Author: LIN BING JIE, Intern @ ARKCC
Date: 28 Feb 2022
You are upset about an undesired situation, what people said about you, a decision that you have made, or some aspects of yourself. These kinds of negative feelings or emotional pain can be with you for hours, days, or even years. It is believed that some of us have heard others saying: “Accept yourself, forgive yourself, and be yourself” at some points in life. We are told to admit and accept the emotional pain and past experiences. This is because suppressing feelings can sometimes be hurtful to ourselves, from both physical and mental health aspects (Chapman et al., 2013; Gross & Muñoz, 1995). Based on the research, for example, it may lead to depression, anxiety, heart disease, cancer, and contribute to earlier death. Yet, what is the next step after we admit and accept the emotional pain? Why are people still holding onto their painful memories even after acknowledging the truth that they have some unfinished business within them?
Reasons people hold onto pain
Before learning how to take a step forward from the pain, let’s look at several common reasons why some people just stop at the stage of pain acceptance (Moussu, n.d.).
(1) Afraid of the unknown
It’s a simple idea: “If I hold onto the painful experience, I can avoid it from happening again.” The emotional reactions we have before, reveal to us something about ourselves; hence, some people may feel safe and protected when they hold onto the painful experience. This is because when one notices the signs of a potentially painful experience, one knows what to expect and avoid, and this gives oneself a sense of being in control of the unpredictable life. In their deep down thoughts, they might think that this is something that can protect themselves from being hurt again.
(2) Making excuses for the present life
Fear of making mistakes, fear of responsibility, fear of change, fear of embarrassment, perceived lack of confidence…… Fear traps us in the confines of our comfort zone. When one is living in the past painful experience, one tends to use the past experience to make excuses to defend one's own behaviour, or neglecting responsibility as they are overly anxious about the situations that are perceived as not in control. Excuses are mainly a means of placing the blame of an internal problem on an external condition. In this case, the external condition is likely to be the childhood, family background, and what others did. Making excuses as an attempt to boost self-esteem may afterwards create an illusion of security to us. This, in turn, will result in the postponement of necessary action taking, and living in the past and endless excuses.
(3) Those experience makes you feel special
Knowing that experiencing pain is a subjective experience, some might feel lost without the pain and suffering as the pain gives them a sense of identity. Afterall, they would have no story to tell, and people are not going to pay extra attention to them. However, this is indeed not the truth. People’s misconception about their self-identity may cause them to deem that the painful experience is what defines themselves, and makes themselves special and prominent than others.
Are we so attached to our struggles, because we don’t know how we would be without them? Why do we need to move on and heal?
Why do we need emotional healing?
If you’re living in the present through the past, it sets you up for more unhappiness. According to research by Killingsworth and Gilbert (2010), it was found that reminiscing, wandering, or daydreaming tends to make people more miserable. This is because when we refuse to let go of the past, it prevents us from living in the moment.
There are some common life stressors that may lead someone to experience negative feelings such as anger, anxiety, guilt that feels like it is taking over your life (Blanchfield, 2022). For example, abuse (emotional, physical, or sexual), loss of a loved one, illness, divorce/ breakups, job loss, etc. The underlying reason is that when one feels like one’s life is full of unexpected and unpredictable unpleasant situations, one has no idea when disaster may strike and for how long, so it produces fear that triggers other emotions like sadness, frustration, and disappointment. A sense of “out of control” will thereby lead one to feel overly anxious (Blain, 2022).
These feelings may cause a functional impairment in your day-to-day life. The past is real, so is healing. Although healing takes time, acknowledge that healing is possible plays an important role in the entire healing process. It requires you to be open to releasing expectations about what the experience will be like or what it will lead to. It may feel scary to you sometimes or incredibly freeing as you attempt to find yourself and experience post-traumatic growth (Blanchfield, 2022). By acknowledging it and working on it slowly, you are learning to live fully in the present, and on the right path to achieve self-actualisation (Shabazz, n.d.). In doing this, you also develop self-acceptance and self-compassion which may eventually lead you to a happier life!
Even though letting go and healing are abstract ideas that only happen within us, please believe and always remember that emotional healing is possible in all of the above scenarios.
What to do?
Even in our pain we have a choice to make. Healing is a choice. We get to decide the comfortable ways to heal. Let’s have a look at some tips to practice emotional healing!
(1) Set realistic expectations
Setting realistic expectations will lead to forward progress and make us become more flexible, even though it may include a few detours and be slower than you would like (Martin 2019; Raypole, 2020). Before you can set realistic expectations, always consider personal limitations. As mentioned above, holding onto emotional pain may be due to the fear of the unknown. This is because one expects the situations to be always in control and expectable. Yet, the reality is that you cannot and do not need to be in control of everything in life.
You have to admit that you can only do some things and not others, or cannot do something very well. Below are some of the examples that you can remind yourself:
“There will always be things about your work and the people you work with that cause a strong emotional reaction.”
“You will not be able to save everyone.”
