20 not so obvious indicators of emotional pain and psychological suffering

17 minutes reading time

Physical pain is how the body alerts you that something is wrong with you on the physical level and requires your immediate attention.

No matter how small the injury is, you tend to care for it properly as soon as possible; otherwise the pain or the inconvenience usually get only stronger and stronger. In cases of any more serious injuries or health issues, you immediately rush to a doctor, specialist or the ER.

The story is quite different when it comes to emotional pain, psychological issues and mental wellbeing. In cases of severe personality disorders or mental health problems (depression, anxiety, bipolar, schizophrenia etc.), there’s no other way but to get professional help as soon as possible.

The same as it is with severe body injuries.

On the other hand, many “soft indicators” of emotional pain and psychological issues get ignored. It’s like having a papercut that never gets healed. It’s not life-threatening, but it for sure is annoying.

To be fair, people in such situations most often do try different self-help approaches (meditation, transformational vocabulary etc.), but they never get really serious about developing strong feelings of trust, personal power, proactivity, identity and self-worth, and finally heal that paper cut.

In a way, it’s very understandable why. Getting serious about fixing even small emotional distortions requires substantial financial, emotional and time investment. Most often it can be done only with months of consistent work backed by professional help and one chosen type of scientific-based therapy (psychoanalysis, CBT, transactional analysis etc.).

And an even stronger reason for not getting serious about developing extraordinary mental and emotional strength seems to be that people get used to living with high emotional velocity and a negative mind, believing that happiness and a warm, fulfilling life is only for fairytales. But it’s not.

On top of that, emotional suffering is not seen from the outside very well – most people walking around seem okay. Sometimes it isn’t even seen on the inside, because the real reason for suffering can reside unnoticed on the unconscious level.

Many people are not even aware that they are emotionally suffering.

But the cost of any lasting emotional pain is enormous. Relationships suffer, life can’t be fully enjoyed, you rarely believe in yourself enough to follow your own dreams, even small irritations lead to emotional overreactions.

Happiness with a smile on your face becomes something alien to you. It’s definitely worth to tackle even the smallest emotional issue and solve it once and for all.

You only have one life and maximizing its quality is the wisest decision you can make. And the only way to get to a real quality life and personal happiness is to develop strong emotional foundations and a firm positive mind. But first we have to take a step back.

First, you must become aware that there are some tight emotional knots smothering you. Thus, I prepared a list of soft indicators that often can be (but not always are) signs of emotional suffering and lighter types of psychological issues. They are worth tackling if you wish to maximize the emotional quality of life.

Soft indicators are things that we all experience at some point in life. They are not solid proof of anything, only something that is worth exploring further; especially if they’re consistently present in your life or they somehow escalate to an extreme.

In such cases, it’s definitely worth exploring what’s hidden behind – on your own with self-reflection and other similar exercises or with professional help.

Indicators of emotional pain

Below is the list of twenty soft indicators of a turbulent personality, emotional suffering or small psychological issues which point to a high probability that you can strengthen your mind and emotional stability for a better quality of life:

  1. Being drawn to the deceiving world of spirituality
  2. Superstitious beliefs
  3. Excessive altruism
  4. Gluttony, dieting extremes and pushing your body to the limits
  5. All types of greed
  6. Easy to anger and frequent mood swings
  7. Terrible nightmares
  8. Strong protection of intimate space and lack of physical touch
  9. Isolation
  10. Always being late
  11. Perfectionism
  12. Micro-management
  13. Constantly rushing and worrying
  14. Listening to “broken heart” music
  15. Bitching, whining and complaining
  16. Too rigid morals or a broken moral compass
  17. Forming abusive relationships
  18. Not wanting kids
  19. Physical pain
  20. Excessive fantasizing

Again, these can be, but not always are signs of emotional suffering.

1. Being drawn to the deceiving world of spirituality

The spiritual dimension of existence is as important as the physical, emotional and intellectual one. A healthy human spirit is expressed in an unshakeable trust in yourself and life, in seeing life as a gift, having the wisdom to deal with negative aspects of life, developing basic goodness and a loving nature, and a firm decision to leave a positive legacy behind for your descendants.

Spirituality can also include healthy religious beliefs without any fanaticism, having a connection with nature, and dealing with philosophical questions of existence at some point in life.

