Processing Pain
By: Javan
March 7, 2013

Emotional recovery from any painful situation involves deep processing. If you’re asking yourself why, you’ve come to the right place. I can provide some clarity around why therapists insist on focusing on your pain, look into your past, or say things like “how does that make you feel?” If you’ve ever felt like reaching out for help with emotional challenges but felt uncomfortable with going deeper into your emotional psyche, I can provide some encouragement there too. Looking into the past, understanding pain, and examining choices gives us information about motives, needs, desires, and behaviors. It’s the who and why of who we are… going deeper helps inform us of who you are and what makes you tick. It can help you understand past behavior and predict future behavior. It’s not enough to know what you don’t like and just move on to the next thing that makes you feel better. This does not help with future behavior, because it is empty, misunderstood change. Its not internal, intentional change for long lasting, sustained recovery.


A husband, we’ll call him Frank, recently had a major life change, after being laid off,  and was worried about how he would provide for his family. Feeling confused about which career path to choose, he had several questions…Should he continue with his past professional life, start a new career, open his own business, or stay home with the kids? One question was most important…what does HE care about?  What does HE feel about what he wants to do?

During one session he reported feeling confused and overwhelmed, not feeling confident in any aspect of his life. Every option felt uncertain. Frank missed the certainty of his corporate life, the stability of income, medical insurance for his family, and other benefits that helped his family to have a better quality of life.

When we discussed Frank’s anxiety level, he reported that it was very high, even during a session, just talking about it increased his anxiousness. When he was anxious, it was more challenging to Frank to have clarity around his true feelings. Too much anxiety blurs reality, blurs clarity, and can be very discouraging. With less anxiety, he could see his choices more clearly. In this case, the proper amount of anxiety was motivating this client to seek work, but with too much anxiety, he was feeling paralyzed with fear. Anxiety is normal, but can influence hopelessness if its not managed well. In Frank’s case, anxiety and fear were feeding his beliefs that he wasn’t good enough to take a risk and move towards his goals. By not moving towards his goals, he feeds the cycle of shame, pain, and grief. He becomes trapped in his own paralyzing world, with no end in sight. Frank’s loss of confidence was based in his childhood and was being triggered by the current stressor of losing his job.

In the next session we discussed what kinds of things Frank usually did to avoid his anxiety. He mentioned several benign pain killing behaviors, such as watching TV, talking with friends, listening to music, going for a drive, having a couple drinks, etc. His recovery homework was to NOT do these things when he felt anxious and worried. Instead, he was to stay in the moment, with nothing to inhibit the anxiety  or push away the fear. Instead, he needed to sit, listen, wait, and process his discomfort.

Many times, our first reaction is to limit or avoid the uncomfortable feelings by using whatever exercise or tool that worked in the past to diffuse the discomfort. This only works in the short term and therefore comes back over and over again.  Eventually, this becomes useless. Learning something new doesn’t come from doing the same things repeatedly.  A mountain is not climbed, a fear is not known, and we keep beating our head against the same brick wall. In Frank’s case, the wall was his fear and anxiety around not seeing his future.

One session, Frank reported feeling hopeful and relieved. I asked what he had done and he said he stayed in his pain. No smoking, no drinking, no phone calls….he just listened to whatever he needed to know. He didn’t numb his fear or anxiety by looking for work on-line or watching TV.  He wanted to know more about the emotions he WAS feeling.

He learned that he had a false sense of financial security with his old job. That he was controlling, thinking he could plan out his future. That he felt financial abandonment because he no longer had a huge income that he could stash away. He felt a sense of unhealthy entitlement due to his large income and social status. He felt sad for thinking that he could feel better about his self-worth with all these false “guarantees.”  He realized his stability was wrapped up in all these man made things. His thoughts were “If these things are not with me, then I do not exist, or my existence is of little or no value.” And this is what was feeding his lack of confidence. Frank would have never come to this understanding of himself without deeply processing his pain.

This is only a small example of how deep processing works. The gift for Frank was in letting go of the unhealthy ties to such beliefs and knowing that he always has value as  a person regardless of his losses. He knows he will always be okay, safe, and loved by his family.

There are many ways that deep processing works in people’s lives. Some take a longer amount of time and deal with more complex issues. The hope is knowing that deep processing allows a person to reconnect more intimately with themselves. Gaining greater intimacy with yourself provides freedom and empowerment.