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How to Make Meaning of Emotional Pain


Clinical work involves trying to help clients figure out what to make of current emotional pain, because not all of it is instructional. When we feel pain, we must determine if it’s in response to a real threat or not. Based on this determination, we then can decide what to do with it. Here’s the discussion I had with a client on this subject.

Moira is a soon-to-retire police officer who described arresting a highly inebriated man for assaulting his girlfriend then being stuck listening to him verbally abuse her (my client) for hours from his holding cell as she did his paperwork for booking. Bossed around, shamed and neglected in childhood, she’s highly sensitive to what others think of her and is learning how to better manage personal slights.  We talked about how to view her arrestees’ ridicule, including how people whom we hurt try to hurt us back (clearly the case here) and how she could interpret his remarks in proper perspective.

When we feel a ping or stab of emotional pain, that could be our system warning us of a potential incoming threat. It’s saying this might be something we want to pay attention to, not that it definitely is. So, the first thing to do is to consider whether there’s a true threat. I pointed out to Moira that an intoxicated man in a holding cell who’ll likely have little memory of his arrest in the morning didn’t seem like any kind of threat. 

Moira agreed, but still felt the ouch of his having called her fat and taunted her about her laugh. I suggested that no one likes to be ridiculed (it never feels good) and that it might help to consider what kind of person says such nasty things drunk or sober. I asked her what kind of childhood she thought he’d had and she said, “Not so good. Probably bad.”

Already Moira was starting to move away from believing her right brain emotional pain was worth her attention as she started to use her left logical brain and think things through: Here was a person who was no threat to her and was using words to hurt her because he lacked control and had no other method of getting to her. She was starting to think he didn’t deserve a second thought. She could respond to him or not, whatever she felt was a healthy, professional way to handle the situation.

The emotional pain she initially felt was prompted by a false threat, yet it bothered her because it echoed much of her treatment in childhood. But, she decided, there was no point in focusing on something that happened so long ago and soon began to view the man’s insults in a more detached way. By the end of our session, since her “ouch” wasn’t about now, her pain had faded until it eventually disappeared.