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How to process emotional pain

How to process emotional pain
Most mental health problems are intrinsically connected to a resistance to fully feel and process negative emotions

Most mental health problems are intrinsically connected to a resistance to fully feel and process negative emotions. When we come to understand that our trauma and emotional pain remain in the body even when we try to deny them in our minds, processing them becomes a natural course to healing. If you agree with that premise but find the whole process daunting, here are four simple steps on how to process emotional pain:

1- Connect with the body without fear

If you were raised in an environment of emotional neglect like the most of us, your tendency is to repress, deny or avoid negative emotions. In order to start feeling them, move the attention inward in a mindful way. Resist the habit of attempting to distract yourself from them and connect with the negative bodily sensations deeply.

2- Ride the wave of emotion

As you start connecting with the emotional pain, you will notice it more and feel it more intensely. That is totally OK. As emotions are fleeting, they will come and then go. Trust this truth, stay with them and allow them to ebb and flow. Feeling emotional pain is not pleasant, undoubtedly, but it is manageable. As we were all wired for feeling and processing it, remind yourself that you can stand that emotional (and at times even physical) discomfort.

3- Challenge irrational thinking

Negative emotions usually follow negative thinking. Therefore, you can feel stuck in your emotional pain or extend its life by not questioning dysfunctional thinking. Because most negative thoughts are biased and irrational, they fail to explain reality objectively. Consequently, they corrupt your perspective of yourself, the world and others, triggering fear, sadness, anger and shame. When riding that negative emotion wave, ask yourself “What was I thinking just now?”, consciously question irrational thinking and identify cognitive errors.

4- Focus on the positive

After you have allowed yourself to feel, ride the emotional wave to completion and challenge negative thinking, it is time to frame the situation differently, in a more realistic and empowering fashion. Give meaning to your suffering and allow yourself to re-organise your narrative from a personal growth angle. The very fact that you had the courage to feel your emotional pain and be yourself in an authentic way is already so remarkable, that deserves your full appreciation.

Learning how to process emotional pain, as outlined above, may not be easy, but it is certainly adaptive and rewarding. As you start building a different relationship with your body and emotions, you feel more whole and connected, not only with your own self but also with life and others. Furthermore, as your emotional maturity and autonomy develop, your relationships tend to flourish and become more fulfilling. I hope you have the courage and willingness to see beyond your pain and enjoy the benefits of embracing it and fully processing it with acceptance.

What is a dysfunctional relationship?

What is a dysfunctional relationship
Dysfunctional relationships do not favour true intimacy, emotional health and personal growth

No relationship is perfect, but some are more functional than others. If that is a fair reflection of reality, what makes certain relationships less healthy or more dysfunctional than others? The answer lies on the quantity, intensity and frequency of the dysfunctional behaviours that shape and define relationships as such.

As a first and universal principle, dysfunctional relationships do not favour true intimacy, emotional health and personal growth. One’s needs, wants, vulnerabilities and negative feelings are not expressed clearly and with confidence for a fear of rejection and abandonment. Therefore, the authentic self does not flourish in the presence of the other, but it is hidden behind a facade of togetherness created to comply with his or her expectations.

Even though such expectations have a major influence on the dynamic and health of any relationship, in the dysfunctional modality they tend to be high and unrealistic. As they are not openly talked about, negotiated democratically and with reasonable compromise, they do not correspond to individual differences, needs and limitations of the authentic self. Failure to live up to one’s own idealised standards or the other’s expectations culminates in feelings of not being good enough, incompetent (fear of making mistakes/not pleasing the other or “getting it right”) and unlovable. The permeating inadequacy brings about a tendency to fault finding, blaming and holding grudges.

Due to emotional neglect, dependency and immaturity, emotions are not processed autonomously or through the empathic presence of the other.  As a result, behaviour is largely motivated by unconscious feelings of fear, shame, anger and anxiety that have great negative impact both on an individual and relationship level. Lack of adequate emotional support, validation or willingness to listen and change one’s behaviour leads to a building resentment that makes one seem to explode over “nothing” from time to time.

