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Separating Past Pain from Present Improves Life

If your emotional pain is confusing to you, you may be dealing with two pains at once. 

People mostly come to psychotherapy to feel less emotional pain. The pain might be anxiety, depression, unhappiness in a relationship, the shock of a sudden loss. It could even be all of those at once, but it’s current, present pain.


However you think about your current emotional pain, your first priority is probably to reduce it. You may be reading this piece of writing because you hope that reading it may somehow lead to reducing your pain. That’s also what brings people to therapy.


If things go well in therapy – and they frequently do – you may start to reflect on the makeup of the pain you feel. That may even be part of the therapeutic process. What you find when you start that reflection is often a mixture that can be confusing. What I’m offering here is an idea that may reduce the confusion.


If you break your leg, it can be useful to know enough about your own anatomy to help you understand why it’s a good idea to have your leg in a cast for a while. Having a model for the makeup of your emotional pain may help you feel less confused about the pain. Reducing the confusion may actually help reduce the pain.


Are you following me down into this space? This is more than an academic exercise. This is about current emotional pain and possible paths to comfort.


It turns out that the makeup, the structure, of emotional pain caused by fear, anger, and heartbreak is usually a mixture of two layers: immediate painful experience and past painful memory. In the present, in the now, you’re most conscious of the immediate, painful in-your-face situation. And, underneath the layer of immediate consciousness there is often a layer of pain that is a memory of some earlier experience. Those two layers get mashed together. You may not notice that earlier memory in the immediate pain of the moment, but it is there. It’s part of what you feel. And it is evoked by what’s going on in the present.


The problem with that situation is that you’re really trying to deal with two different pains at once. That’s difficult. The total discomfort is greater than the sum of those two discomforts separately. If you can make a distinction between the layer of present pain and the layer of past pain, you can separate those layers. Then you can work on them separately. Whatever the current situation is, it’s almost always simpler to deal with that by itself than with the combination of both pains mixed together. It’s also less confusing.


To separate the early experience from the details of the present situation you need to identify that early experience. You can start by thinking about the overall current pain. You might ask things like: “Is this pain familiar?” “What does this pain remind me of?” “When did I feel this pain before?”


Once you connect with the current feeling, the fear, the anger, the heartbreak, you can let yourself imagine an earlier scene, an image, a story in which it made sense to have that feeling. You may recall an actual experience. There was that time in the third grade when everyone laughed. The details of the earlier event may not look much like the current situation, but the uncomfortable emotional feeling is similar.


Or, you may not have a particular memory. The older feeling that’s mixed with the present may just be a feeling that’s somehow familiar. It just feels like part of who you are. That’s all right. You can work with that also. In this process, you’re not confined to specific events you can remember. If you don’t remember a specific event that would explain that background feeling, you can imagine one. It's OK to make it up.


Get in touch with the overall current painful feeling. Then let your imagination create an older-feeling story or image that justifies the painful background feeling. That’s all you need.


Don’t worry about whether what you make up is “real.” What’s important is that the story makes sense to you. Memory is mostly imagination anyway. The important part of this process is separating the current pain and the older painful emotion that’s in the background. The part of your mind that tracks the past and the present doesn’t really know the difference between a memory of a specific event and a story that you make up because it makes sense about the deep feeling.


So follow me on down, here. When you’re in touch with that past story – real or imagined – you can use it as a vehicle to get in even closer touch with the deep background feeling. It may be uncomfortable to do that, but that’s where the work is. Just don’t let yourself be overwhelmed. If you’re overwhelmed, you don’t learn much. If the story experience feels stronger than you want to tolerate, just back it off a little. You can do that. And you’re on the verge of something useful.


Once you have a tolerable connection with the story, take another look at your present total discomfort. Notice how much of it is the current situation and how much of it is the old feeling that the story has put you in better touch with. Just hang out and let yourself notice that separation for a moment. That noticing can be useful in several ways.


First, how do you feel when you notice that separation? Frequently, just noticing the separation will make the current situation feel easier to deal with. That’s useful. Then, don’t be surprised if you start to notice other places in your life where that old feeling has also been an unrecognized part of your experience. That insight can be useful too. This process of separating past pain mixed in with present pain can lead off in many other directions that can improve your quality of life unexpectedly. It’s really worth trying.


If this conversation interests you, but it feels a little daunting to take on by yourself, connect with someone who is familiar with these processes. Joe Turner can help. There’s no charge for a brief chat to see if this work might be helpful.

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