“No one knows enough.”
“You do not love (or sometimes even like) everyone you are supposed to serve. Nor do you have to. ...”
“There is never enough time.”
By admitting your own limitations, you will be more able to cultivate a growth mindset, and celebrate your every tiny accomplishment in life! Most importantly, you will be more likely to set realistic expectations in life, and willing to face the unpredictable challenges that stop you from moving on previously.
(2) Be honest with your emotions
An alternative way than pushing away the uncomfortable feeling or finding excuses for it is to identify, recognise, feel, and accept your emotional experience. In some ways, emotional acceptance also means knowing that the emotion would not last and accepting that it will change! You may start by:
Identifying your emotions. Ask yourself “What am I feeling right now?”
Recognising your emotions. Ask yourself “What are these feelings telling me?”
Feeling your emotions. Ask yourself “What is going on in your chest? What is going on in your gut?”
Accepting your emotions. Accepting for what they are right now and the fact that you do not need to suffer from holding onto it. Tell yourself “ This is just a feeling. It is totally fine to stay with the feelings. There is no right or wrong way to feel, and I know that it means a lot to me.”
By practising to be honest with your own emotions, you will be more able to identify that the painful memories are not you, and they do not define you. To give you a clearer idea, for an individual who just experienced divorce, he/she will be able to identify that the sadness and helplessness are just part of expressions towards the divorce experience, and recognise that what does not work is the marriage, but not the person itself. This may eventually help one to build self-worth and self-identity.
(3) Practice self-affirmation
Repeating an affirmation can help enhance your confidence and motivation, but you still have to pair the affirmation with some kind of action yourself. This helps improve one’s sense of identity. Always look at your strengths that you consider important, to guide your affirmations. There are no specific rules about timing or frequency when it comes to practising self-affirmations. You have the power to make this work, let’s look at some of the examples below (Moore, 2022)!
“My life is taking place right here, right now”;
“Nobody but me decides how I feel”;
“I am in charge of my thoughts, and I don’t judge myself”;
“I am responsible for looking after me”;
“I’m fine with who I am, and I love who I am becoming”;
“I accept and love myself, thoroughly and unconditionally”
Every individual is a unique existence of this world. You can still feel special with all the self-affirmation and without being locked in the past painful experiences.
“Self respect, self worth, and self love, all start with self. Stop looking outside of yourself for your value.” ——Rob Liano
How do I know if I am healing?
In fact, there is no finish line to cross that signifies that you are fully healed. In fact, it can sometimes be so gradual that you may not even realise how much you have healed. The most common unrealistic expectation is expecting the healing progress to be consistently forward (Martin, 2019). However, healing progress is more likely to be two steps forward and one step backward. Occasionally, it may be two steps backward and one step forward. Yet, this does not mean that you are a failure. What you can do is you can look back and compare the past self and the present self. What are the differences? Simply feeling a greater sense of peace can even be the sign that you are certainly well on your way to emotional healing (Blanchfield, 2022). Acknowledge your own growth is a crucial component of self-development and self-actualisation!
Take home message
Overly focus of positivity may cause one to be trapped into the toxic positivity. Being aware and learning to embrace pain is important. But the next step will be to acknowledge that you can be healed from those painful experiences, and start working on it slowly. Your pain will be the one that pushes you towards your greatest personal breakthroughs. Take your time, know your own limits and make yourself a priority!
Baby steps counted too!
Blanchfield, T. (2022, January 31). How to find emotional healing. VeryWellMind. https://www.verywellmind.com/how-to-find-emotional-healing-5214462
Blain, T. (2022, February 14). What to do when life feels out of control. VeryWellMind. https://www.verywellmind.com/what-to-do-when-life-feels-out-of-control-5217728
Chapman, B. P., Fiscella, K., Kawachi, I., Duberstein, P., & Muennig, P. (2013). Emotion suppression and mortality risk over a 12-year follow-up. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 75(4), 381-385. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jpsychores.2013.07.014
Gross, J. J., & Muñoz, R. F. (1995). Emotion regulation and mental health. Clinical psychology: Science and practice, 2(2), 151-164. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1468-2850.1995.tb00036.x
Killingsworth, M. A., & Gilbert, D. T. (2010). A wandering mind is an unhappy mind. Science, 330(6006), 932-932. https://wjh-www.harvard.edu/~dtg/KILLINGSWORTH%20&%20GILBERT%20(2010).pdf
Martin, S. (2019, March 22). 8 tips for healing emotional wounds. PsychCentral. https://psychcentral.com/blog/imperfect/2019/03/8-tips-for-healing-emotional-wounds
Moore, C. (2022, February 14). Positive daily affirmations: Is there science behind it? PositivePsychology.com. https://positivepsychology.com/daily-affirmations/
Moussu, A. (n.d.). 5 reasons why we hold on to the past + how to let go. Hush your mind. Retrieved February 19, 2022, from https://hushyourmind.com/why-we-hold-on-to-the-past-how-to-let-go/