In dysfunctional relationships, boundaries are not clear or respected, as well as one’s wishes, likes and dislikes. As values and personal roles are rigid, the dynamic is highly uneven and favours a dominant/active and submissive/passive dyad, which is frequently kept through denial and in an unconscious fashion. In such scenarios, the relationship is used as a weapon of manipulation and control. Refusal to conform with the dysfunctional dynamic and play its rigid roles is followed by threats of abandonment, be them overt/verbal or covert, through emotional distancing and passive aggression.

In cases where there are attempts to address problems and solve them, motivation is weak and tends to wither over time. For that reason, the trajectory of dysfunctional relationships is marked by ups and downs. While one takes on the responsibility of the relationship wellbeing, the other refuses to fully acknowledge the effects of his/her attitude and quickly reverts to a habit of denial, neglect or resistance to change. Because dysfunctional relationships are made of two highly independent units that do not work not cooperatively, they are also filled by feelings of powerlessness, shame, discontent and isolation.

If you would like to refrain from feeding a dysfunctional relationship dynamic, be it with your partner, relative, friend, colleague or boss, self-awareness is key. While it should not be anyone’s responsibility to carry the wellbeing of any relationship solely on their shoulders, by addressing and changing your own behaviour you can become a model of self-esteem and emotional maturity.

How to model emotional maturity to your partner and children

How to model emotional maturity to your partner and children
By improving the connection with your own body and emotions, you become an example of integrity and centredness

The best way to influence your partner and children is through modelling self-esteem and emotional maturity. By improving the connection with your own body and emotions, you become an example of integrity and centredness. As what we see has greater impact on us than what we hear, the way you treat yourself has the potential to affect your children’s and partner’s relationships with their own selves, as well as the one they keep with you. To become a healthier archetype, here are four simple ways on how to model emotional maturity to your partner and children:

Be emotionally congruent  

Due to their emotional intolerance, emotionally immature individuals have a need to repress and deny their emotions. To give an example of wholeness and promote wellbeing to your loved ones, allow yourself to be the way you feel. Denying your sadness or forcing yourself to smile, for instance, are behaviours that perpetuate shame and emotional neglect. Contrary to popular belief, repressing our anger, sadness and fear, or pretending they do not exist does not help us feel better, but robs us from our power to process them in a healthy manner and connect with others through vulnerability. Feeling one way and behaving another sends out the wrong message, as if our true feelings were unacceptable and should be rejected.

Talk consciously about feelings

The simple exercise of naming how we feel helps us regulate emotionally. Telling your partner or children “When you ____(behaviour), I feel ____(feeling/emotions)”, allows you to express how you feel and address a problem without sounding aggressive, which may help you avoid lengthy and unproductive arguments. Noticing your partner or children’s anxiety, for instance, and asking questions such as “You look anxious, is there something bothering you?”, can help them connect with their feelings and feel comfortable sharing them with you. When initiating such conversations, remind yourself to act in a non-judgemental way, give them your full attention and listen to what they have to say.

Tolerate negative emotions

Emotional maturity is all about self-acceptance and intimacy. You cannot accept yourself and have a fulfilling, intimate relationship with anyone (even yourself), however, if you reject negative emotions. When you repress and deny them, be it in yourself or others, you neglect and alienate. All emotions are parts of who we are and deserve to be honoured. Emotions also exist without apparent meaning, they just are. Resist the temptation to rationalise them, learn how to tolerate discomfort and allow them to just be.

Give emotional support

Emotional support is not problem solving. When you focus on a solution to what you perceive as “a problem” (i.e., a negative emotion), you lose connection with the emotion. Therefore, when you notice your partner or children feeling affected by negative emotions, display a curious and accepting attitude. Resist the antagonistic urge to tell them they are OK or shame them for feeling angry or cranky, and openly validate the way they feel. To show empathy, mirror the way they feel by making simple statements with emotion and feeling words, such as “I can see you are angry” or “It is OK to feel sad”.

All the above require courage and patience and rely on your ability to tolerate emotional discomfort. To succeed reproducing in practice what you have read here, do not give up or switch back to your older self when feeling awkward and inauthentic. Trust that those feelings will change with time. Emotional freedom and tolerance are quite addictive, and once you have managed to introduce such positive habits in your own life and start feeling their benefits on your physical, emotional and relational health, you will wonder why you have not changed your attitude earlier.

