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Surrender to Emotional Pain

Photo by Sara Lando of Silvia. See more of her work on flickr.

We’ve all heard the popular eastern mantra: we create our own pain, in our minds. Yet, when it comes down to daily living, we still do that which contradicts what we say we want – we continue to willingly inflict pain upon ourselves.

Despite being an advocate and devoted “preacher” of this message, I too subject myself to this self-inflicted pain, and suffer from its fallout.

For the past few months, I have been drifting in-and-out of an unconscious and anxious state of mind over the anticipated conclusion of an unresolved situation. My mind dwelled on the uncertain nature of the situation, and would not let go of the self-depleting thoughts that were creating a lot of pain and negativity within my inner space – uneasiness, resentment, anger and hatred. Suffice it to say that my inner peace had been stirred up into an unpredictable storm.

I am happy to report that the event did finally come to a conclusion, and it ended in my favor. Now I’m struggling a little with the conflicting feelings of shame, for having been angry and spiteful, and feelings of gratitude for having experienced these emotions and learning from them.

While analyzing and extracting the lessons learned, I saw that pain and our reactions to it come to us in a familiar pattern. Unless we take some proactive measures to interrupt this pattern, we will forever be enslaved to the whim of some external circumstance that is beyond our control.

When faced with tough life situations, what can we do to handle them while minimizing any disturbances to our emotional wellbeing? This is the focus of discussion in this article.

What Causes Emotional Pain?

Anxiety, worry and stress have similar triggers, in that there is an event happening in the future with an unknown result, and we are scared of what that result will be. We start to imagine the worst case scenario and then fear sets in and instills in us a state of anxiety that keeps us fixated on that scenario.

Thoughts and imagery of future pain begin to overflow our mental space. As a result, we experience the pain now, simply from the idea of potential pain in the future.

Recall the last time you experienced worry and anxiety. Perhaps it was this morning, or yesterday. What were you thinking about? Was it over some possible, future, or unresolved event? Were you imagining a scenario of things going badly? I’m going to guess that you were likely pondering the uncertainties surrounding some future event, and vivid images of worst case scenarios were tormenting your mental space.

Maybe you were nervous about the future status of a relationship, and thoughts of being alone scared you and triggered a series of emotions. Maybe you were stressed out about the completion of a work project, and thoughts of losing your job disturbed you. Maybe you were anxious over an investment decision, and thoughts of losing money caused you distress. Maybe you were bothered to find out that someone didn’t like you, and thoughts of abandonment and friendship lost agitated you.

Dramatic life challenges aside, what’s interesting to observe is that our mind goes out of its way to create problems, even when everything else is peachy. Even when nothing is wrong, we start to create problems in our head, and through thought repetition, become convinced that the problems exist.


My Story of Pain

In light of protecting the identities of the parties involved, I will keep the details of the situation private. I will share with you what I’ve experienced and what I’ve learned. I will refer to it as the situation from this point forward.

Photo by Sara Lando of Silvia. See more of her work on flickr.

It’s actually killing me a little not to share the details with you, but it is necessary in order to respect the privacies of others. All I can say is that the situation involved the law, money and personal feelings.

Anyway, the situation lasted for 5 months, most of which was a waiting game, during which I was regularly lost in a confusing train of thought accompanied by blame, resentment, and pain. I’ve visited more dark places within myself during these months than I ever knew existed.

The feeling of hatred I was experiencing both surprised me and ashamed me. I felt lost, I felt disconnected, and I was constantly bothered by the flow of negative energy. I hated feeling this way, yet I continued to allow myself to experience the pain with passionate intensity.

I had conjured up, in my mind, a story of unfairness. With this, I was able to justify my feelings of blame and hate. The story ran through my mind often, and the more I thought of it, the more passionate I became on the topic, and the more intensely I experienced the emotions. In short, in an unconscious state, I had managed to absolutely convince myself of the inevitability of something that didn’t actually exist.

There are always at least two sides to every story, but in an unconscious state, we passionately choose one side and attach ourselves to it. Of course, if I were to ask the other people involved, they too would give you a side of the story that demonstrated unfairness towards them and their interests. After all, when feelings are hurt and pride is on the line, the easiest thing to do is to find a villain to absorb the blame. Where the ego’s concerned, it’s always a losing battle.

