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    Coping with Painful Experiences

    By Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD

    woman on pier

    Benjamin Franklin famously stated, “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” While this wry humor almost never fails to make me smile (or at least smirk), I see everyday how it is inaccurate in at least one way. Pain is also certain. However, the way this touches people’s lives is up to them.

    People suffer for innumerable reasons. For instance, they endure watching a loved one die from the ravages of cancer; they are seriously injured in a car accident; or they are engulfed by unbearable and inexplicable depression. When people are in the thick of it, such suffering can seem intolerable. However, it can also have its benefits. Recent research (Seery, 2011) has shown that people are more resilient when they have a history of some (but not too much) adversity.

    The first step in coping with adversity is often learning to accept pain– to stop fighting its existence. This can be an extremely scary step, leaving people to feel that they might get so lost in their pain that they will be in agony for the rest of their lives. Nonetheless, the pain is there. Denying it will not make it go away. So, the best alternative is to stop fighting against it and accept its existence. Though this takes courage, it frees you from your struggle within yourself. You can then learn to cope by looking beyond your pain to your connection with others and to a greater meaning.

    By considering the experiences of others, you can see that you are not alone. Many people suffer in ways similar to you. You can come to see this simply by thinking about others, or by actually reaching out to people who have experienced similar struggles. While this does not exactly reduce your pain, it can help you to feel less flawed as a person or less like you were singled out for a difficult life. You can see that your difficulties are a part of being human, which can be comforting, or at least validating.

    You can also find meaning in your struggles. Some people believe that their difficulties were ‘meant to be.’ Others just accept their circumstances have happened and look for a way to find meaning in them. In both cases, seeing their pain as part of a bigger picture helps them to find some peace within themselves.

    The book Emotional First Aid: Practical Strategies for Treating Failure, Rejection, Guilt, and Other Everyday Psychological Injuries (which provides direct and helpful advice for many different life struggles) offers a helpful exercise in doing this. The author, psychologist Guy Winch, suggests imagining that in ten years from now you “achieve something meaningful and significant” to you, that relates in some way to your current struggle. Then he suggests reflecting back on your journey to that moment. As a way to guide your thinking, he directs you to take some quiet and uninterrupted time to complete the following sentences:

    • I never imagined back then that such tragic events would lead me to:
    • What I did was significant and very meaningful to me because:
    • The first step of my journey toward the achievement was when I:
    • My achievement was possible because I changed my priorities such that:
    • Changing my priorities led me to make the following changes in my life:
    • Along the way I realized my purpose in life is:

    Painful life experiences are just that – painful. However, by connecting with a larger community and finding personal meaning, you can help yourself through them and to a sense of emotional well-being.


    The Art of Relationships blog posts are for general educational purposes only. They may or may not be relevant for your particular situation; and they should not be relied upon as a substitute for individual professional advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you need help for an emotional or behavioral problem, please seek the assistance of a psychologist or other qualified mental health professional.


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