Perfectionism beyond the stereotype

Perfectionism beyond the stereotype
You do not have to constantly strive for super high standards in everything you do to be influenced by perfectionism

Although perfectionism tends to be conceived in all-or-nothing terms, as an exaggerated focus on high standards, its scope goes far beyond that.  Because we are individuals of a complex nature, the very meaning of a “high standard” varies from person to person. Before becoming a vegan, I used to make a vegetarian pizza on a weekly basis. For it to taste good, it had to contain 150 gm of cheddar cheese, the equivalent of a single package from my local supermarket. That was my standard. When I would get excited about making that pizza but find there was less than 150 gm in a package left in the fridge, I would get extremely disappointed, not make it or force myself to drive to the supermarket to get a new package. After trying to cut down on cheese and having realised that I could bend my own rule and reduce that quantity, I was surprised to find out that my pizza tasted as good as before! As a perfectionist, my experience had been limited by a rigid rule which caused stress that could easily have been avoided by a small change in perspective.

You do not have to constantly strive for super high standards in everything you do to be influenced by perfectionism. As any vulnerability, perfectionism fits your personal views and values, whatever they are. You can be a hippie, an academic or a footballer and still act in a perfectionist way. As long as you behave as a slave to a rigid set of rules which you believe to reflect a high standard or goal, perfectionism is at play. It is important to highlight the significance of individual perspective to perfectionism. As much as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, perfectionism is in the brains of those who struggle with low self-esteem. If you value physical appearance and find a sporty look glamorous, you may become a perfectionist and invest time and money in the way you look so to achieve that standard. Your house can still reflect you lack of care and be disorganised and dirty, and not bother you half as much as looking as good as you think you should on the outside, in order to feel good enough on the inside. When you need a new mattress to help with your back pain, but you have your eyes on those trendy sneakers that cost a fortune, you forget all about it as soon as you picture yourself walking around in them, looking good, feeling great and getting praise and attention from others.

Perfectionism is all about holding inflexible conditions of worth which – even though may have never been challenged – have meaning on an individual level and must be kept at all costs. Therefore, if you have standards of quality that remain constant over time and do not adapt to the changes in you and your life, you may find that perfectionism is one of the main reasons why you struggle to feel balanced and reach a state of personal contentment and fulfilment. Due to its flexibility, it fits “perfectly” with any low self-esteem attitude of conditional worth and wellbeing. Perfectionism in action can be observed in every parent’s obsession in making their children’s experience as pain free as possible, for instance, as if feeling negative emotions would permanently damage their development ((unaware) emotion phobia being one of perfectionism’s most common features) and compromise his or her ability to act as a good mom or dad. While that may be true in abuse, neglect and childhood trauma cases, most children – those who are exposed to good enough parenting – do quite well with some share of unconditional love and attention which do not require their parents’ struggle and suffering.

If you have identified with the above at some level, be aware that your perfectionist attitude does not affect only you, but also those around you. As the emotional cost of perfectionism is high, it tends to be intrinsically related to relationship problems, as well as a great array of psychopathologies such as eating disorders, depression and anxiety. You do not have to be fully aware of how much of your struggle to keep centred is a result of your perfectionism, or the extent to which affects your co-workers and family, for it to be damaging to all of you. The irony here is that the struggle to keep a fixed standard going so to guarantee wellbeing and happiness is the very cause of emotional health problems and misery! To get out of the perfectionist trap, start challenging rigid beliefs – whatever their meaning and application – consciously and proactively, while playing with not feeling bothered by the idea of being “below average” or even “lousy”.  Additionally, increase emotional connection and wholeness by allowing yourself to feel bad every now and then and around others. The more self-acceptance and unconditional love you bring into your life, the more you will tolerate the imperfections of others. The more comfortable they feel around you, the stronger your connections become, as well as the benefit of your influence.

4 dysfunctional beliefs that get in the way of self-assertion

4 dysfunctional beliefs that get in the way of self-assertion
Dysfunctional beliefs stop you from acting assertively

Dysfunctional beliefs are at the heart of vulnerabilities. For those who struggle with low self-esteem and find it challenging or even scary to assert themselves, exploring the negative beliefs which give these values their strength is a productive exercise. To help you find some of the cognitive foundation to your feelings of insecurity, here are 4 dysfunctional beliefs that get in the way of self-assertion:

 “I shouldn’t make people unhappy”

This rule implies that it is every individual’s responsibility to care for others’ emotional wellbeing. It also assumes that their supposed need for constant happiness comes first. Finally, it suggests that negative emotions are of a dangerous nature – something to be avoided – as if we were unable to recover from them, once “unfairly” submitted to their experience.

