Healing Emotional Pain

Healing Emotional Pain – Gabor Mate

Gabor Mate puts it to us that the society we live in, has become one that magnifies the difficulty of navigating traumatic painful experiences and emotional distress. He points to the prevailing attitude that a quick fix is best. If you are in pain, if you feel down you are encouraged to seek distractions, keep busy, soldier on and failing that, take a handful of pills. The message we are given is that it is shameful to feel pain. That mental health issues are shameful and that it is not okay, to be not okay. Therefore we must deny our experience, and put great effort into being who we are not. One could be cynical and suggest there are economic drivers for this approach, as those who soldier on do not become ‘burdens on society’ or government funding.

Lending support to the theory that today’s approach to mental health is an economically driven one, is Lord [Richard] Layard’s, “Action for Happiness” Initiative, a British program, that receives government funding to aid it in spreading the message that painful emotions can be managed by a one size fits all approach. In this case, Layard’s theory is that there is no need to be anything but happy and in adopting his “10 Keys to Happiness” one and all can successfully avoid emotional pain, and becoming a burden upon society. Lord Richard Layard is an economist … not  a psychiatrist, psychologist or counselor.Healing Emotional Pain, Gabor Mate

It is very clear that we are being sent a message that to suffer from a  mental health issue is shameful. Our society shuns and trivializes those experiencing extreme sadness or depression and wants only to ”fix” the behavior of these people, not actually heal or understand their pain. Those who can’t be fixed must live with their shameful truth, or hide from it as best they can, and the rest of us must avoid the knowledge of their suffering and minimize it.

This directly contradicts the messages of all the great teachers who have walked our earth and shared their teachings with us.

The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, Gabor Mate points out, states the simple truth eloquently and emphatically that,  “Whatever you do, don’t try and escape from your pain, but be with it.” He wants us to understand that any attempt to flee from, or outrun our pain, will magnify it.

An ever compelling speaker, Gabor Mate talks us through the concept, that it is the desire to escape feelings of pain, and to escape the feelings of distress, that are frowned upon by our society, that have lead people to so many self damaging and destructive behaviors. These include obsessiveness in any form – workaholics, shopaholics, exercise junkies, binge drinkers, drug takers, thrill seeking adrenaline inducing activities and proclivities towards violence. All these activities change the way the brain functions and processes stimuli and due to that, it allows a respite, or escape from painful or difficult feelings.

All types of pain activate the same area of the brain. When people experience emotional pain, such as a relationship breakup, or a stinging insult, the same part of the brain lights up as it would when a person experiences physical pain. So an injury, such as being burnt by fire or heat, or the breaking of a bone, activates the part of the brain that also process rejection, and hurt feelings. Therefore both the emotional and psychological pain that we experience can be soothed or dulled by the same substances, and chemicals.

Whether it is adrenaline releasing activity that boosts endorphin production, such as violence, thrill seeking etc, drugs such as cocaine, methamphetamine, opiates or synthetic pain killers, all are doing the same thing. They are muting the pain registering centers in our brain, and simultaneously stimulating the production of either or both, endorphin and dopamine production. This results in feelings of euphoria, freedom from stress and ultimately makes a person, temporarily, feel safe and soothed. It is the soothing effect of the drug taking experience, in it’s ability to minimize and inhibit all stress receptors, that makes drug taking so rewarding.

Gabor Mate states emphatically that, “All addictions are attempts to soothe pain.”

It is very easy then to understand that all that all self destructive behaviors are rooted in pain, fear or frustration, and are attempts to escape pain that the individual has no better means to cope with. unfortunately though, the act of running from pain, unequivocally and without exception will end up magnifying it. Gabor Mate says this is the nature of dependency – in running from one pain, you end up with two – the original pain, and the dependency and the problems it now brings.

If you don’t find a way to sit with or be with your pain , it will never heal. Therefore the painful experiences we run from, end up defining an individuals entire life. The traumatic experience is empowered and essentially becomes the persona of the individual. It is this paradigm from which the expression was coined that, “the surest way to go to hell is to run away from hell.”


what does it take for us to face our pain and work through it? Gabor Mate concludes that in the end, it is the compassion of others, given without judgement and over prolonged time that is the only true method that allows healing to take place.  Mate tells us, “that it is only when a person is able to sense true compassion from another being, that they are able to see the truth.”  That without this compassion from others, they will not be able to see their truth. Therefore they will not be able to heal…

It is easy to see therefore why a society like ours has such great problems and that they are on the rise as the pace of our lives picks up speed and the emphasis remains on the growth of a virtual world, where there is never time to be still, never time to be alone, and human compassion and empathy lose value to technical agility and left brain thinking.