Who among us would seriously court emotional discomfort or pain? How can it make
any sense to go out of our way to feel sad, unhappy, anxious or angry? Equally, who
among us would not wish to be free of our emotional discomfort or pain? How can it
make any sense to feel sadness, unhappiness, anxiety or anger and not wish to be
rid of it?
These are the contradictory questions that most of us wrestle with much of the time,
but probably don’t realise it. And they are the contradictory questions raised,
conscious or otherwise, in counselling relationships. The questions may seem facile,
the answers obvious. Yet both are quite a bit more complicated than that.
From our earliest existence, avoiding emotional pain is a basic instinct in the same
way as avoiding physical pain. When we feel physical pain, we learn in time,
hopefully, to avoid the things that have caused it. Why, then, would our efforts to
avoid emotional pain be any different?
There is more than one answer to this question, in fact, probably far more answers
than I can think of or have room to list. But there is an answer that may be worth
exploring; because we’re told that what we might identify as an emotional pain - fear,
shame, sadness, remorse - is good for us.
If we transgress, break the rules set by the adult environment, feeling sorry, sad,
embarrassed, ashamed may be the expected consequence and disapproval follows
if we don’t express those feelings. Conversely, approval is given if we do express
them. What human being doesn’t need approval?
This can be complicated according to what the rules are. If we’re supposed to be
‘brave’ in the face of sadness or fear and that translates practically as not crying or
not showing fear, then training ourselves not to cry or not to show fear becomes
normal. If that ‘bravery’ translates practically as showing anger, or fighting as
opposed to running away, and these are the ‘qualities’ for which we gain approval,
then it follows that these are the behaviours we are likely to adopt and repeat. After
all, what human being doesn’t need approval? It also follows that being sad or
anxious or frightened becomes ‘abnormal’, doesn’t it?
No, it doesn’t. But we are likely to think it does. With enough practice, we’ll believe it;
but that doesn’t make it any truer.
The truth is that, as functioning, healthy human beings, we feel each and every
emotion according to the circumstances with which we are presented. That is
normal. But the feelings we have learned to feel are the ones we revert to, and the
feelings we have learned to deny or resist are the ones we continue to deny or resist.
This remains our survival strategy, until events begin to tell us that strategy may be
flawed because it is no longer working.
It stands to reason, given a little thought, that this may first manifest itself in
confusion and discomfort. ‘I can’t understand it.’ When we decide to take our first
steps into counselling, the confusion and discomfort are likely to be exacerbated.
Depending upon the depth of those feelings repressed or denied - and each situation
is utterly unique - the survival strategy will be vigorously defended. That’s when we
ask those first two questions; ‘Who among us would seriously court emotional
discomfort or pain?’ and ‘How can it make any sense to go out of our way to feel
sad, unhappy, anxious or angry?’ Put another way; ‘Why would I put myself through
The strange but true paradox is that in order to free ourselves of that pain to which
we refer in the second set of questions, we need first to court the emotional
discomfort and pain and to go out of our way to feel sad, unhappy, anxious, angry
and all of the other feelings that we are continually tempted and conditioned to avoid.
It takes a great deal of courage to make ourselves uncomfortable enough, and
accept that we need to feel worse before we can feel better.
Why would we put ourselves through it? Because that is what it takes.