“I cannot make mistakes”

Perfectionism makes us behave like insecure children when we make mistakes and/or receive criticism. Even though most people fail to associate their intolerant attitude with perfectionism, mistake and criticism phobia is one of its most common features. Moreover, this inhuman and idealistic belief implies that the consequences of our mistakes are always terrible, too terrible, in fact, to be able to be handled or corrected. For those who hold such rigid belief learning tends to be an unpleasant or even traumatic experience.

“Prioritising my own needs is selfish”

A popular belief amongst the emotionally dependent and codependent that robs them of their right to individuality and self-expression. It suggests that the self only has value in relation to others, or that its right to exist, as well as its worth, relies on one’s ability to negotiate and accommodate it to the needs of others. Quite inaccurately, it also promotes the idea that a compromise is always better than following one’s own disposition.

“When I do not feel like doing what others want me to, I should give them a good reason why”

This belief presupposes that our own feelings, needs and wants only have merit when reasonable. In other words, we have no right to them solely on the basis of their existence, but their significance is dependent upon the judgement of others. According to this principle, feelings are the same as thoughts, since they “should” be connected to rational thought. The authentic and, therefore, highly subjective self, has no means of flourishing under such a rigid rule.

What do the above beliefs have in common? They all come from a stance of weakness and rigidity which annihilates the true and creative self.  Their perfectionist and all or nothing approach to emotions, behaviour, relationships and life itself is too stiff to reflect the complexity of our experience and allow personal fulfilment. To stop letting them rule you and your life, bring them to your full awareness and challenge them openly. Make a conscious and brave effort to establish congruence between what you believe in and how you act and feel, so that being you and inhabiting your own body becomes something pleasant and rewarding.

Common thoughts of the emotionally dependent

Common thoughts of the emotionally dependent
Emotional dependency is a vulnerability

Are you emotionally dependent? If you struggle with low self-esteem and excessive worrying, there is a high probability that you are. Emotional dependency is a vulnerability of those who did not receive enough unconditional love in childhood so to build a solid sense of safety and self-worth. Because they lack self-esteem and that all important inner sense of safety, they become addicted to the approval of others in order to feel at ease with themselves and in the context of relationships. To find out if that fits your profile, here are common thoughts of the emotionally dependent:

“I often worry about what other people think of what I say and do”

“I need reassurance that I am doing the right thing, otherwise, I feel insecure”

“It is hard for me to truly know what is best for me”

“I try my best to make people feel good around me”

“I check in with others first, before making a decision”

“I tend to feel ashamed of myself when I make a mistake”

“If I do not get positive feedback when I do well, I feel extremely disappointed”

“I have been let down by a great number of people”

“I worry and feel guilty when I am not able to be there for others and make them happy”

“I do not trust my own feelings”

“I feel very ashamed and resentful when I am given criticism, even when I am aware that it is constructive”

“I make an effort to be liked”

“I love helping others and making them feel happy”

“When people are not OK around me, I think it is because of something I may have said or done wrong”

“I often do not know if I am doing what is right for me, or if it is what I truly want”

“I try to avoid confrontation because it makes me nervous”

“I am afraid of making mistakes and disappointing others”

“I put others’ need before mine, even when I do not want to”

“I would love to be able to trust and value myself”

“I feel more relaxed when others take the lead”

“I always try to do my best”

“When I say no, I feel guilty”

As with any type of dependency, healing is viable through true emotional freedom. To achieve emotional autonomy and self-confidence, it is essential that you learn how to be yourself, regardless of the consequences. As simple as that sounds, converting that into action requires great courage. That is because in Western culture, authenticity often requires a fearless attitude. Practice increasing you discomfort tolerance and tell yourself you can stand and overcome the anxiety, guilt and shame that arise from honouring your own feelings, interests and boundaries. As painful and as difficult as that may seem, your end goal makes it all worth it. After all, there is nothing more rewarding than living your own life and enjoying authentic self-expression.