The Power of Staying With Emotional Pain. By Dr Linda Berman.


Van Gogh.Sorrowing Old Man. Wikimedia Commons.

“Sometimes someone isn’t ready to see the bright side. Sometimes they need to sit with the shadow first. So be a friend and sit with them. Make the darkness beautiful.”

Victoria Erickson

  • What does it mean to ‘stay with another’s emotional pain’?

People so often dodge pain, both in themselves and in others. Have you noticed that, if you have ever voiced some difficult or painful feelings, some people change the subject, reassure, minimise or brush aside what you have said?

This can feel frustrating, rejecting, and dismissive.

Have you also noticed that sometimes, when you talk about something important to you, other people will immediately pick up on this same issue, but make it relate to themselves and their own experience?

How rare is the person who can really stay with our pain! Without a calm and attentive other, we can often feel lonely and abandoned.

26021614345_1308522863_oCasey Baugh.The Echoes Surround [2015]Gandalf’s Gallery. Flickr.

  • Staying With Others’ Pain In Everyday Life.

26219044471_799c3e2c45_oMichele del Campo – The Rest [2014]Gandalf’s Gallery. Flickr.

Being with another who is in emotional distress is not easy. If we are not counsellors or therapists, it might be useful to acquaint ourselves with some basic listening skills to enable us to hear friends and family.

This is not to say we will be there as therapists for them, for that would be inappropriate, but being able to listen and attend to another constructively is useful in many life situations.

imageFour Girls. August Macke. Wikimedia Commons.

“The biggest communication problem is we do not listen to understand.
We listen to reply.”

Stephen R. Covey

  • Staying With Our Own Pain.

imagePortrait Of A Girl.Alexander Jawlensky. Wikimedia Commons.

“Emotional pain cannot kill you, but running from it can. Allow. Embrace. Let yourself feel. Let yourself heal.”

Vironika Tugaleva

Memories. George James Coates (1869-1930)

“One day, in retrospect, the years of struggle will strike you as the most beautiful.”

Sigmund Freud

Sitting with our own pain, without resorting to excess alcohol, drugs or food to numb our feelings, can be very hard.

Often, we might feel critical of ourselves for having such feelings; such self-judgement adds more pain, and piles on guilt for having the pain.

We need to assure ourselves that it is important to hear our own feelings, and give ourselves permission to feel sad, hurt, or bereft. If we do not acknowledge our real feelings, they will linger and trouble us inside.

“The pain is there; when you close one door on it, it knocks to come in somewhere else…”

Irvin D. Yalom

Recognising and accepting the fact we are in emotional pain can mean that we are freer to seek help from others.

25187788085_3d55d77143_oChristian Fagerlund – Sunlight [2015] Gandalf’s Gallery. Flickr.

“If you can sit with your pain, listen to your pain and respect your pain — in time you will move through your pain.”

 Bryant McGil

  • Staying With Pain In Psychotherapy: Empathy.

imageSitting Woman. Alexander Jawlensky. Wikimedia Commons.

“But pain’s like water. It finds a way to push through any seal. There’s no way to stop it. Sometimes you have to let yourself sink inside of it before you can learn how to swim to the surface.”

Katie Kacvinsky

Empathy is the ability to put oneself into the world of another, in both a thinking and feeling way, as far as that is possible. It is really trying to understand how that other person sees and experiences the world.

Real empathy on the part of the therapist means that there will be no rush, no pressure, just a quiet and strong presence. An empathic therapist can stay with the patient’s pain without trying too hard to know how to help.

What does this mean?

Sometimes, we just do not know the best way to help patients. We need to wait until the process of therapy facilitates the emergence of relevant material to work on.

‘…acceptance of not-knowing produces tremendous relief.’


In taking one’s pain to a therapist, the hope is that we will be heard, valued and patiently enabled to work through our personal issues.

A therapist who reacts rather than responds, who rushes into doing rather than being with the patient, will not be staying with the pain of the other.

“The alternative to being is reacting, and reacting interrupts being and annihilates.”



Whether our pain manifests itself through depression, anxiety, nightmares, relationship problems, phobias, hopelessness, loneliness, or presents itself in any other guise,  psychotherapy may offer a way through our inner conflicts.

A therapist who can be there for the patient, without pressurising or intruding at inappropriate times, who is willing to wait with the patient for feelings and memories to surface in their own time, will be a strong, facilitating presence.

Rather than attempting to ‘pull out’ the person from dark emotional places, perhaps the therapist can be emotionally in there with them, even for a few seconds, no matter how dark and scary it feels.

“Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me years to understand that this too, was a gift.”

Mary Oliver

imageLéon Spilliaert .Digue d’Ostende aux Réverbères – 1908

“If you’re in a dark place, you’re there for a reason. And the only way to get through to those kids or to other people going through the same thing is really to meet them in that dark place and then slowly bring them to the light.”

Bebe Rexha

Having someone even express the wish to be in that terrible place with them, may make the depressed person feel less afraid, less alone. Of course, this has to be handled sensitively and, crucially, with an awareness of timing.

“In my darkest days, I couldn’t reach out. Let’s stop telling people to reach out and start to reach in.”

Obviously, empathy alone is not enough to bring about real, lasting change; there are many other aspects of the therapeutic process.

However, empathy is important in helping create a vital sense of acceptance as an individual, in validating the other, and giving a feeling of containment, throughout the course of psychotherapy. Without it, there can be no progress, no healing, no real connection.


Oh, the comfort, the inexpressible
Comfort of feeling safe with a person,
Having neither to weight thoughts,
Nor measure words–but pouring them
All right out–just as they are
Chaff and grain together,
Certain that a faithful hand will
Take and sift them,
Keep what is worth keeping,
And with the breath of kindness
Blow the rest away.

George Eliot.

imageEdvard Munch. Ashes. 1894. Wikimedia Commons.

The power of being able to stay with a person’s pain is immeasurable. It is a form of love.

“So if we love someone, we should train in being able to listen. By listening with calm and understanding, we can ease the suffering of another person.”

Thích Nhất Hạnh

50955528702_7c2461db75_oZinaida Serebriakova – Self-Portrait in a Scarf [1911]Gandalf’s Gallery. Flickr.

“If you can sit with your pain, listen to your pain and respect your pain — in time you will move through your pain.”

Bryant McGill

©Linda Berman.

I would really appreciate you joining the ever-increasing list of followers of this blog. Thank you. Linda.


  1. Confronting emotional pain is like standing up to a bully. This courageous activity builds ego strength. This process teaches people how to gradually tolerate increasing dosages of inevitable and normal feelings including anxiety, frustration, depression and stress and doing so with most cases not needing additional drugs. If interested look at Amazon For an e book called Attitudeshifting. Your website is outstanding in multiple ways. Thank you .

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s