantasy world, a nightmare fantasy if you will, or just a fantasy, and you’re not present to your experience.

If you’ve dissociated for a long time, you won’t know that you’re doing it (handy, eh?) so you’ll need someone to help. A good therapist, yoga teacher, voice coach, can all help.

By the way, my gift is that I can feel the trapped feelings that are in other people’s bodies. By finding them, I help you feel them. This brings you into better contact with yourself, into a less dissociated way of being, and you can learn how to feel your feelings directly too. Plus, once you’ve let out a lot of your trapped feelings, there’s less behind The Door so you’re less afraid of your own emotional life. Positive feedback loop – of the kind you want.

Tension is a great dissociator too. You can become too tense to let any feelings through. Do gentle self-massage – start with your hands or feet if the idea freaks you out. Go for an actual massage – head massage, or back and shoulders. I’ve heard great things about floatation tanks too.

Move. Wibble about. Walk. Dance. Yes, I’m repeating myself. It’s deliberate (your storyteller won’t want to hear it).

In summary, if you’re feeling your feelings and your feelings don’t change – you’re not feeling your feelings. You need to do something different.


Emotional pain makes you shut The Door

The Door controls the flow of emotions. When The Door is shut, I shut down. When The Door opens, everything comes through to the extent that The Door is open.

When I’m numb, when I used to be depressed, The Door is closed. Anything that lit me up and made me smile would open The Door a little, and very soon after all sorts of pain would tumble out. Then I’d want to shut The Door again.

But when I shut it, everything stops.

So I’ve learned to keep it a little more open. Or to open it when it gets stuck again.

If your Door is shut, in all likelihood there’s some pain behind it. The Door is doing the best job it can for you (so it thinks) to keep you safe from the pain.

What The Door doesn’t know is that it’s making your problems worse, most likely.

Know that emotional pain – ok, yes, it hurts like heck – passes. Once you feel it, it passes.

I imagine it’s like a kidney stone. I’ve not had a kidney stone. I’ve heard it’s terrible. But when it’s out, it’s out. Better out than in, I’d say.

Once you know what your emotion wants to tell you – what you are telling yourself by means of your emotions – it doesn’t need to tell you the same thing again, so it passes. It fades away.

Notice your Door. Notice what helps to open it, what helps to keep it open. Do more of that.

I feel like writing something about medication here. Medication is not in my self-management repertoire. I definitely see its value for friends who include it in their self-management.


Emotional pain looks for safety

When you’re feeling safe – physically safe enough, financially safe enough, mentally safe enough, emotionally safe enough – The Door will open of its own accord.

This is damn scary.

Especially if you weren’t expecting it because your storyteller has been telling you all along that everything’s fine, your life is great, your childhood was idyllic, your relationships are fine…

Event if you were expecting it, it’ll still be scary. The taps (faucets, dear Amercian readers) that were running a tepid dribble now open up to a mighty icy/hot/icy torrent in a shocking – not to mention distressing and frightening – turn of events.

Everything was peachy then blam! Your world went wrong inside.

This is Totally Normal.

Your emotional safety system (i.e. you and the defenses you’ve built for yourself) knows that when you’re safe, you can deal with whatever is lurking behind The Door. You’re ready, and your pain knows it (scary? nah. it’ll be ok soon. I promise.)

So, you reach safe-enough conditions, everything falls apart and you feel like shit and can’t figure out why because just a minute ago everything was Just Fine, dammit.

It may be that nothing has gone wrong – it’s just your innards responding to safety by ejecting everything that no longer belongs there. You stop at a service station? Throw your rubbish out into the handily-placed bin beside your car.

So, now is the time to dig through your shit.

Actually, you don’t need to dig through it. You don’t need to talk everything through in detail. I think that’s a total lie.

You need to feel what’s left to be felt – the things you haven’t felt that have been waiting for you to feel them.

Then it passes, you integrate the messages that the pain was trying to tell you all these years, you grow into a fuller, better (more integrated, less dissociated) version of yourself.

Ok, I admit it, that’s the top-level version of events. It’s an iterative process. You feel a little more, you digest and process. You rest and regroup. You integrate the message of the feelings. You reach another point of safety in yourself, so you feel a little more, you digest and process.

It doesn’t have to be pretty, linear or organised. In fact it’s often piecemeal.

How you contact your feelings is up to you. But now you know what you’re looking for. You know what emotional pain can be like, and how to know if it’s genuine emotional pain or storyteller pain. You know when it’s likely to erupt, and that it’s possible to deliberately manage its flow to a level you can handle. You know you can get support in letting out and managing your emotions.

And let me know if you’d like me to help.


The information contained above is provided for information purposes only. The contents of this webpage are not intended to amount to advice and you should not rely on any of the contents of this webpage. Professional advice should be obtained before taking or refraining from taking any action as a result of the contents of this webpage. Sue Mahony PhD disclaims all liability and responsibility arising from any reliance placed on any of the contents of this webpage.

Sue Mahony PhD is gifted, autistic, and ADHD. She provides 1:1 specialist support for brains similar to her own, neurodiversity training, mentoring & coaching for organisations, and a wealth of articles on this website.

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