11 Oct

Emotional Pain and the Unique Approach of Psychoanalysis

Psychoanalysis has long been unique in its approach to people’s emotional pain.  Rather than emphasizing positive thinking and recommending medications to dull even moderate levels of anxiety and depression, psychoanalysis aims at unearthing the deepest pain and learning to accept and manage it.  We do this, not in the interest of promoting or intensifying painful experiences, but rather in the knowledge that suffering must see the light of day.  We encourage our patients to dig deep into their darkest moments, knowing that expressing, accepting, naming and managing deep emotions is the key to a meaningful life.  It also relieves the heavy burden of expending so much energy keeping these feelings at bay.   This energy then becomes available to be used productively.

And contrary to what many people believe, feeling deep sadness and pain does not result in becoming stuck and depressed.  Instead it has what may seem like a paradoxical effect.  Digging deep into unexpressed pain produces what Davies (2012) calls “creative suffering.”  The people I treat are often amazed that after having broken down sobbing in a session, leaving feeling shaken and exhausted, they do not remain mired in pain and despair.  Typically, they wake up the next day feeling a new lightness and a new sense of optimism.

Denial, drug-taking, drinking and eating are some of the major defenses we use against experiencing pain.  And, admittedly, it is extremely difficult to address deep pain on one’s own.  A guide is needed, both to be the recipient and witness of these feelings, and to facilitate the creative integration and management of them.  That is what psychoanalytic treatment is about.

Because much deep pain is rooted in early childhood, people may feel guilty and ashamed of having reactions to events in the present that seem like “too much.”  Often, if they do express strong feelings, they are told they are being “overly sensitive.”  This societal rejection of strong feelings can make it difficult to know when therapy is actually needed. But a good rule of thumb is that when you are often feeling overwhelmed or out of control in response to people and events around you, it may be a good time to think about going for therapy.  Particularly if this persists over time, in spite of all efforts to manage these emotions.

It is human nature to want to make the pain go away, no matter what kind of pain we are talking about. But when it comes to emotional pain, the question is:  What is the best way to go about both alleviating suffering and also using it creatively to know yourself better and understand why you react the way you do.  Acceptance of suffering, is really just another form of self-acceptance, since sadness and loss are an inescapable fact of life.  Living well does not mean being happy all the time, it means being able to accept and mange the myriad of feelings we experience daily throughout our lives.


Davies, J.(2012). The Importance of Suffering: The Value and Meaning of Emotional  Discontent.  London: Routledge.

The Importance of Suffering: The Value and Meaning of Emotional  Discontent.  London: Routledge.


  • I love your article. I am doing psychoanalysis for 8 yrs for childhood ptsd and I am now feeling the emotions of loss and loneliness and anger. Thank you

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.