I was deeply distracted, had a hard time focusing on the good, and had trouble sleeping. Part of me knew that everything was going to be fine, but part of me wouldn’t let go of the attachment to pain. That part of me couldn’t stand that I couldn’t do anything but wait, and so in a desperate state, grasping for control of something… anything to hold onto…., it created problems to keep itself alive. I became deeply addicted to problems and pain.

What’s worse, during this self-inflicted and nonproductive time of stress, I had forgotten to focus on, appreciate, and celebrate the miracles that had appeared during this time: I had found love and he proposed marriage.

The Realizations

Looking back on the experience and its conclusion, everything now appears to be so clear and simple. Some good did come out of the experience, however, I feel frustrated with myself for having wasted so much time and energy in dwelling on conjured up negativity.

It’s true, hindsight really is 20-20. We can’t change the past, but we can choose to extract the lessons learned and move on with dignity and hope for the future.

Here are some things I’ve realized and learned:

  • All challenges are there to teach us a lesson. But we are conditioned to treat challenge as a bad thing. Challenge is our friend, embrace it!
  • We experience what we put out. When we experience and express a feeling towards someone, we ultimately are the receiver of that feeling. When we express anger towards someone else, we feel the pain. When we hold a grudge against someone, our own inner space suffers. Next time you express an emotion, take notice in how it makes you feel on the inside.
  • Every day, there are miracles happening all around us, yet, in a state of deep unawareness, we fail to see them. Even the happiest of events, can be diluted when we’re consumed with problems.
  • Our minds are naturally and automatically attracted to problems. Even when everything else is going well, our mind looks for conflicts, issues, differences and problems. We can’t handle how happy we actually are, and how there’s really nothing to be worried about. Without problems, our ego has nothing to cling to.
  • All problems are rooted in our interpretation of an external circumstance. Thus, all problems are really created in our heads. They don’t actually exist, except in our own projection of a tale we have convinced ourselves of and believe to be true.
  • We suffer, unnecessarily, in advance of an anticipated outcome or event. Nothing has happened yet, but because we have imagined the worst case scenario in our mind, we become afraid of what might happen. As a result, we suffer in advance of a possible scenario that may or may not take place in the future.
  • There is nothing we can’t handle, even death. It doesn’t matter how much suffering we endure ahead of time, when the anticipated event happens, it happens, and we move on. The actual event is rarely as bad as we had anticipated. We are stronger than we think.

In the end, I realized that the magnitude of the emotional ride I had experienced was necessary for me to recognize that this happens every day, only on a much smaller scale.

Every single day, there are opportunities to create new problems or intensify existing problems, and we often choose to do this despite our deep knowingness that we are really happy, and can be really happy with what we already have.

Every single day, we are faced with opportunities to choose pain over joy, but we become flustered with the many mental distractions, become unaware, and fall prey to the impulsive pulls of our ego.

Every single day, we have the choice to choose between problems and no problems. It’s the meaning we give to something that defines how we feel about that thing.

Every moment of every day, we have choices. We always have choices.

We can choose to see the good in people and circumstances.
We can choose to give love and compassion.
We can choose to smile.
We can choose to take responsibility.
We can choose to surrender to the moment.
We can choose to change ourselves.
We can choose to focus on things we enjoy.
We can choose to take action.
We can choose happiness.


Parting Thoughts

After our salsa class on Sunday, Jeremy and I went into a little French bakery that we frequent for our weekly dose of a fresh croissant and an organic latte. We couldn’t help but to notice a sweet older women sitting alone one table down, with her back to us.

She must have been at least ninety years old. She was impeccably dressed in a freshly-pressed navy suit-dress, stockings and a black & white checkered scarf. She wore lipstick, eye-liner and had a grey purse to match her grey tweed coat.

I sat there in admiration of her for carrying herself with so much class. While so many others her age are waiting for their death, she got dressed up on a Sunday afternoon, put on lipstick, and continued to enjoy the wonders of what life can offer – in the form of a sinfully delicious French bakery.

While sitting there elegantly enjoying her lentil soup, she had accidentally spilled some water on the table and onto her beautifully pressed clothing. It took her a few seconds to realize, before she looked around the tiny café in embarrassment.

For a fraction of a second, I felt her embarrassment and loneliness, and tears started rolling down my cheeks. I looked over at Jeremy, and tears had already welled up in his eyes too.

In that moment, I felt like I was her and I had lived a life filled with varying experiences and moments of deep joy and love. And in that moment, seeing all my current problems from that perspective, I realized that they are pretty insignificant compared to what really matters most – love, and the need to celebrate the miracles of life.

