Growing Through Emotional Pain

More on Pain and Mindfulness

how to deal with emotional pain

Deepest condolences and terrible heartache felt for the people who lost their lives this weekend in Charlottesville, and their families – and our whole community.

When I heard of the Alt-Right, the KKK, and white supremacists gathering to ‘unite the right’ and protest the removal of the Confederate’s General Lee statue, I was horrified, sickened to hear that they actually did that. How can this be? How much wretchedness must we endure?

I paused and felt terrible grief that our country is in this state, where haters feel they have permission to hate and bring violence to communities of diversity.

I slowly and deeply breathed in the pain of all the suffering experienced by those tormented by being on the receiving end of hatred; and of all of those taking a stand to rid our streets of that hatred. I felt such sadness (and disgust) for those who have grown up in such a way – surrounded by hatred – whose hearts are so closed, who know of no other way to express their sense of self loathing and bitterness than to project it onto others, causing them horrible harm and pain.

Heather Heyer’s last posted words were “If you are not outraged, you are not paying attention.” Yes, important to pay attention to all that comes up when we experience pain. Sadness, overwhelm, anger, OUTRAGE. When we don’t pay attention, this is the stuff that grows.

I felt how that pain was lodged in my body. My constricted heart, my flush of rage, my choking tears, the collapse of my shoulders and gut…I held that emotional pain for several minutes and felt every nuance of it…

Eventually I breathed out compassion, caring, tears for all the suffering in the world…and hope for kindness and reparation…

**For a lovely and positive discussion about how to Fight Hate, see the Southern Poverty Law Center’s “Ten Ways to Fight Hate: A Community Response Guide” filled with sensitive, non-violent and mindfully-based actionable items to do in the face of hate.

Emotional Pain

A short time ago, I wrote about mindfully dealing with physical pain. Today, I write about dealing with emotional pain, with mindfulness.

Probably, if you were given a choice about which kind of pain – physical or emotional- you had to suffer, you would choose the one you were not stuck in the middle of suffering. Most likely though, you would actually make the choice to have neither pain. Unfortunately we don’t get to choose what kind of pain we are faced with – life comes with pain in one form or another (intermixed with all the wonderful things present in every day, but pain is present nonetheless).

The pain of racist injustice, violence, victimization, malicious injury, or of  terminal illness; or of losing a loved one; or the humiliation suffered in betrayal; or having to train someone who is taking your job; or seeing your children struggle, or say that they hate you; or an argument with your partner and a sense of loneliness discovered… I could go on and on about the multitude of ways we experience emotional pain in our humble human lives. You know these things and may not want to dwell on them…

Mindfully Dealing with Emotional Pain

Instead, I’d like to offer a mindfully oriented way to deal with pain, whenever it arises. Rather than always attempting to avoid, or protect ourselves from, or believing we can control it away (all normal human responses), I suggest mindfully and intentionally turning toward pain, accepting it and potentially viewing it as an opportunity for growth. We cannot control that it happens or how it happens – this pain in our lives – but we can make a choice about how we respond to it.

Often our first instinct in response to pain is to react in rage and cause harm to others who have hurt us. It is important to be with our experience in a moment to moment way by creating a pathway of spaciousness around our reactions. Attempt to surround painful thoughts and emotions with a cushion of simple awareness. Stay with it in the moment to moment; fully experience it; narrate it; explore it; see if you can connect to the meaning of even this terrible pain.

Turning toward Pain

Explore it – the pain you don’t want to feel is the reminder or cue of what you need to simply be with. Turn your attention to whatever that pain is; acknowledge it; name it; describe it; have curiosity about it; what does it feel like? And how do you feel it in your body? With mindful attention, notice the thoughts and feelings this pain brings up for you. Don’t resist them. Simply notice and acknowledge and bring breath to these feelings.

Tolerating this pain – when you’ve noticed pain is present, can you breathe with it? Can you simply hold it without being shut down or overwhelmed by it? Can you give yourself permission to have an awareness that pain is there, in very close proximity, but this pain is not you. Notice you are holding this pain but not defined by it. Notice the different body sensations and urges you might have, to do something about it or get rid of this pain, and notice the fact that having these sensations does not mean that you have to act on them. Look at how you can be all right, right now, as you track your moment to moment experience. No matter what, you still have breath and aliveness around this pain…

Allowing for this pain involves trust in yourself that you can tolerate it and when you do, you notice that even this pain rises and falls on its own without having to control it. This is where you can exercise your choice – your sense of agency – you can redirect your attention toward something that is healing – go for a walk; get social support; journal. Find a course of action where you have not completely identified with this pain but have gained meaning and learned from it.

These steps move you toward welcoming pain (this does not mean wanting it and going looking for it, but simply receiving it when it presents itself, with openness and allowing a different way of dealing with the pain). In the welcoming phase of experiencing pain, you understand the pain is part of a meaningful life – there may be a message or meaning within it that your openness to it helps you uncover.

Experiencing pain often presents the opportunity to connect you to your own compassion; your sense of service; your own kindness; and heightens the possibility of connection with others – these are all the true antidotes to pain and suffering. Let your pain move you toward healing…

May the times of emotional pain in your life be surrounded by a cushion of your gentle awareness, and may they pass through like clouds in a clear sky.

I’d love to hear from you – what’s your biggest struggle in dealing with pain in your life?

If you or someone you love is having difficulty handling or making sense of emotional pain you’re in, please contact me for an individual, couples or teen therapy appointment.

For more ideas on how to bring more calm and less worry into your life, click here for a free email course on Mindfulness.

Listening with Heart
Cindi Rivera, MFT
Marriage, Family Therapist
[email protected]
(510) 482-4445


  1. Kennedy Golden on August 16, 2017 at 10:26 am

    Cindi- As always, right on. What a timely post. Clearly following your steps takes patience, time, and practice. Allowing the pain and moving through it seems to be one of life’s challenges. Of course, you are correct that your steps will help to make some sense of our experiences, and perhaps come to a place of peace with them. I’m working on it, and appreciated your post today- as I always do. My gut response to the recent events is to stop breathing, to go inward. I will practice your steps, which I think will be much more helpful, in so many ways. Thank you for openly sharing your thoughts. I appreciate being able to share them with a number of people who do not have personal access to you and your wisdom.

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