Illustration by Weronika Marianna
How We Can Learn to Tolerate Emotional Pain
A very normal gut reaction when we feel weepy or ashamed or enraged is to think, I don’t want to feel this way. It’s human to look for immediate relief. And to a point, that can be effective: When you do something to make yourself feel better, you often do feel better. But the quick and easy ways out of undesirable emotions aren’t always conducive to feeling better long-term, says Kelly Brogan, MD.
Brogan is an advocate of sitting with your feelings until you hit a point of self-understanding and acceptance. That’s not to say it’s easy. But it can be worth the effort, she says. Working through pain in a productive way may be what gets us to what’s on the other side: our authentic selves.
A Q&A with Kelly Brogan, MD
In America, in particular, we don’t have a cultural context for navigating fear or shame or grief or rage. So when you encounter these kinds of emotions—sometimes called negative emotions by our dominant culture—it scares you. And it scares the people around you, too.
I’ve come to understand that in order for us to develop an adult consciousness that can hold all of these energies we call emotions, we have to really flex the muscle of allowing ourselves to feel without labeling those feelings as good or bad. It’s an audacious effort; there aren’t many models for that in our current society. But every time one of us does it, it gets easier for others.
In Kundalini yoga, you get to encounter the ways in which your mind tries to invite you back to its familiar baseline—the space where we feel in control—when you’re feeling physical discomfort. Kundalini strives to do this through very simple movements. Sometimes it’s raising your arms up and down in front of you for eleven minutes, sometimes thirty-two. In these movements, it’s very easy to tell yourself you’re not going to get hurt. Nothing horrible is going to happen if you just move your arms up and down for a couple of minutes. But your mind will try to tell you that you can’t go on and need to stop.
If you can go on—and this is much easier in a group setting—you find that your mind was telling you a lie. This practice makes it easier, in your lived life, to interact with the mind, knowing that it’s there to protect you but that it’s not always telling you the truth in times of struggle.
Mindful breathing: If you’re in a state of fear and don’t have an established breathing or meditation practice, it’s difficult to regulate your breath on the spot. That’s why I often recommend a very basic practice of left nostril breathing. You just push down on your right nostril and start to breathe in and out of your left one, which has the effect of stimulating your parasympathetic nervous system; it turns down your stress response.
Mindful touch: Another simple exercise is to put your hand on your throat, then put your hand on your chest, and then put your hand on your belly. As you do, sequentially over and over, you say, “Open, open, open,” either internally or out loud. We tend to constrict in those areas, and if you can become aware of that constriction and begin to relax in the face of it, then you can begin to shift your nervous system toward calm.
Speaking gently to your child self: You have to grow your strength and your capacity to hold difficult emotional states, like fear, anger, and pain. I advocate for this practice, which I think can help. When you feel an intense emotion, visually imagine a child feeling the same way—maybe they’re crying, maybe they’re having a tantrum. How would you speak to that child, knowing what they’re upset about? You don’t condescend to them or dismiss them. You don’t put them in their bedroom and walk away. You say things like “It’s going to be okay” or “I see this is so scary.” It sounds trite, but it’s a very powerful exercise.
If processing pain were just about getting stronger and withstanding this and being able to tolerate it, I’m not sure that it would ever feel worth it. I can speak from experience: In all my achievements, I have never felt any real pride. And I don’t think that’s uncommon.
It’s in very mundane experiences, like scary conversations with family members, that I feel real pride. It’s when I feel authentically myself. And I think that’s what we all really want—to feel the essential part of ourselves that doesn’t have anything to do with our identity as a professional or a mother or a sister or a lover or whatever.
So that’s what’s on the other side: the feeling that it’s okay to simply be whoever we are, however it shows up.
Morphic resonance is a concept in quantum physics that was pioneered by Rupert Sheldrake. The idea is that a single occurrence of an event generates a quantum field that makes it more possible for subsequent occurrences of the same event to take shape. So maybe a lab rat solves a particular maze in New York, making it more likely that lab rats in California succeed in solving the same maze. Or if we look at early human civilizations, people in disparate societies in different parts of the world had no communication with one another, yet they often invented similar technologies and built structures with similar looks and functions.
My experience of morphic resonance in emotional work is that when one woman walks the path of self-healing by learning to navigate her feelings, it seems that it becomes easier and easier for others to do the same. I am a believer in sharing information to empower individuals, creating an awareness of options that are becoming more prevalent and therefore more real. It’s just that you don’t even have to talk about it or share it on social media or see it in the news. It exists in the quantum field.
Kelly Brogan, MD, is a Manhattan-based holistic women’s health psychiatrist and the author of A Mind of Your Own and Own Your Self. Brogan completed her psychiatric training and fellowship at NYU Langone Medical Center after graduating from Weill Cornell Medical College, and she is board-certified in psychiatry, psychosomatic medicine, and integrative holistic medicine.
This article is for informational purposes only, even if and regardless of whether it features the advice of physicians and medical practitioners. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice. The views expressed in this article are the views of the expert and do not necessarily represent the views of goop.