Dealing with pain in ourselves and in others

A client recently told me that every time she met her closest friend who was depressed, she ended up exhausted and frustrated trying to “help” her friend feel better. Upon a closer look, she realised that it wasn’t a “good” feeling, she felt responsible as if she had to do something about her friend’s pain. So there was an underlying anxiety to help. This was a shocking discovery for her as she always thought her help came from an altruistic place.

It is usually difficult to recognize that we may be acting out of impatience when somebody is hurting. There might be a voice inside of us saying to that person in pain “come on, don’t feel bad, do something about it” or “come on, do what I say, I have a solution for you” Anything seems better than letting the person feel their feelings.

On many occasions, we don’t want to deal with any kind of emotional suffering whether in another person or in ourselves. Many of us tend to believe unconsciously that by controlling somebody else’s pain, we can control our own. Under this first layer of control, there are still our unaddressed uncomfortable feelings about people and situations but specially about ourselves so we cannot stand any more pain in anybody else.

When we notice that we are relating to another human being’s pain by being frustrated, we might turn it around and ask ourselves: How do I relate to my own pain? Am I impatient or compassionate? Am I trying to look at it, understand its message or just push it down in the hope that it won’t resurface?

The illusion of control

If something can be remedied
Why be unhappy about it?
And if there is no remedy for it,
There is still no point in being unhappy.

This is an extract from a poem composed in the 8th century by the Buddhist master Shantideva.

How do we usually face the issues of frustration and lack of control?

We cling to outcomes and if things don’t go our way, we suffer. So we do everything in our power and beyond to manipulate reality and to create false certainty.

Situations at times can be changed and mended. If I am sick, I can take a pill. If I say something inapropiate I can always apologize. But there are many situations that cannot be modified, especially those that involve other people. In general, we won’t be happy till someone’s actions match the way we think they should act. In brief, we cannot distinguish between what can and cannot be done. Leaning towards the idea that we can change more that what we really can when we feel fine and the opposite when we are down. This is a distorted view that ends up in frustration. As the serenity prayer states:

God grant me the Serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
the Courage to change the things I can,
and the Wisdom to know the difference.

This lack of wisdom to know what we can and cannot change keeps us in constant alert and stress. We have an internal demand to solve a problem that we cannot solve. Take for example our intimate relationships, due to our need to have everything under control, we demand our spouse to do what we need him or her to do. And this fails over and over again. Even if we get him or her to do what we want against his will, resentment is going to make sure it backfires.

What happens to us when we recognize for example that we have no control over our partner’s actions?

What prevents us from having that serenity to accept the things we cannot change?

Is it the panic of being vulnerable and getting hurt? Vulnerability is so scary because it means opening our heart to pain. We tend to believe that by controlling we’re protecting ourselves from our own painful feelings… but that is the illusion of control.

My relationship isn’t going well, do I need counseling?

This is the question that many couples ask themselves. In general people go to counseling as the last resort. They go to individual or couples counseling after years of fights and resentment, virtually exhausted and in many cases without motivation or energy to continue. In either case it could be beneficial, to realize that there is still something binding them or perhaps that the relationship has come to an end.

A good indicator as to whether to consider couples or individual counseling is when the couple has tried to solve their “difficulties” by themselves and they now find that they are in destructive cycle of dynamics with no way out, coming to the conclusion that they have lost all perspective.

Common destructive cycles of dynamics include:

  • Lack of communication, the feeling of banging our head against the wall when talking to our partner.
  • Lack of sexual desire and a recurring feeling of physical and emotional distance. We may view sex as an “obligation” or as emotional currency to obtain what we need from our partner.
  • Conversations become difficult as we feel we are going round in circles with no conclusions.
  • Accumulated frustration leads to tense conversations with an aggressive or disrespectful tone over and over.
  • There are hot topics that trigger us immediately so we avoid bringing them up because we are afraid of things getting even worse. There are untouchable topics that can go on for years.
  • There may be repeated threats of breaking up followed by reconciliations where the relationship seems to improve temporarily but goes back to the previous bad situation.
  • Continuous doubts from one or both partners as to whether they have chosen an appropriate person so they are neither completely in nor completely out of the relationship.
  • There is so much pain and resentment that we doubt our real feelings for the other person.

Specific situations that would almost certainly benefit from counseling include:

  • The failure to overcome an infidelity and the resentment and lack of trust that this can bring about
  • The effects of an addiction on the relationship
  • The effects of a serious or chronic illness of one partner
  • Issues with the in-laws
  • Acute differences regarding the children’s education
  • Financial problems
  • A personal crisis of any of the partners: existential, middle age, etc

If your relationship is in this situation and you would like to give counseling a try, I encourage you to get in touch.

If you would like to read more on this subject, you can look up the category relationships.

What is your inner programming?

We all receive messages from our parents during our childhood, some are explicit and others are implicit. From all this, we interpret things in a certain way and we continue with those ideas till one day we start questioning them. For example, something I hear frequently in therapy is: “my parents didn’t love me” and then we close our hearts to love and be loved. When we get older and have a partner, we can feel that we aren’t really loved. We can feel for instance that “he is just looking for sex” or “she is with me just for my money” among other beliefs. We reduce everything to fit our inner programming of beliefs such as “nobody is going to love me for who I am” so we don’t go beyond till the suffering of sadness and loneliness forces us to go beyond.