Life is precious. Choose how you want to experience it, intentionally and consciously.

When in doubt, take a few minutes, close your eyes and focus on your breath. Imagine yourself at 98 years old sitting in a rocking chair in a beautiful and peaceful setting. You have lived a full and long life. Imagine all the significant moments of joy you’ve experienced, and all your proud accomplishments during your long life. See them vividly. Now, think of the problems you are currently troubled by in your life as a young lad or lass, do they still bear the same weight?


** What are some things in your life that’s bothering you? How can viewing it from a different angle affect how you feel about it? Share your thoughts with us in the comment section. See you there!

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About the author

Tina Su is a mom, a wife, a lover of Apple products and a CHO (Chief Happiness Officer) for our motivational community: Think Simple Now. She is obsessed with encouraging and empowering people to lead conscious and happy lives. Subscribe to new inspiring stories each week. You can also subscribe to Tina on Facebook.

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69 thoughts on Surrender to Emotional Pain

  1. “When faced with tough life situations, what can we do to handle them while minimizing any disturbances to our emotional wellbeing?”

    “Minimize…” I like this way of phrasing it. As someone in my 15th year of a progressive, incurable disease that’s both severely disabling and painful, I find there’s too much “happy talk” spirituality out there today – gross simplications that basically say “just think right and nothing bad can happen to you.” I think this attitude is very unhealthy. You can be on track with your life, suffer some misfortune not of your doing – and then have to deal with senselessly blaming yourself.

  2. Bud G

    “today well lived makes yesterday a dream of happiness. And every tomorrow a vision of hope.

  3. Sara S

    Oh, I can so relate to what you are saying!

    I had a situation with my step mother and needless to say for years I hid under the guise of “she’s my fathers wife” because I was so scared to confront her and stand up for myself.

    However, it eventually got to the stage where I decided it was time. I had a emotional, but civil discussion and by doing this we gave the relationship “air”. By recognizing it and dealing with it, we gave it the space to change.

    I am delighted to say it did change, for the better.

    Its so hard when there are big situations looming. I think you are awesome and am grateful that you opened up and told your story, because by doing so, you give us air to change bits of ourselves.

    GO TINA!!

  4. “We can’t change the past, but we can choose to extract the lessons learned and move on with dignity and hope for the future.”

    Well said.

    Some say pain is the touchstone to all spiritual growth. I don’t think it has to be, but it takes practice to extract the lesson from any situation before it pains us to do so. Pain is a great motivator! Additionally, we get a lot of mileage out of justified anger. I try to leave anger up to those more qualified to deal with it.

    If I’m living in the past, I’m in anxiety, in the future, fear. Living in the now is the only place I have total control, and this takes practice.

    For me the key is realizing I am responsible, not for my emotions, but how I respond to them. And to respond appropriately, I must know what they are. Most times they’re based in fear, fear that I’m going to lose something I have or not getting something I “think” I want or need. By accepting something I can become responsible for it, which means I must do something about it (which keeps me from wanting to accept something if I really don’t want to do something about it).

    In every case however, I must let the experience take me to where I’m suppose to be and not just where I ended up. Then I can learn from it.

  5. Larry

    Anxiety, worry and stress are also anchored in the past, insofar as how we individually cope with them is learned behavior. It’s no news that they can be alleviated to various extents with therapy, self-help, exercise, meditation, medications.

    Something rarely taught however is to examine them not only for what they are, but also **for how they served us in the past**. It’s one thing to examine and stop exhibiting a certain dysfunctional behavior. It’s quite another to closely examine the crucial role it used to play in protecting you (in some cases keeping you alive).

    For example, say you continually repeat an isolating behavior that for thirty years has prevented you from experiencing any meaningful depth of intimacy. This is arguably harmful. In some cases it can be worse to halt the behavior cold turkey. The part of you that desperately needed the proverbial bodyguard thirty years might not know the immediate threat has passed. If so starving or firing the bodyguard can be extremely threatening. Convincing it that it’s ok to let the bodyguard nap until the next time you truly need it can be a powerful healing.

  6. Hi Tina,

    Wonderful post.

    It is all grist for the mill, as you obviously know.

    I would like to respectfully challenge John Rocheleau’s statement:

    “Rekindle and deepen your meditation practice and all of this will vanish. ”

    Yes and no. What I’ve found to be true in my own life experience is that I cease struggling with certain issues, but struggle with other (hopefully deeper) ones.