But people who are emotionally hurting can be drawn to spirituality for other, less sensible reasons. It can feel so good to be part of a larger whole, a larger plan.

If you felt alienated from your family and home, spirituality might seem like a shelter where you belong to something bigger than life; you might finally feel like there’s a greater plan for you. Spirituality can give you a poor consolation that you have a home.

Consequently, instead of developing inner strength and trust in yourself, you start seeking explanations for human pain, the will to live and hope for fortune in doubtful spiritual guidance like tarot, astrology, numerology and other types of fortunetelling. Any fanatic religion might give the same false comfort.

You give your personal power and proactive approach away to an external force, hoping to hear favorable outcomes for yourself. The less you trust in yourself, the more you need such external crutches.

As mentioned in the beginning, a spiritual dimension of life is important. And there might be a greater plan for you and all of us. Having such faith in life is important and far from problematic.

The problem occurs when you start using spirituality to compensate for inner insecurities, hoping that some greater force will take care of every problem in your life. The problem occurs when you start to only daydream and lose yourself in spiritual dimensions, instead of acting and improving yourself.

Spirituality can also quickly become a poor consolation for suffering. Suffering is the pain of you wanting the world to be different than it is. Part of being an emotionally healthy person is finding a way to accept reality as it is and deal with the problems life serves you.

Every human being also has the opportunity to co-create a fairer reality for generations to come. But running away from reality in spiritual dimensions can lead only to more pain.

2. Superstitious beliefs

Superstitious beliefs take second place right after spirituality. Believing that number 13, breaking a mirror or walking under a ladder will bring you bad luck, or that finding a horseshoe will bring you good luck has no connection with reality.

There’s not even any scientific study that would support a significant extraordinary effect of the moon on human behavior.

If your mind gets obsessed with waiting for what kind of bad luck will hit you after a black cat crosses the road, that definitely indicates emotional lability and a mind that isn’t strong enough. Bad things do happen, but not because of the number 13, horseshoes or black cats.

Sometimes they happen because of your own stupid decisions and sometimes just because of how life is designed – we all get lucky or unlucky sometimes.

The majority of generations in human history faced some kind of a hardship like wars, famine, natural disasters, and so on. And there is no human alive who would live decades without problems, obstacles and personal struggles.

In the past few centuries, we have made life much more comfortable, but struggle is still a part of life. Without bad things, there would also be no good to experience. It’s how life is designed. You can’t have more fortune or misfortune by following some superficial beliefs.

The best thing you can do is to develop inner strength and unshakable trust in yourself that you’ll face anything life serves you, no matter what it is. By adopting that positive outlook and expecting good things, you can focus your mind on the positive, which absolutely leads to a better quality of life.

3. Excessive altruism

A similar sign of emotional pain to questionable aspects of spirituality and religion is excessive altruism. Being a good person, helping others in need, and contributing to a better world is definitely the right thing to do.

But there’s a thin line between altruism and fawning.

An unhealthy form of altruism is when you completely forget about your own needs, and only serve other people or humanity in general, until you run out of (almost all) your resources, most of all your energy and life vitality.

You never say no, you give yourself away at every opportunity and never put yourself first, no matter how much you neglect yourself.

  • The most probable psychological reason for doing that is usually the hope that other people will take care of you, if you take care of them. You give to others what you deep down crave to receive – love attention, affection and help. You hope that by being good, good things will happen to you.
  • It can also be that you are used to neglecting yourself, like your caretakers neglected you when you were a child. Thus, putting yourself first is unfamiliar to you, something strange and hard to practice.

Mr. Nice Guy who has terrible love life, is a great example of excessive altruism.

I’m not saying you must be a selfish narcissist, but excessive altruism usually leads to a lose-lose situation. You go (emotionally, energetically, financially etc.) bankrupt, and instead of teaching people how to fish, you give them fish until you run out of resources.

People might even become too dependent on you. The simple rule when it comes to altruism is that you must first have in abundance the thing you give away, be it money, love, time or any other resource. Then you must set limits.

That means you must first take good care of yourself and only then can you take care of others; or you must find a win-win situation, where you don’t forget about yourself and simultaneously help others.

