When I was eight years old I called a girl a bad name. She told me I was gonna be sorry, and I believed her. For the next three years I lived in dread; even after she moved away.
In grade nine a boy called me a bad name. Instead of being hurt and getting over it, I was devastated. It shaped how I saw myself and affected the decisions I made over the next few years.
These were my early experiences of pain and suffering, but by no means my last.
You Can’t Avoid Pain
Pain is an unavoidable fact of life. Doing something wrong or making a mistake is embarrassing. Being rejected is hurtful. Losing someone you love is painful. As long as we are alive, we will experience painful emotions.
Pain peaks, recedes, then eventually lessens. Evolution has conditioned our brains and bodies to survive pain.
Suffering doesn’t peak and fade away. Suffering lasts just as long as we keep generating the thoughts that creates it.
Pain is unavoidable, suffering is optional.
Primary and Secondary Emotions
Primary emotions are the first emotions we experience when we are hurt, rejected, betrayed, etc.
Secondary emotions are the emotions we feel because of the thoughts we have about being hurt, rejected or betrayed.
The primary emotions cause our pain. The secondary emotions cause our suffering.
Our primary emotions are facts. It’s a fact that rejection hurts. It’s a fact that losing someone we love is painful. It’s a fact when someone betrays us, we lose trust.
Our secondary emotions, the one’s that last the longest and cause the greatest suffering, are not based on fact. They are based on the irrational and unsubstantiated thoughts we tell ourselves.
Your Thoughts are not Facts
It isn’t true that because someone rejects us, we are unlovable. It isn’t true that because we made a mistake, we are worthless. It isn’t true that because someone betrays us, we are undeserving. Yet these are the things we tell ourselves that cause our suffering.
It’s no wonder that often our thoughts cause more pain than the original event that occurred.
Let Go of Suffering
It’s hard to let go of suffering, even if we know we are causing it ourselves. Pain triggers our insecurities and starts an onslaught of negative self-talk.
We can let go of suffering and heal from our pain. Remember, pain ends; suffering can last a life time if we let it.
DBT Skill: Identify Primary Emotions
There are two types of emotions, primary and secondary emotions. The primary emotions are the ones we first feel first when something happens. Secondary emotions are the ones we feel because of our thoughts about our primary emotions.
Examples of primary emotions are hurt, embarrassment, fear, and sadness. For example, if you feel rejected, you might say, “How dare she make me feel like this!” These thoughts cause the secondary emotion of anger. If you think to yourself, “I am unlovable and unworthy,” the secondary emotion might be shame or loneliness.
Primary emotions are part of the human experience. Most people can work through primary emotions without causing harm to themselves or others. The secondary emotions are the one’s that cause much of our distress. Our thoughts are not facts, and when we treat them as if they are, we intensify our emotions and make it more difficult to heal.
Focus on primary emotions and let go of any thoughts not based on fact. This will reduce secondary emotions keeping you calmer, less reactive, and better able to heal from everyday slights and hurts.
Nobody can hurt me without my permission.
~ Mahatma Gandhi
If you have an experience you’d like to share, add a comment at the bottom of the page. I’d love to hear from you.
For more information on this topic, read the related posts and links below. For specific DBT skills go to DBT Skills in the menu bar.