On truth equaling pain
A former colleague of mine once said, ‘I tend to believe something’s true when it’s painful to hear’. This sentiment intrigued me, as I recognised that there was something valid that it expressed: most of us have experienced emotional pain from some event, which has fatally undone one of our naïve expectations or self-deceiving illusions. Without question, some truths about ourselves or about our relationships can be disillusioning. In such cases, the emergent emotional pain acts as a signifier that our self-concept has had to accommodate an unwelcome truth.
This equation of truth with disillusionment and emotional pain is not without precedent. For example, Freud’s positing of a conflict between the reality and pleasure principles implies that the ‘real’ announces its presence most keenly when it frustrates our insistent desires (it would be inaccurate to say, however, that Freud proposed that such frustration was inherently pernicious); what is true therefore is what opposes our asocial, uncalibrated desire. Nevertheless, there are evident dangers to implicitly subscribing to a masochistic logic. Perhaps most obviously, to believe that what is true is what is painful is to capitulate to a negative worldview, where our depressive outlook or our recurrent anxiety is assumed to be accurate in a wholesale fashion. In short, it is most harmful to conclude that because the truth about our lives can be painful, that it can indeed be disillusioning that the experience of emotional pain itself is a guarantor that truths have been ascertained.
Below I offer some further reflections on this notion of truth=emotional pain, and how to avoid falling for this seductive perspective:
- The fundamental difficulty with equating truth with emotional pain is that it is, in CBT lingo, a form of emotional reasoning i.e. that what we feel is what is the case (‘I feel it is true, thus it must be so’). But our feelings are never a completely trustworthy guide to reality, otherwise we would be able to change obstinate reality with our positive feelings. The problem here is that our emotional pain can lead us to draw overly pessimistic conclusions about ourselves and about our world, and then subsequent negative emotions with similar triggers are taken as further proof of the veracity of the negative worldview. In other words, a self-fulfilling prophecy is likely to be created and maintained when we mistake pain for truth. To counteract this, when feeling some negative emotion, we can contemplate the possibility that there is evidence that will amend or completely change our understanding. Putting our emotion-laden conclusions to the test is certainly one way to avoid making our emotional pain our sole means of knowing what is going on in our lives.
- Another approach to counteracting the truth=emotional pain notion seems quite different to the above, but can it be used in a complementary fashion: instead of putting one’s negative beliefs on trial, take an empathic approach towards your emotional pain and assume that it contains some degree of truth. Notice I didn’t say that your emotional pain is ‘telling’ you the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Rather, I am suggesting you adopt the following reasonable attitude towards your pain, namely that few of us are so divorced from reality testing that our pain isn’t ‘telling’ us something worthwhile. Ask yourself in a warm and supportive manner, ‘In what ways is this feeling an appropriate one to feel given the circumstances?’ The beneficial thing about exploring this question is that you will hopefully find some personal truth and interestingly you will tend to be more open to discard the more sensationalistic and pessimistic dimensions of your original views. My speculation for the latter effect is that when we validate some part of our feelings, it is much easier to admit to having ‘overstretched’ in our judgement of a situation or relationship, as we are no longer trapped in the ‘right or wrong’ dichotomy.
- One of the principal reasons why emotional pain might be mistaken for truth is that the person unintentionally subscribes to a worldview founded upon shame. Shame is ordinarily understood to mean a sense of being caught committing some ‘embarrassing’ act. The definition of shame that I wish to comment on here is that feeling of ‘wrongness’ that heralds the loss of a degree of our innocence. Innocence here is taken to mean our original sense that our desires will find satisfaction and fulfilment in the world outside. For example, a young child might implicitly assume that its desire for affection will be reciprocated; however, if it is brought up, as the psychoanalyst Winnicott might euphuistically say, in not a good enough environment, the child might conclude that its need for love and affection was ‘wrong’ and that its pain is a revelation of how things inevitably are. So, one of the best reasons that we must be sceptical about believing our emotional pain wholesale is that we are in danger of making the unfortunate, perhaps even tragic contingencies of our lives into unalterable truths. Indeed, expecting some inevitable and unchanging collision between the needs of our nature and our world may be the most tragic, albeit understandable, aspect of equating truth with emotional pain.
- Given those costs, it is worthwhile to ask why it can often seem so seductive or compelling to hold the view that our emotional pain is our best guide to what is true about ourselves and the world? The most straightforward - yet by no means necessarily comprehensive - answer is that we equate emotional pain with truth when we are in what can be called a ‘protective mode’. In this ‘mode’ we have decided, usually unconsciously, that we will distrust our hopes, our personal strengths and our potentialities as they will betray us into either repeating the original series of disappointments/traumas or being exposed to even more painful eventualities. Credulity to our pain is thus an insurance policy against what seems like an otherwise portentous future.
Examining the painful events in our lives with enough wisdom is a challenging task for all of us on our own, as our emotional distress is an insistent and persuasive arguer for the ‘truths’ it suggests. If you believe that you need some help in this endeavour, one possibility is to consult a trained counsellor. They will aid you in undertaking one of the most tricky tasks in life: drawing accurate and constructive conclusions from our misfortunes.
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