Healing Emotional Pain: How to Recover When Life Crushes You
Whether you saw it it coming or didn’t, the feeling is the same: You’re devastated. You gasp at your vulnerability and wonder, “Why did this happen?”
Life dishes up so many hardships: heartbreak, illness, injury, death, abandonment. Though we may share similar experiences, every hurt is personal. No matter how many times well-meaning people say, “We understand,” they don’t. You may even resent them for trying. As a psychotherapist, I’ve sat with many wounded people. I witness their pain and do my best to make space for it. Even when they cry out, “Why did this happen?” I try not to engage in reactive comforting. Advice or quick answers always feel false, even insulting, when someone is deeply hurt.
Suffering as a Teacher
After nearly 25 years practicing psychotherapy, this is what I’ve learned: When you’re viciously knocked down by life, don’t get right back up. Like tripping and falling, you have the impulse to rise and start moving again. But ignoring a serious injury will make it worse. Pain demands attention; it needs to acknowledged and embraced before you can move on.
When I met Amanda, she had just suffered one of the worst wounds: the death of her young child. For weeks, in individual sessions, she sat in silence, detached and stoic. “Tears won’t bring my daughter back,” she said flatly, as she carried on working at finance job that she resented and avoided her grief.
When I asked her to attend one of my adult groups, she scoffed, “Pointless.” But, with a little prodding, she agreed. “I’ll do it for you,” she sighed, “But it’s a waste of time.”
During her first group session, when asked why she was in therapy, she exhaled and replied, “My daughter...she...my daughter….”
Suddenly Amanda couldn’t speak. She couldn’t find words. She struggled to swallow her grief and choke down her tears.
“It was a mistake to come here. Sorry.”
When she stood up and gathered her belongs to leave, an intuitive woman reached out and said, warmly,
“I lost a child too.”
Suddenly Amanda fell back into her seat and let her tears flow. She cried long and hard, gasping for air as the group made room for her pain. In the weeks that followed, she looked forward to group sessions. Slowly, with the group's help, she realized that the best way to honor her daughter was to find a new way to embrace life.
What to Do After You’ve Been Emotionally Hurt
I count myself among the heartbroken. I have nursed the dying, lost loved ones, suffered heartbreak. I have cried alone on the street, in my office, sometimes with friends and family, sometimes with patients. I tried to dodge heartache but, like everyone, it eventually found me. It’s one of life’s cruel certainties.
How to Support Your Healing Process
1. Honor Your Pain
Avoidance of pain increases it. To heal, you must pass through the doorway of grief. Emotional wounds are beyond “sadness”; they’re felt in the depths of your being. Honor your pain; don’t run from it. Unplug, put time aside to reflect, and give yourself permission to grieve. If well-meaning people push you to “Get over it,” ignore them. Time and patience are key to recovery. Surround yourself with friends who understand that.
2. Reach Out
Being alone is part of healing, but long periods of isolation are unhealthy. Deep pain always brings out personal demons, such as blaming yourself, embracing victimhood, or bitterness. Such choices breed entrapment, not freedom. Reach out to friends, find support groups or twelve-step programs, seek comfort in prayer, meditation, or philosophy—whatever brings you peace of mind. Instead of longing for a miracle, create one.
3. Take a Break
It’s important to take a break from your pain, and engage in healthy compartmentalization. Everyone finds relief in different ways. Some find it creative activities such as writing, reading, music, art, or movies. Others find it in movement such as dance, hiking, long walks, etc. Choose a task that allows you to escape by stepping into another reality, even if it’s only for a few moments. Don’t fret: Your pain will be waiting for you when you get back, but you’ll be better fortified, rested, and ready to face it.
4. Learn from It
I’ve heard it said that the road to wisdom is paved with suffering. Reflecting, exploring, and pondering, without self-attack or blame, opens you up to greater understanding and compassion for yourself and others. An attitude of learning will help you unearth value in the experience. You may also discover a curious new freedom: Recovering from an emotional trauma or heartbreak makes you stronger, wiser, and more resilient.
5. Move On
Some people allow suffering to define them, shape them and, ultimately, rob of them of living. Many years ago, I was invited to attend a wedding between two widows in their 90’s. Every person who attended was deeply moved, not by the service, but by the spirit of the couple to keep living. After you give yourself time to grieve and mourn, after you reach out to others for support and make space for your recovery, you have to make a decision: Will you allow emotional pain hold you back or will you decide to use it to propel you in a new direction?
Years after finishing her group therapy, Amanda phoned to update me on her life. She left her bank job and acquired a degree in early childhood education. She was working at the elementary school that her daughter was to attend before she died. When I asked Amanda how she was feeling, she replied simply, “I still miss her. But I have so many children to care for now. I like to imagine that my daughter, wherever she is, is very proud of her mom.”