It might surprise you, but Mother Theresa was not a poor woman like she is pictured. Her order fundraised millions of dollars and their bank accounts were full of money. It’s a great example of how you must first have something before you give it away. That includes love and emotional stability.

4. Gluttony, dieting extremes and pushing your body to the limits

A very common way to cope with emotional pain are dieting extremes. Gluttony, emotional eating and following any extreme diet with the hope of finding redemption in food are most often an expression of inner suffering. There can be many subconscious reasons for that.

Food can make you feel safe. It can give you a sense of emotional fulfillment. That’s why emotional eating is so common. Diet (besides sport) is one of the easiest ways to push yourself into extremes.

The reason for hurting yourself with such behavior is simple – extremes are familiar to you because you were raised in an extreme environment. You might also look for pain release in food and dieting, or look for ways to resist “authority” or social pressure.

Extreme vegetarianism or veganism and judging others for eating meat can be a similar sign. Fighting for animal rights as a vegetarian or vegan to save animals from suffering is a good way to show others that you want less pain in the world and that you experienced a hell of a lot of it already.

Don’t get me wrong. A healthy diet is extremely important. Some people simply don’t like the taste of meat. And even more importantly, we must find ways to be more humane to the animal world. All these things are part of a wise and exemplary way of living.

But they must not escalate to any extreme or to the point where you do more damage than good to yourself and others.

Besides extreme diets, doing sports is another very frequent way of pushing your body to the limits. Of course, exercising is a must, and sometimes you have to test your limits. But there are limits to testing limits.

Constantly pushing yourself in sports because of inner emotional tension leads to injuries, burnouts and sickness sooner or later. Nevertheless, sports, art, creating and humor are some of the best mature mechanisms of expressing pain and sublimating it.

Physical pain can also be a type of distraction from emotional pain.

5. All types of greed

Greed is the most frequent way of coping with emotional pain of unsatisfied needs. The most obvious one is greed for money, but there are many other types.

Intellectual greed. Emotional greed or neediness. Sexual greed or lechery. Greed for status or pride. Greed is absolutely not something good, no matter what Gordon Gekko says.

Any type of greed is always a poor surrogate for love. It’s a sign of a low capacity for it. Deep down, all the upbringing negligence and emotional pain accumulated, desperately seeking other forms of safety, admiration, respect and attention.

The biggest problem with greed is that since it is only a poor surrogate for love, your thirst can never be quenched. There is never enough of the thing your emotions are after.

Thus, you want more and more of it, be it money, knowledge, status or sexual partners, but ironically it never fulfills you like you hope it will. Again, every human being has the right to material possession, property and decent financial status.

Every one of us has sexual desires, the need for respect and accomplishments, and being educated is the cornerstone of a prosperous life. But there is a healthy limit, when fulfilling needs turns into a counterproductive obsession.

6. Easy to anger and frequent mood swings

Anger is a normal reaction when one is being mistreated. If you were mistreated as a child, with verbal or any other kind of abuse, the anger probably accumulated over the years and can easily be triggered by the smallest disagreements or obstacles in everyday life.

Everything that doesn’t go according to your expectations triggers an emotional flashback. All the mistreatment from the past explodes in the present moment. And then road rage, emotional bursts and overreactions happen.

Besides anger, there are other overwhelming emotions that can easily cripple you the same as anger, but triggered by small normal everyday irritations. Shame, doubt, fear, guilt, envy, sadness and so on.

That’s usually seen in frequent daily mood swings. In one moment, you feel normal or even excited, and in the next moment you’re taken over by some type of a negative emotion. And then you go back to normal and soon again back to the negative.

7. Terrible nightmares

A big portion of pain and suffering immediately gets suppressed, before you even sense it. That is especially true for small daily irritations you aren’t attentive to or big painful events too hurtful for you to even admit they affected you. A

n example of a small irritation would be someone constantly looking at their phone when spending time with you while you expected their full attention. And an example of a big irritation would be moving to a new home, where you’re excited but also afraid of change, unwilling to admit it.

You might suppress the pain in order to protect yourself and go through the day more easily, but the pain is still there in the subconscious mind. One way how your subconscious mind tries to communicate with you, either pains or pleasures, are dreams.

Painful dreams most often point to some type of suffering in real life. Thus, every time I have bad dreams, I immediately take a piece of paper when I wake up and do self-reflection.

