Behind Our Emotional Pain is Purpose

At the core of all anxiety disorders is avoidance. We avoid people, places and situations in order to not experience unpleasant thoughts, emotions and sensations. When reflecting upon an upcoming event or situation where we may encounter something that could trigger fear, we often hyper-focus on “what we will have to go through” as opposed to focusing on “what we will get out of this.”

For example, imagine that I suffer from agoraphobia, a condition that is characterized by avoidance of public places or large groups because of fear that I may feel trapped and start to panic. I then get a call from a buddy who invites me to go see the latest horror film with him. Now, imagine I hate horror films. They mean nothing to me and are an hour and a half of pure hell as far as I’m concerned.

Pondering on whether to commit to the movie, I also factor in that those old, familiar feelings of being trapped and helpless could arise while I’m in the theater. I decide not to go, fully aware that the expected emotional and cognitive pain that I will experience is 100% dictating this decision. In other words, I am avoiding, but I am ok with this because horror films do not provide any value to my life.

Now, let’s imagine that my only child is graduating from high school in a post-Covid world. It’s going to be a big graduation and the auditorium will be packed. I know that I will probably feel the same exact thoughts, emotions and sensations as I would have felt in the movie theater. I will feel trapped, panicky and hyper-vigilant.

However, in this scenario, I am not comfortable with the expected emotional and cognitive pain dictating my decision on whether to go. Why is that? Because I am WILLING to experience the whole emotional landscape in service of one of my core values, which is being a supportive Dad and showing up my for child’s big day. I am basically saying, “Bring it on because it’s worth it.” What I will “get out of this” is far more important than “what I will have to go through.”

This is a subtle, but potent point. As a therapist, I sometimes have clients tell me, “I would love to go to ____, but I can’t because it will trigger my anxiety.” I get it; it’s scary, but what they are saying is that they are allowing anxiety to imprison them by limiting their choices in life. And guess what — anxiety is greedy. It will continue to impinge upon your life and gobble up real estate in terms of your “comfortability.” If you allow anxiety to dictate your decisions, especially when it comes to what gives you a sense of purpose, you will slowly start to recognize that you no longer feel comfortable in places where you once did. Your comfort zone will slowly shrink. This is how some people become literally trapped in their bedrooms because they do not feel safe anywhere else.

So the key is not to focus on feeling good, but on being willing to feel it all in the service of values. As Dr. DJ Moran once said in a workshop I attended, “If we wanted to just focus on feeling good, then let’s all get on gurneys and get hooked up to morphine drips!” Obviously, that life would be miserable for us all. If contentment is what we are aiming for, then let’s follow the wisdom that has been handed down since before the times of the ancient Greeks. Let’s live a purposeful life by taking actions that are aligned with our values. And let’s learn tools that will help us deal with the emotional waves (or tsunamis) that arise along the way.

If this resonates, I’d love to help you clarify your values, pursue your passion and learn to surf those emotional waves.

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Or feel free to text or call 804-210-7891. To learn more about my approach to therapy, visit 

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