“Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.” ~Unknown
Maybe someone hurt you physically or emotionally. Maybe you’ve survived something else traumatic—a natural disaster, a fire, an armed robbery. Or maybe you’ve just come out of a trying situation, and though you know you’ll eventually recover, you still feel pain that seems unbearable.
Whatever the case may be, you’ve been scarred and you carry it with you through many of your days.
Most of us can relate on some level to that feeling. Even people who excel at taking personal responsibility have at least one story of having been hurt. Though some of us have endured more serious situations, you really can’t quantify or compare emotional pain.
To a teenager who just had her heart broken, the pain really seems like the end of the world. In fact, Livestrong estimates that every 100 minutes, a teenager commits suicide—and that the number of suicides in high-income families is the same as in poor families.
Presumably, not all of those teens have suffered incomprehensible tragedies. What they have in common is pain, born from different adversities and circumstances.
When you’re hurting some people might tell you to “suck it up and deal,” as if that’s a valid solution. They may say “it’s all in your head” and assume that reasons away the pain. But none of that will help you heal and find happiness from moment to moment.
Like everyone, I’ve been hurt, in both profound and trivial ways. I’ve dealt with it using the following ideas:
1. Define your pain.
It’s not always easy to identify and understand what’s hurting you. Some people even stay in abusive relationships because it’s safer than acknowledging their many layers of pain: the low self-esteem that convinces them they deserve abuse, the shame over being treated with such cruelty, and the feeling of desperation that convinces them there’s no real way out.
The first step toward finding happiness after having been hurt is to understand why you were hurt, to get to the root of everything that makes the memories hard.
2. Express that pain.
There’s no guarantee that you’ll be able to communicate how you feel to the person who hurt you; and if you can, there’s no guarantee they’ll respond how you want them to. Say what you need to say anyway. Write in your journal. Write a letter and burn it. Get it all out.
This will help you understand why you’re hurting and what you’ll do in the future to avoid similar pain so you can feel empowered instead of victimized. Research has actually proven that people who focus on lessons learned while journaling find the experience more helpful than people who don’t (focus on lessons).
3. Try to stay in the present.
Reliving the past can be addictive. It gives you the opportunity to do it again and respond differently—to fight back instead of submitting, to speak your mind instead of silencing yourself. It also allows you to possibly understand better. What happened? Where did you go wrong? What should you have done?
In other words, it allows you to torture yourself. Regardless of what you should have done, you can’t do it now. If you have post-traumatic stress disorder, you may need professional help to avoid revisiting the incident. If you don’t, you need sustained effort. Fight the urge to relive the pain. You can’t go back and find happiness there. You can only experience that now.
4. Stop telling the story.
It may seem like another way to understand what happened, or maybe it feels helpful to hear someone say you didn’t do anything wrong and you don’t deserve to hurt. In all reality this just keeps you stuck right where you are: living your life around a memory and giving it power to control you.
No amount of reassurance will change what happened. You can’t find happiness by holding onto a painful story, trying to place in new, brighter light. You can only find happiness when you let it go and make room for something better. You don’t need another person’s permission to let go and feel okay.
5. Forgive yourself.
Maybe you didn’t do anything wrong but you blame yourself. Or maybe you played a role in creating your current situation. Regardless of what happened, you need to realize that what you did is not who you are. And even if you feel immense regret, you deserve to start today without carrying that weight. You deserve a break.
You can either punish yourself and submit to misery, or forgive yourself and create the possibility of happiness. It comes down to whether you decide to dwell or move on. Which do you choose: anger with yourself and prolonged pain, or forgiveness and the potential for peace?
6. Stop playing the blame/victim game.
Maybe you were a victim. Maybe someone did horrible things to you, or you fell into an unfortunate set of circumstances through no fault of your own. It still doesn’t serve you to sit around feeling bad for yourself, blaming other people. In fact, it only holds you back. You can’t feel good if you use this moment to feel bad about another person’s actions.
The only way to experience happiness is to take responsibility for creating it, whether other people made it easy for you or not. You’re not responsible for what happened to you in the past but you’re responsible for your attitude now. Why let someone who hurt you in the past have power over your present?
7. Don’t let the pain become your identity.
If everything you do and all your relationships center around something that hurt you, it will be harder to move on. You may even come to appreciate what that identity gives you: attention, the illusion of understanding, or the warmth of compassion, for example.
You have to consider the possibility there’s a greater sense of happiness in completely releasing your story. That you’d feel better than you can even imagine if you’d stop letting your pain define you. You can have a sad story in your past without building your present around it.
8. Reconnect with who you were before the pain.
It’s not easy to release a pain identity, particularly if you’ve carried it around for a long time. It may help to remember who you were before that experience—or to consider who you might have become if it hadn’t happened. You can still be that person, someone who doesn’t feel bitter or angry so frequently.
If you want to feel and be peaceful and happy, start by identifying what that looks like—what you think about, what you feel, what you do, how you interact with people. Odds are this process will remind you both how you want to be and how you don’t want to be.
9. Focus on things that bring you joy in the moment.
You don’t have to focus on completely letting go of your pain forever; you just have to make room for joy right now. Start simple. What’s something you can enjoy in this moment, regardless of what pain you’ve experienced? Would sitting in the sun bring you joy? Would calling your sister bring you joy?
Don’t think about the totality of the rest of your days. That’s a massive burden to carry—haven’t you hurt enough? Just focus on now, and allow yourself a little peace. You’ll be surprised how easily “nows” can add up when you focus on them as they come.
10. Share that joy with other people.
We often isolate ourselves when we’re hurting because it feels safer than showing people our vulnerability. What we fail to realize is that we don’t have to feel vulnerable all the time. We can choose certain people for support, and then allow ourselves time with others without involving our painful stories.
You can share a meal, a movie, a moment and give yourself a break from your anger or sadness. You don’t have to carry it through every moment of your day. Don’t worry—if you feel you need to remember it, you’ll still be able to recall it later. But as you allow yourself pockets of peace, shared with people you love, you may find you need that story a lot less.
Everyone deserves to feel happy. Everyone deserves a little peace. One more thing we all have in common: we can only provide those things for ourselves.
This post was originally published in 2010. Photo here.