I try to find the connection between the dream’s story and what’s happening in my life. Most often I can quickly find the connection and identify the pain.

8. Strong protection of intimate space and lack of physical touch

We know three human interaction zones. The closest zone is intimate space (approximately 0.5 meters or 1.5ft from you), then we have social space (1.5 meters or 5ft from you) and finally public space (approximately 7.5 meters or 25ft from you).

If you are extremely protective of your intimate space, don’t like to be touched by other people that aren’t really close to you and always try to keep as much distance as possible, you might be in emotional pain and have huge cravings for closeness and love.

This can be seen in numerous different ways:

  • You never hug with your family or friends
  • You hate massages, physical therapy and similar
  • You twitch when somebody touches you unexpectedly
  • You overreact when you see kissing two people in public etc.

Usually that’s a sign of a low capacity for love. Deep down you have a great desire for gentleness, cuddling and physical attention. But that’s too painful to admit, and consequently you create these rigid rules and a moral standing to keep people as distant as possible.

9. Isolation

We are all social beings. Love, belonging, and strong personal and professional connections are part of wellbeing and every quality life. While temporary isolation is definitely beneficial from time to time (for reflection, focused creation and self-improvement), longer periods of isolation always lead to sadness, loneliness or even depression.

Isolation is a form of running away from potential emotional pain, because it’s easy to be the boss, the one and only when you’re at home, especially if alone. There’s nobody who can hurt you, tell you what to do or be better at something than you are.

No people, no interrelationship dynamics, no benchmarks, no potential hurtful words or actions. It’s the perfect world. But not really.

Human needs are best fulfilled in interaction with others. Thus, you must be strong enough to go out into the world and interact with people as much as possible. And being quiet, reserved and unsociable indicates some kind of emotional suffering.

10. Always being late or being unreliable

We all know some people that are always late. Well, I’m one of them or at least I used to be. One possible subconscious reason for being late is not in messiness and being unorganized, but in silently showing people that you’re not too dependent on their love or affection.

You’re creating distance by showing independence in an ill way – by being late or through any other type of unreliability.

It’s a very toxic way of showing autonomy and independence, and it indicates a huge mistrust in people and yourself. It’s not that you don’t respect others or don’t like to have them as friends, it’s more a silent expression of a power struggle because you’re afraid to let people get too close to you because then they might hurt you.

But in the end, you achieve exactly what you don’t want to: superficial relationships and people abandoning you.

11. Perfectionism

Perfectionism is one of cognitive distortions that runs on the false belief that if you’re perfect, people will finally love you and show you some affection. You assume you only deserve love when you’re perfect.

Consequently, your self-worth greatly depends on your current accomplishments. When you get some praise for good work done you feel good about yourself, when you get zero praise (for work that was maybe also done well) you feel like a piece of shit.

Not only does your self-worth fluctuate on opinions of others, soon many additional issues arise from perfectionism. Being afraid to try new things that you haven’t mastered, overdoing things, worrying how people will react to your work done, and buying love from others by trying to be perfect.

The irony is that people would probably love you much more if you just tried to be yourself, not fight to seem so perfect, and sometimes go for good enough.

12. Micro-management at work or home

Micro-management at home or at work is an indicator of mistrust in people. You know the mindset that the work probably won’t be done properly if it’s not at least supervised by your watchful eye.

Consequently, you’re always telling people at home how thing should be done better, you nag and complain and want everything to be done your way. This shows zero tolerance and flexibility.

When you have trust issues, you many times have a problem delegating work, and even when you do, you want to double-check everything. You are not loving or empowering people, you are controlling them.

In any case, you’re letting people know that they’re incapable in your view, that you don’t trust them, and that you’re somehow superior to them. Nobody feels good in such a relationship.

13. Constantly rushing and worrying

Business, workaholism, rushing, impulsiveness and worry are signs of inner tensions and running away from pain. These behavioral patterns are usually run by mistrust in yourself, others and life, low feelings of self-worth and fear of failure, expecting only bad things to happen and similar.

An emotionally strong person is always calm, moves slowly, controls the situation and has a positive influence on their surroundings. They keep a straight posture, breathe deeply and focus on finding a solution no matter the situation they found themselves in.

On the other hand, people who panic and start worrying get hurt first, just like you see in the movies.

