I Have a Need to Feel Emotional Pain — Why do I Make Myself Cry?

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Reader’s Question

I frequently feel the need to force myself to feel emotional pain by imagining a distressing situation (e.g., imagining a painful breakup, imagining my last words when I die, etc.). I am not normally ‘satisfied’ until I cry uncontrollably to the point where I feel physical chest pains and fall asleep. I usually feel better once I wake up. What’s wrong with me?

Psychologist’s Reply

Various psychological theories could account for the issue you describe. Therapists who assume psychoanalytic or psychodynamic perspectives would theorize that inner, or ‘intrapsychic’ conflicts explain your need to experience emotional pain. According to these psychological perspectives, when we find ourselves engaging in behaviors that are self-destructive or seemingly purposeless, it is because we are disconnected from an emotional memory or emotional state.

In other words, your desire to feel emotional pain could reflect your unconscious attempt to make psychological ‘atonement’ for actions, impulses, or feelings that are difficult to acknowledge or accept into your consciousness. This defense mechanism is termed ‘undoing’; it refers to acting in ways that are opposite to how you feel on a deep, unconscious level. Perhaps part of you feels guilty, for example about wanting to live joyously, so that you actually ‘undo’ this desire for happiness by accessing painful emotional states instead. In other words, you might be unconsciously punishing yourself in order to prevent ‘unacceptable’ feelings of happiness from surfacing.

Therapists using cognitive behavioral or cognitive frameworks would explain your mindset and actions a bit differently. These perspectives contend that the root causes of emotional and behavioral disorders stem from beliefs about ourselves, the world, and the future.

Underlying your behavior, for example, could be a core belief, ‘I am bad and I deserve punishment.’ A cognitive therapist would assist you in identifying, and changing, the belief system contributing to your need for emotional pain. He or she might help you realize the fears that contribute to your self-sabotaging behaviors. If your underlying beliefs cause you to shy away from joy and happiness, for example, the therapist would help you articulate those fears, explore their origins, and then reconstruct the fear-related thoughts and beliefs that keep you stuck.

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A therapist would need to work closely with you to determine the root causes of your need for emotional pain. If you were my client, I would first want to understand what you find pleasurable about accessing painful emotional states. Is it the painful emotional state itself you enjoy or, instead, the psychological release that comes from crying? Do you feel anxious when you access emotionally painful mood states or, conversely, do you feel anxious if you are prevented from accessing these mood states? An experienced therapist would probably take some time upfront assessing you and your situation, to gather a more comprehensive psychological understanding of you. By doing so, he or she would be better able to treat you and the issue you describe.

Please seek guidance from an experienced therapist with whom you feel comfortable. Doing so might help you feel more emotionally connected and ultimately free you of your psychological burdens.

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