3 Steps to Heal Painful Emotions
Alison Cook - September 12, 2023
Everyone deals with painful emotions from time to time. You might struggle with anger, envy, fear, or guilt. These emotions might be related to a current experience, or they might be emotions you have struggled with for a very long time. Regardless, it’s possible to heal painful emotions.
Learning how to heal painful emotions is vital to growth in emotional health, or what psychologists call emotional intelligence. It doesn’t mean you stop having emotions. In fact, emotions are a beautiful aspect of who you are. But, it will help you experience more calm and clarity inside as you care for your emotional well-being. And, it will benefit your relationships with other people.
If you don’t heal painful emotions, they can fester like an open wound. They might hide away outside of your conscious awareness for a time, but they will wait for a moment of vulnerability and make themselves known. For example, when you don’t heal painful emotions they tend to:
- Come out sideways in sarcasm or bitterness toward others
- Overcome you with extreme reactions to minor incidents
- Hijack you unexpectedly with a flood of anger, fear, or loneliness
- Make you feel powerless or hopeless
- Negatively impact your view of yourself
On the other hand, when you heal painful emotions, you experience more freedom inside. Instead of being at the whim of your emotions, you learn how to lead your emotions with care.
Most of us weren’t taught how to heal painful emotions. As a result, we’re afraid of the power of our emotions, or we don’t know what to do with them. So we deny our experience of pain or put on a mask so that others won’t see what we are really feeling.
I see this in my counseling practice all the time, and I have struggled with it myself. Many women deny their loneliness, sorrow, envy, anger, and fear. We get very good at telling ourselves and others that we are always “just fine.” However, at some point, those walled off emotions will erupt if not cared for with compassion.
Instead of shutting emotions down, you can learn how to understand and care for them. You can heal painful emotions and make them your allies. For example, loneliness can become a cue for you to cultivate connection with others. Sorrow can help you slow down and make space for healthy grief. Healed anger is a helpful warning that you may need to set some boundaries. And, fear, when tended well, can help you stay humble and connected in healthy ways to others and God.
The secret to healing painful emotions is to pay attention to them—not shove them aside. Here are some ways to begin that process.
3 Steps to Heal Painful Emotions
1.) Focus on the emotion.
It may sound counter-intuitive, but it works. Focusing on an emotion helps you to differentiate from it. When you can name an emotion for what it is, you gain distance from it. Here are some examples of how to take this step:
- Take a few minutes to notice what you are thinking about.
- Write down some of those thoughts or simply become aware of them.
- What emotions are connected to those thoughts?
- Name the emotion or emotions as best you can.
- Write down a brief sentence to describe the feeling.
Becoming more aware of what you think and feel is a skill you can practice each day. Simply acknowledging the fact of what you feel—”I feel angry” or “I feel sad”—soothes the brain’s limbic system and helps you gain access to other regions of the brain. (For more on how the brain works with emotions, check out the work of Curt Thompson and Dan Siegel).
2.) Get curious about the emotion.
When you notice a strong or painful feeling, get curious about it. Ask yourself questions like:
- Where do I feel this emotion in my body?
- If it was an image, what would it look like?
- How familiar is it to me?
- Has it been with me for a long time?
- Is there an early memory of when this emotion first showed up?
- Can I extend compassion toward this emotion?
As you get curious about your emotions, you’re moving into a position of self-acceptance. Instead of judging yourself for having the emotion, you accept it for what it is and decide to learn more about it. Criticizing yourself or beating yourself up doesn’t help you heal painful emotions—in fact, it heightens the tension and turmoil you feel inside!
3.) Invite God to draw near.
We are emotional, thinking, and spiritual beings. You can access the tremendous spiritual resources at your disposal by inviting God to draw near you in your experience of pain, fear, or anger. For example, you might ask yourself:
- What is it like to invite God into the experience of this emotion?
- Do you notice any fears about inviting God into its experience?
- Can you express any fears or reservations honestly to him?
Notice what you sense without judgment. God can handle your honesty. It might not magically take the feeling away, but acknowledging your emotions honestly before yourself and before God helps you gain perspective.
Focusing on emotions and getting curious about them helps you heal painful emotions. Inviting God into that experience magnifies the power. Working through this step-by-step process brings a deep-down, grounded sense of calm, confidence, and clarity. You’ll learn that you can face your emotions with compassion. And as you do, you’ll discover that you are in charge of your emotions, not the other way around.
As you practice following these three steps you’ll learn to calm yourself when overtaken by a painful or troubling emotion. You’ll gain compassion for yourself and learn how to respond intentionally to a difficult situation. You’ll learn how to advocate effectively on behalf of yourself and others, without doing harm. Your emotions will become your allies.
Alison Cook, MA, PhD is a counselor, speaker, and writer who helps people become comfortable in their own skin and fully live out their God-given potential. She is the co-author of Boundaries for Your Soul (Thomas Nelson, 2018). Alison is uniquely gifted at helping people learn how to:
- Develop confidence from the inside out
- Transform anxiety and loneliness into peace and connection with others
- Turn off the internal negative voice and experience the true loving God who isn't trying to beat you up
- Heal lingering trauma from childhood wounds or abuse
- Forge healthy relationships with safe individuals
For over 15 years, Alison has helped create transformative results for women, ministry leaders, couples, and families. Alison's Christian adaptation of the fast growing, evidence-based Internal Family System (IFS) model of therapy provides a step-by-step approach to managing emotions in partnership with God.