How Our Own Pain Can Reduce Our Concern About The Pain Of Others

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According to psychodynamic theory, if, as young children, we experienced feelings which caused us severe psychological pain, we are likely to have REPRESSED them (buried them in our unconscious) as continuing to experience them would have been intolerable to us. This results in the pain remaining UNPROCESSED and UNRESOLVED.

However, although this process (which is automatically triggered on an unconscious level rather than deliberately willed) means we are no longer directly aware of this psychological pain, there is a very heavy price to pay – namely that the repressed feelings start to wreak psychological havoc with us ‘behind the scenes’, even though we are not aware it is doing so. (We may, many years later, however, gain insight into the mechanics of this process with the help of an effective therapist).

unconscious mind

Above : Most of what goes on in the mind and influences our feelings and behaviour happens beneath the surface (on an unconscious level). Even what we consider to be our ‘conscious choices’ are heavily affected by information held in our unconscious of which we are utterly unaware.

For example, if a mother does not provide her infant with love and affection, the infant’s desperate need for this love and affection will be so intense and unbearable that s/he REPRESSES this need and the feelings associated with having the need unmet. Whilst this process of repression removes the pain of his/her need for love from conscious awareness, the repressed information will, nevertheless, express itself indirectly; for example, the child may start to have intense nightmares. And, as the child continues to get older, s/he is very likely display other symptoms of the repression, such as becoming highly disruptive in the classroom (and, perhaps, as a result, being inappropriately diagnosed with attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD).


In both children and adults, when we are repressing severe psychological pain our feelings in general tend to shut down – they become blunt and we may consequently feel ‘numb’, as if we are’living in a dream world‘ or as if we are ‘zombies‘ and functioning on ‘autopilot’.


Tragically, when our feelings shut down in this way, life becomes essentially meaningless – because of this, the pain of others, too, becomes less of a concern for us and we may find a significant reduction, therefore, in feelings of empathy and sympathy where others are concerned.. We become, in effect, desensitized to both our own pain and that of others.

Also, we are expending so much mental energy on the process of repression (although we are unaware of this) we lack the mental energy to focus on the needs of others. We are overwhelmed and engulfed by our own problems. Indeed, the more we are repressing, the more mental energy we will be expending, and the more shutdown our feelings, for both ourselves and others, are likely to be.

A Possible Psychodynamic Solution :

In order to recover, according to psychodynamic theory, it is necessary, under the guidance of a suitably qualified therapist, to bring the painful, hitherto repressed, information into consciousness and then work through it and process it in such a way that the issue becomes resolved. This is a complex process, and, therefore, the expertise and experience of the therapist is of paramount importance.


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David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).

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About David Hosier MSc

Holder of MSc and post graduate teaching diploma in psychology. Highly experienced in education. Founder of Survivor of severe childhood trauma.

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