By Nicholas Perkins
There is nothing discriminatory about emotional pain. It impacts the family whose children died in a house fire as much as it does the survivors of a mass shooting. It can affect the individuals who witness it just as it does the person who endures it. Emotional pain can change how we view ourselves and the world.
What is emotional pain? An answer requires much thought, since the factors are as diverse as those who experience it. Social exclusion, betrayal, infidelity, and death can cause emotional pain. It is synonymous with psychological pain, because it presents as unpleasant suffering or feeling. Unlike physical trauma, the symptoms of emotional and psychological pain are difficult to observe; it can take time for them to reach what I label as the critical mass stage. The emotional pain that I felt after I left an emotionally and verbally abusive marriage manifested as poor sleep and appetite, disinterest, withdrawal, confusion, doubts, and fear.
I liken emotional pain to an iceberg, and the portion below the water can cause as much damage as what is above the surface. After all, it was the jagged pieces of the berg beneath the surface that sank the Titanic. Since God calls me to relationship, I must discern how my emotional wounds can affect that. A hospital chaplain can be triggered by certain encounters and events, so I am challenged to think about the certification competencies that address self-reflection, attitudes and feelings, and my own physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being.
The person I am today is a result of everything that I have experienced and learned in my life. Recent research into adverse childhood experiences confirms that childhood is one of the most developmental and fragile times of life. Examples of adverse childhood experiences include any form of abuse, emotional and physical neglect, incarcerated household members, separation or divorce, and substance abuse within families.
Stress during childhood and adolescence can affect cognition, relationships, behaviors, and health, including patterns of crisis and coping. The trauma that I endured was stored in my body and mind until certain events triggered it. In effect, the unhealed emotional pain that was packaged in my subconscious mind set the stage for adverse experiences later in life.
Children learn their blueprint for relationships in their family of origin. If a child was raised in an abusive home, their template for relationships can condition them to choose partners that mistreat them. The odds loom large that they will repeat in their adult lives the relationship patterns that they saw in their family of origin.
Women and men who leave emotionally and verbally abusive marriages often say they wish the perpetrator would have split their lip or blackened their eye. People can see that trauma, and the law can prosecute it, but a verbal and emotional abuser often behaves differently in public than he or she does in private. In my emotionally abusive marriage, I eventually kept a record of my former spouse’s abusive behavior because it set the grounds for my petition for a declaration of nullity.
In an emotionally abusive relationship, the perpetrator and victim seem to share a pain that has its origins in the relationship that they saw in their families of origin. He feels how her words slice him to the core as she pirouettes around the kitchen oblivious to his heartache; she feels how his well-aimed criticisms devalue her self-worth as he attributes them to ordinary and playful banter. There is nothing humorous about abuse, or the denial mechanisms that enable it.
Spiritual anguish can be associated with medical or emotional issues. The person may disconnect, withdraw, and doubt the existence – even the love – of God. An individual who wrestles with spiritual pain during an emotional or medical crisis could feel punished by God, like God is penalizing them for past sins. The chaplain or caregiver who speaks with somebody who faces spiritual pain can learn a lot about how they view God.
How do we comfort a person who endures acute emotional or spiritual sorrow? I emulate the people who aided me; their presence reflected concern without comments or ideas. It is important to appreciate that how one feels emotionally can affect physical and spiritual feelings. The body, mind, and spirit share a unique harmony; if one suffers, the other two suffer. A person who endures emotional distress has the need to feel safe, so letting them know that they are is helpful.
An important first step in healing my emotional wounds was to be with people who let me share my feelings. They let me walk into the wilderness of my pain without trying to stop me; they listened to the feelings beneath my words and reminded me that I was not alone. The most important thing that I experienced was how wonderful it felt to not receive unsolicited advice or suggestions. I understand through my own suffering how an empathic connection during a crisis requires very few words. Authentic concern and the desire to be present in the wilderness of one’s pain are enough.
Nicholas Perkins, BCC, is a chaplain at Franciscan Health in Dyer, IN.