You’re upset about losing a loved one. You’ve had a bad day. You lost out on a job opportunity. You had a falling out with a friend. You feel disconnected from your spouse. You got into an argument with your child. You’re going through something traumatic.
You’re going through some other challenging situation, and you’re in pain. You’re sad. You’re heartbroken. You’re weary or overwhelmed. You’re deeply disappointed.
When many of us are in emotional pain, we don’t exactly help the situation. Maybe we simply don’t know what to say because we’re used to ignoring and banishing our pain—and criticizing ourselves.
As holistic mental health counselor Laura Torres, LPC, said, “So often with our words, thoughts, and actions, we are sending ourselves the message that this pain is not OK and needs to go away.” Maybe you turn to mindless scrolling to soothe the sadness. Maybe you drink a few glasses of wine to blunt the sharp pain. Maybe you tell yourself you shouldn’t feel this way, because you should be happy and grateful, and you should’ve been over it by now.
Maybe you tell yourself, I just can’t stop worrying about stupid things. Nothing ever works out for me. I don’t understand why I’m always in these situations. I’m too emotional and overreact to everything. I’m weak.
These are just some of the statements Renee Cage-Watson’s clients say to themselves. Cage-Watson, LCSW, is a licensed clinical social worker and owner of Empowered by Courage Counseling in San Leandro, Calif., who works with children, adolescents, families, and adults.
“Paradoxically, what is most supportive is allowing our pain to be there and being with it—kind of like we might do for someone else,” said Torres, who has a private practice in Asheville, N.C. And paradoxically, once we acknowledge and accept the pain, it’s more likely to dissipate. Because it’s been acknowledged. Because it’s been heard.
But how do you actually support yourself when you’re in emotional pain? What does this look like?
The key resides in the way we talk to ourselves. Because the way we talk to ourselves can either prolong our suffering, or it can promote our healing.
Ingredients for Supportive Self-Talk
The first step is to actually be aware of how you’re talking to yourself, said Maegon Renee, a therapist and coach for empath entrepreneurs and founder of The Aligned Lifestyle Program. Because we tend to be on autopilot, many of us don’t even realize the number of negative things we say to ourselves on a regular basis, she said.
This is why Renee recommended keeping a log of events for about one or two weeks, along with your immediate response. Cage-Watson also has clients jot down two or three words about a situation, along with the self-critical words they said.
Both then suggest replacing these negative words with kind ones.
Torres believes that when we’re in pain, we need empathy, compassion, and reassurance that we’re OK even in the midst of our pain. She suggested using self-compassion researcher Kristin Neff’s 3-step framework:
- acknowledge that you’re going through a hard moment.
- recognize that your pain is part of being human, which reminds you that you’re not alone, and this is part of the journey.
- offer loving, kind, reassuring words.
In fact, Torres likes to imagine the words she would say to her son or her inner child, such as: “I’m right here with you, and I know it’s hard, but we’ll get through this together.”
Torres noted that when we’re in pain, a younger part of us is activated. (“According to internal family systems approach, we all have many different parts with different functions.”) Which is why it’s helpful to imagine what you’d say to a child, or to imagine what a nurturing figure in your life would say to you, she said.
Cage-Watson has her clients get curious about how they’re feeling, and explore questions such as: “Will this matter later on? What’s the worst thing that can happen? What’s likely to happen? Can I learn from this? What can I do to move me closer to solving the problem or achieving the goal? Is thinking this way helpful?”
Renee’s favorite self-compassionate statement is: “Emotions go in and out like the waves.” Because this reminds us that our uncomfortable feelings won’t last. Feelings are temporary, and their intensity shifts all the time.
Torres suggested telling ourselves these supportive words, noting, “I change pronouns from ‘I’ to ‘you,’ so people can play around with what type of self-talk they’re needing”:
This is really hard and I can get through this.
I’m stronger and more resilient than I know.
I am supported and even when I don’t feel this support from those around me, I am supported. (This is where connection with a higher power can be really beneficial.)
Everything is going to be OK, or things will get better.
I see you. Your feelings are valid and important.
I’m right here with you. and we’ll get through this together. (This would be more something you might say to a younger part or from a wiser/nurturing part to yourself.)
Cage-Watson noted that the below are her favorite statements:
I understand that every relationship starts within me. I have a wonderful, loving relationship with myself.
I deserve to be loved.
Today, I choose to focus on the things I can control.
I give myself permission to walk away from people and situations that no longer serve me.
I did not choose my trauma, but I am choosing how I recover from it.
I am capable of transforming negative experiences into something positive.
Even though I feel worthless, I am loved and worthy.
Jot down the statements that really resonate with you, and turn to them any time you’re feeling emotional pain and need support.
Cage-Watson believes that affirmations are the “cornerstone of well-being.” She and many of her clients use ThinkUp, an app that lets you record yourself saying different affirmations and listen to them.
When you’re in emotional pain, how you talk to yourself can make all the difference. It can either deepen and magnify your pain, or it can soothe it. Either option is up to us.