    What a meditation/prayer practice yields me personally is this: I learn to accept. My madness, my lucidity, my conditioning, my realness–it is all beautiful and perfect in its imperfection.

  7. Absolutely amazing article. I have to say the finishing story about the old lady in the cafe hit me on a deep level. It was one of the most inspiring things I have ever read to make me realize how insignificant most my worries are.

    Your site is full of great articles but this has to be up there with the best! Thanks so much for writing this and I look forward to seeing what else you conjure up in 2009…..

  8. very inspiring post…

    i, myself, struggle with the loss of people i know that have passed on.

    last year was really hard for me. i lost 4 people i knew. 3 i knew since i was a child. it’s hard but yes, we get through it. but there is still some pain there… but i am wiser.

  9. Agreed. It’s not always so easy, but we can change our focus and see things differently, if we choose to.

  10. Wow! Great article. I think this article and your story is something everyone can relate to in life. I know I’ve held onto anger much longer than I should have.

    Unfortunately, I’ve had a lot of death in my immediate family. While obviously I had never hoped it would happen, my silver lining has been that I’ve learned a lot of about appreciating life.

    Thanks for sharing Tina!

  11. What makes your posts exceptional is the way you narrate them. The warmth your words provide leaves the readers awestruck. Well, I am happy I am one of them.

    First of all, I am sorry you had to go through this tough phase in life. I can’t say I am experiencing a very serious one right now , but am feeling a bit frustrated and confused. While I have a very strong conviction that I am leading my life the way I want it to be, sometimes, it feels like I am waging a lone war against the world. But no matter what, I don’t indulge in self-pity. Guess that’s what still helps me stay sane!

  12. This year I have chosen self-care as a choice-full conscious intention and one aspect of this is “not rehearsing unhappiness.” This means not rehearsing difficult conversations, not imagining what’s going to happen in the future, not ruminating over the past. I ask myself,”Are these thoughts/words/actions bringing happiness or misery?” Simple and sustainable. It’s working.

  13. Believe it or not, this is my first visit to your blog, Tina.

    However, if this is the standard quality of your articles, you can be sure I’ll be back.

    This is the kind of article people need to memorise. Complaining has become so ingrained in the lives of most people today, they barely recognise what they’re doing.


  14. Another insightful post Tina. Thanks.

    Stumbled. ;-)

  15. Wonderful post Tina. It is amazing how powerful the mind is and it’s ability to make lemonade out of lemons and then turn it right back to bitter lemons in a heartbeat. I continue on my quest to better harness this as I get further along with starting my business. It’s funny, I used to get so worked up and anxious about whether or not we would make it in a year or two. It would keep me up non stop. And lately I have spent more time one the reality of the situation being that I am doing all I can to make this a success today and I must be at peace with it. Nothing has changed in the external world but my internal feelings have changed significantly. Thanks for the help! I love it.

    And congrats on your engagement!! I’m so happy for you Tina.


  16. Thank you for sharing, Tina. You have highlighted very important ponts here.

    What I’ve found to work well for me is to fully allow myself to experience my negative thoughts and feeling before making any attempts to change them. Before, I judge myself and then try to get rid of the negativity right away (because it was “bad”).

    While it worked in the short term, it actually caused more damage because I just ended up burying negativities inside me.

    Nowadays, whenever I feel negative, I simply accept them and allow them to be. I focus on being aware and clearly identifying these thoughts, and give them some air. I also found that going to a place where I feel safe to fully express my feelings works for me. I vent, rant, say all the things I want to say. I punch pillows if I feel like it, or write in my journal. I don’t hold anything back.

    And when I’ve let everything out, then im in a better position to think more clearly and do whatever is needed, but with no negativity in me. :)

  17. It is so true that so often create our own problems. It’s always easier to dwell on the negative. That alone should tip us off, huh? It’s always the things that we have to put effort into that pay off for us.

    Thanks for sharing

  18. Hi Tina,

    I like about we always have a choice on every moment that happen to us.

    Thanks for sharing.

    Frank Wong

  19. Beautifully crafted piece of writing! It is a daily challenge to live with gratitude for the common miracles around us. Your article reminds me of a brief piece I wrote about the ease in which people tend toward negative thinking. Here is the link if you are interested. Thanks

  20. Many times, our troubles in anticipating a problem are actually greater than that we experience when the actual problem comes. What must we be afraid of? If we can do something about a problem, we shouldn’t have worried in the first place. We can survive anything with hope.

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