5 tips for recovering from emotional pain
By Guy Winch, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Guy Winch holds a doctorate in clinical psychology and has a private practice in Manhattan. He is the author of “Emotional First Aid: Practical Strategies for Treating Failure, Rejection, Guilt, and Other Everyday Psychological Injuries.”
We sustain psychological injuries such as rejection and failure as we go through life just as often as we do physical injuries. But while we have access to ointments and bandages to treat cuts and sprains, we have no such tools to treat emotional pain.
In my book, I discuss the impact of seven common psychological injuries on our emotional well-being — rejection, failure, guilt, loneliness, rumination, loss and bouts of low self-esteem — and offer science-based treatments that ease the pain, accelerate healing and minimize long-term risks to our mental health.
Here are five questions people often ask about psychological injuries:
1. Why does getting rejected hurt so much?
Getting rejected activates the same pathways in your brain that get activated when you feel physical pain. In one study, participants who received Tylenol (acetaminophen) and were then asked to recall a painful rejection reported less emotional pain than subjects who received a sugar pill.
Rejection is so painful that it can even affect your thinking. For example, being asked to recall a painful rejection was enough for people to score significantly lower on subsequent IQ tests, tests of short-term memory and tests of decision-making.
Rejection is assumed to have developed as an early warning mechanism to alert us when we were in danger of being kicked out of our tribe, which in our caveman past would have been a death sentence. That is also why rejection makes us feel so detached and alone; it destabilizes our need to feel that we belong.
2. Psychologists are advocates of getting in touch with how you feel. If thinking about your feelings is good for you, how can brooding and ruminating be bad?
Reflecting on how you felt after a painful experience often leads to the kind of understanding and insight that reduces emotional distress and allows you to move on. But when you brood over something, you’re simply replaying the same thoughts, memories or worries over and over, gaining no new insights and making yourself more upset and angry.
Ruminating in such ways can be “addictive” in that stewing over such memories or thoughts makes them more distressing, which in turn makes the urge to brood over them even more compelling. These ruminative cycles not only increase your emotional distress in the moment, but over time, the stress hormones that are released into your bloodstream can put you at increased risk for cardiovascular disease.
3. Is it possible to prevent a significant failure from affecting your self-esteem?
Yes. Failure is damaging to your self-esteem because it distorts your perceptions; your goals seem out of reach, and your capacities seem unequal to the task. To prevent your self-esteem from taking a big hit, you have to overcome the feelings of helplessness that follow a significant failure.
Blaming your “lack of ability,” lamenting your “bad luck” or assuming “it was not meant to be” will make you feel unnecessarily powerless. If you insist on casting blame, focus on aspects of the task that were in your control, such as your planning and execution.
Then, consider the many ways you can improve your planning, become better informed and better prepared, invest greater effort and resources along the way, and strengthen your willpower (which can be done with certain exercises). Then try again!
4. Why do people who have hurt another person’s feelings still feel guilty even after they’ve apologized?
Guilt is usually a useful emotion, as it warns you when your actions or inactions might cause harm to another person, thus giving you an opportunity to rethink things or to atone for your wrongdoing.
As such, guilt is a great “relationship protector.” But when your guilt is excessive or lingering, it can do more damage than good; it can impair your ability to focus and concentrate or even to enjoy life.
When people feel guilty after having apologized for their actions, it’s usually because their apology was not strong enough to elicit true forgiveness from the person they harmed. People often leave out the most important ingredient required to make an apology effective: expressing clear empathy for what the other person felt and went through.
Once you convey that you truly “get” how the other person felt and demonstrate a clear understanding of how your actions (or inactions) affected them, they will be much more likely to convey authentic forgiveness, and your guilty feelings should ease soon thereafter.
5. Why do some daily users of positive affirmations still have low self-esteem?
Positive affirmations such as “I am worthy of true love” or “I will be a great success at work” are often ineffective for people with low self-esteem. They can even make them feel worse.
When statements fall outside the boundaries of people’s established beliefs, they reject them. If someone feels unlovable, affirmations about how worthy of love they are will be rejected by their unconscious minds and only remind them of how unlovable they truly feel.
People with low self-esteem should use self-affirmations instead. Self-affirmations are statements that reinforce those qualities and attributes that you believe you already possess, such as “I would be a loyal, caring and supportive partner” or “I’m responsible and motivated, and I have a great work ethic.”
Making a list of your best qualities and writing a brief essay about why a specific quality is important (and how you’ve expressed it in the past) is a much more effective daily habit for people whose self-esteem is low.