Once we look a little further, we can question ideas such as: is it true that my parents didn’t love me? Or could it be that they didn’t show it in the way I needed at that time? How did they express their love even if that wasn’t what I expected or needed?

Let us look at the pitfall this pattern can create for couples: a woman who has doubts about her partner’s love will perform a lot of “love tests”, always reaching the same conclusion: it’s never enough. She will never be totally satisfied because her inner programming acts as a filter and doesn’t allow otherwise.

When this inner programming comes out of the shadow of the unconscious, it can be looked at and questioned. The key to access our inner programming is to understand that it is manifested as a repetitive behavior pattern. If we go over our past relationships, we will be able to see the similarities in our reactions, so we could ask ourselves: what recurrent patterns have created conflict in my past relationships? This can help us start to pull the thread of our inner programming.

Do you know what you really need?

Getting in touch with our real needs

Our feelings are the engine of our actions and the gateway to our needs. If I want to know what I need, I have to ask myself what I feel first. If my needs are not met, I may feel angry, sad or afraid. It’s helpful to feel these emotions in order to understand what I need. The emotion is a torch to my need.

Martha knows she eats compulsively but she cannot help it. She feels trapped in a loop: when she’s asked how she feels, she says she feels empty and sad and then she eats, when this happens, she feels guilty and throws up and after this she feels empty and sad again and the same pattern is set in motion one more time.

We usually move from feeling to action without being in touch with our real needs.

What do you do when you feel sad? Do you go to the fridge? Do you take a nap? Do you watch TV? Do you wait passively until it goes away? There are many possible actions but they have something in common: they are all quick reactions to save you from feeling the pain. If you stay a bit longer with that sadness, as uncomfortable as it is, you may get in touch with your need, you may realize, for example that what you need is to clarify something with somebody or tell a person how you’ve been hurt and then you take action or you may need some affection and then you decide to ask for it or to give that affection to yourself.

How do I react emotionally?

Appropriate response

Every situation  creates an emotional response but sometimes the response is not appropriate to the situation: we can either exaggerate it or minimize it. The more extreme our reaction, the more we are distorting reality. When we don’t know how to manage a feeling, we either control it or get it out of control. The more we control our emotion, the more it gets out of control at the wrong time with the wrong person. A good example of this is a couple married for a long time, where the same dynamic has been repeated over and over again. Let’s say he is rather careless and forgetful, leaving things anywhere in the house and then losing them. She has been picking up his things for all these years and is totally fed up, so every time they have this “situation” she gets out of control and starts shouting at him. Her anger is so intense that she responds with aggression. She has exaggerated and therefore distorted reality.

So the first question to ask ourselves is: what is happening to me that I respond in such an extreme way? How am I distorting reality? We need to pause and look at it in a deeper way.

This is part of the work that is done in counseling. It’s very helpful to have somebody to reflect back to us our dark areas. For example, the woman in the story realized in therapy that she couldn’t stand her husband’s untidiness because she had repressed her own. She hadn’t been allowed to be untidy as a child, she had been punished severely and she had buried all that pain she felt in a dark corner of her mind. Once she brought all this up to her consciousness, she started concentrating on herself and not on trying to change her husband anymore so she could react in a more balanced way.

Aristotle said “Anybody can become angry – that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way – that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy”. This is what emotional management is about.

What makes us feel bad?

Let’s look at this through an example:

Have you ever considered leaving “everything” behind and moving to another country? It’s a common fantasy and a pressure valve for all our daily tensions. Nevertheless, in some cases, what starts as simple day dreaming becomes a real idea. It may be a solution, for example to our unhappiness at work. It’s possible that we may find a better job in another country (especially taking into account the situation in Spain nowadays), with an improved salary and better life standards. But we usually don´t stop there, underneath this idea is the thought: “I will be happier there”. We may not be aware of this underlying thought even when it´s the the main motivator of our actions. Once this is out in the open, the logical thing to ask ourselves is “what makes me so unhappy here that I want to leave? And we could come to the conclusion “my work, my boss, the crisis…”

We are probably are not concious of the irrational part of our idea. This was explained by Albert Ellis (external link – opens a new window), who developed the rational emotive behavior therapy (external link – opens a new window) in the fifties. One of the irrational ideas is:

“human misery is invariably externally caused and is forced on us by outside people and events — instead of the idea that neurosis is largely caused by the view that we take of unfortunate conditions”

Following our example, we could think “my job is boring and my boss is very strict and that makes me feel bad” Is that true? Is your work or your boss what creates your bad feeling or is it rather your negative view about it?

We spend our lives judging things and people “this is good and I feel good” or “this is bad and I feel bad”. Have you ever considered the posibility: “this is bad and I feel good” or better yet: “this is neither good nor bad and I can choose how I feel about it”? Have you ever considered that what makes us feel bad is not the situation itself but the negative judgement we make of it? The irrational idea is to join together the external situation with our internal reaction as if there wasn’t any other possibility.