Making Room for Painful Emotions

by Suzanne Manser, PhD

Emotional pain is part of being human. If we feel positive emotions, we will feel negative emotions. That’s just how it works. We can’t avoid pain.

Patients come to me for help with all kinds of pain: fear, sadness, shame, loneliness, self-loathing, overwhelming stress. The typical request, of course, is to help them get rid of the pain. People generally don’t love hearing that I can’t get rid of it, but I can help them change how they experience it.

Almost no one wants to hear me say, “Hey, let’s try making room for that pain.” I get it. It feels like the pain is already taking them over – making more room for it sounds like a bad idea. Here’s the thing: if you focus on the pain, it will take up all of your focus. And focusing on how painful it is – the awfulness of it – exacerbates the pain. It elevates it from pain to suffering.

So we pull the focus back and make room. If you make room for the pain, you are making room for the rest of life to show up. You will have the pain, but it will be in the context of the rest of your life. That puts the pain in its place, so to speak. It makes it less intense.

There is a metaphor in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) that illustrates this concept beautifully: Imagine a shot glass filled with water. Imagine putting a bunch of red food coloring in the water, until it is deep, deep red. Now imagine pouring that shot glass into a goldfish bowl full of water. The red diffuses a bit but remains deep red. Now pour the goldfish bowl into a bathtub of water. The red turns to a deep pink. Pour the bathtub into the ocean. Now there is no trace of red. The more space you give the pain, the less intense it feels. It becomes just a piece of a mosaic, rather than the entire picture.

How does this translate to “real life?”

First, have compassion for yourself if you can. Remember that pain is a guaranteed part of the human experience. We all experience it. You are not alone in it.

Second, be willing for the painful emotion to be there (since it is). Trying to make it go away not only doesn’t work but actually keeps you focused on it. You are working at cross purposes with yourself.

Third, actively work on making room for the emotion. Don’t let the awfulness of the emotion be the center of your world, or your day. Widen your perspective to shift the intensity of the pain.

There are various ways to go about this. One is to acknowledge that the emotion is there and then decide to shift your focus to what matters to you. Think about what is meaningful to you – relationships, nature, your work, self-compassion – and decide on one small step you can take to do something meaningful today.

Alternatively, you could focus on the emotion without judging it (i.e., without focusing on how awful it is). Be curious about it. Notice where it shows up in your body. Imagine what it would look like if you could see it. Wonder if it has a particular color or shape to it. What would it feel like if you could touch it? Engaging with the emotion in this nonjudgmental way can help you feel less desperate to get away from it.

If you can make a lot of room for it, you might be able to engage with the emotion even further without suffering. Is there anything you can appreciate about the emotion? Is there anything to be learned from it? If so, see if you can sit further with the emotion, being curious about what shows up. If not, work on paying less attention to it by focusing on other things.

None of this comes easily for most of us. The key is changing your relationship to the emotion rather than trying to make the emotion disappear. If you can do this repeatedly, over time the emotion may change in the way it shows up in your life. If you can do it in this moment, you will experience the emotion differently.