The Only Way Out is Through: Finding Relief From Psychological Pain

Our present-day demand for quick tools to manage and push pain away prevents people from actually finding long-term relief from their psychological pain.

The practice of clinical psychology has existed for over a century. Throughout this period, the field has been determined to help individuals find relief from their ailments. Whether it was back in the beginning with Sigmund Freud and his treatment of hysteria in Vienna, or the modern treatments of today, clinical psychology has focused on finding the best ways to effectively rid people of the troubling thoughts, feelings, and behaviors they experience.

Every few years, the field goes through a reimaging with new assumptions on how to best help people. In fact, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is thought of having gone through three “waves,” where, with each new wave, the treatment methods are changed. But despite the research and numerous “updates” that have been done on psychological treatment, there remains an unavoidable truth about the nature of therapy and how people get better. The truth about treatment is this: in order for a person to get relief from any sort of psychological pain, they have to feel that pain.

This truth is simultaneously understandable and unwelcome to most of us. When it comes to any sort of pain – physical or psychological – we want to get as far away from the pain as possible. We take pain relievers, anti-depressants, and anti-anxiety medications. And, more often than not, people enter therapy because they want help in moving away from their pain.

The image is of someone currently in pain, and thinking that they need to go on a journey as far away from their pain as possible in order to get rid of it. But the thing with psychological pain is that it follows you. No matter what “tools” you use to minimize, push-down, or cover-up your pain, you cannot escape your pain unless you address it head on.

The promise of a lot of therapy methods is that you can get rid of your pain in 6 weeks (or less!). And they attempt to accomplish this by giving you “tools” to push your pain away. You get mental exercises, homework, strategies to employ in an effort to push the pain out of your mind. The problem with these is that they don’t address the pain at its source.

It’s like someone breaking their arm. But instead of beginning the long and difficult healing process of resetting the arm and casting it, they forgo all of that and are just given rounds of pain-relievers, mental exercises to manage the pain, and a referral to a support group for broken-armed people. Sure, after enough medication, support, and mental exercises, the pain will decrease—but you’ve still got a broken arm!

While the analogy isn’t perfect, the underlying message is clear: we get so focused on pushing away our pain that we never address the source of the pain. And unless we address the source of the pain, the pain will never go away.

This is main reason many therapies aren’t effective. Therapist and patient get caught up in this effort to move away from pain. Both come to an unsaid agreement where they need to do whatever they can to get rid of bad thoughts and feelings as quickly as possible. And the patient is worse for this arrangement because they are left with a lot of tools to feel less pain, but no way of dealing with, and resolving, the pain.

The antidote to all of this is a robust determination in the therapist and patient that they will together face the pain, so that lasting relief from it can be found. The therapist needs to be willing and able to lead the patient down a path of self-insight and exploration, into the deep portions of the mind that are left unexplored because of their formidable emotional weight. And the patient needs to be willing and able to join the therapist in the indeterminate journey, even when the light at the end of the tunnel grows faint.

In other words, it’s strength that says it will face pain. It’s simpler and easier to move away from pain, try to run from it. But on the journey of running from pain, there is no end. You have to turn and run towards the pain in order to actually put it behind you.