When Pain Leads to Real Gain

Frequently I’m asked by other clinicians how, as a therapist, I can ask people to sit with painful emotions. Because the truth is, it “is” a painful experience and we all want our clients to feel better. These clinicians point to the extreme histories of emotional pain and trauma of their clients and tell me that to ask them to be present with those feelings of sadness, pain, betrayal, or anger is asking too much.

The ironic part is that of course I want my clients, and individuals in general, to feel better! But paradoxically, the best way I know to help people feel better is to provide the space and tools to fully experience the emotions with which they struggle. Once humans are willing to experience emotions, it allows the space for other emotions and experiences to happen.

I think two things are going on for clinicians who hesitate to have clients sit with emotions. First, it is painful for them. To truly sit with someone who is in great pain, experience and witness that emotion, is emotionally exhausting. They need support and supervision to be able to provide such care. And second, they, as I, get caught up with the notion that we need to “fix” something or even that concept that pain is something to be avoided.

But truly, what method of “fixing” has actually worked to rid anyone of emotion in the long term? Pushing aside or covering up emotions works only for a small amount of time. Instead, through mindfully experiencing emotion in a supported environment, the client is able to see that she can experience an emotion without allowing it to dictate her actions or life.

This type of emotional experiencing should only happen once the client becomes equipped with the tools to manage urges around emotions so that old and ineffective coping skills (substance abuse, eating disorder behaviors, self-harm, etc.) are not employed to manage emotions. After this is assured, the therapist and client work together to sit with emotions that naturally occur as prompting events such as discussing interpersonal relationships, goals, or histories. During the session using grounding techniques to ensure the client always remains in the present moment, the therapist guides the client through experiencing the emotion in her body, being able to identify the emotion, and fully experiencing the impact.

This process is uncomfortable, for both client and therapist. And, if both sides are willing to sit with that discomfort, true progress in effectively managing difficult emotions will happen.