If you can’t calm down, if you’re constantly worrying about something, jumping to negative conclusions and only wait for something to hit you behind the corner, it absolutely shows an excess of inner tension and emotional lability.

14. Listening to the “broken heart” music

One potential sign of emotional pain, is being drawn to melancholic or any other type of heavy or emotionally strong music. When you have a broken heart, all the lyrics starts to make sense.

And music often resonates with our internal emotional states in general. Thus, why you like a certain type of music is worth analyzing.

  • Music is used as a way to balance your emotions and it biologically works. So when you’re sad, you can use sad music to embrace the sadness and thus get rid of it.
  • People who enjoy different types of music show different types of personality characteristics (this is especially a popular research field for music psychologists).

I’m not saying that if you listen to Britney Spears you’re a special shiny snowflake, and if you listen to Metallica your soul is doomed. I’m talking about more subtle indicators.

In what kind of lyrics do you find yourself and your life narrative? Do you often get lost in melancholic music and a certain kind of sadness? Does music help you express rage or any other type of severe negative feelings? Does it feel like you always have a broken heart?

Sad music can be a form of addiction that feeds negative emotions, no matter the music genre. Losing yourself in melancholic music from time to time when life gets tough is very normal, but if you’re drawn to sad lyrics and melodies over and over again, it’s probably worth exploring why that is so.

15. Bitching, whining and complaining

Constantly bitching, whining and complaining is a loud call for help and an expression of a deep desire for emotional comfort. It’s a form of “forcing” other people to show you sympathy, empathy, understanding and love.

But it’s a very unhealthy way of expressing your needs. Being a martyr is absolutely a sign of emotional pain.

Constant complaining sooner or later turns you into an emotional vampire that nobody likes to spend time with. People start to avoid you, and that leads to even more bitching, whining, complaining and on top of that gossiping about how terrible others are.

A pessimistic outlook is hardly part of an emotionally stable personality. We can add cynicism, skepticism and suspicion to the list.

Many times, a form of toxic complaining is wishful fantasizing about the good old times. Debating over how people used to have better lives (without technology, simple times etc.), or how people in the West/East are more materialistic or spiritual and how their lives are a lot different in a positive way has nothing to do with reality.

You’re fantasizing away your current pain.

Every environment absolutely has a great influence on the quality of one’s life, but you have the power to change your environment at least to a certain extent. And an indication of emotional stability and a strong mind is improving your environment as much as possible.

Only daydreaming about better times, on the other hand, most often indicates a lack of personal power, will or drive.

16. Too rigid morals or a broken moral compass

When it comes to your moral standing, there are two extremes that can indicate emotional pain. The first extreme is possessing unbearable moral standards.

With a too strong superego comes false guilt, and false guilt is always looking for people to please and rules to keep. With too rigid morals you make yourself completely inflexible, many of your needs are unmet and life can be pretty boring because you’re putting heavy chains and restrictions onto yourself.

The other extreme is having no morals. Money over everything. Cheating. Impulsive buying and similar. In the second case, the superego is too weak compared to the id.

Both extremes indicate some kind of an inner struggle and emotional pain. It’s a sign you’re out of balance.

A person with too strong or too loose morals always has a hard time creating healthy bonds and attachments with other people. Without healthy bonds, the needs for love, affection and belonging don’t get fulfilled and that leads to suffering.

Developing a healthy balance between id (primal needs), superego (morals), ego and reality is thus mandatory for a happy, assertive and fulfilling life.

17. Forming abusive relationships

There are many forms of abusive relationships. But all abusive relationships have something in common – one person is the abuser and the other one is being abused; and they both have to play their role in the relationship to keep the abuse alive (there are exceptions, as always).

No matter which side of an abusive relationship you are on, you are emotionally suffering; outside the scope of the relationship as well.

Thus, people with internal struggles and emotional pain usually have a tendency to form the same toxic patterns in relationships over and over again. And that gives them an opportunity to live something familiar and express all the pain in a bad way.

  • Dominant types are drawn to jealousy, controlling behavior, verbal and physical abuse, extreme competitiveness, manipulation and always wanting to be in the center of attention.
  • The submissive type often resorts to passive-aggressiveness, shyness, stubbornness, indirect criticism, piggybacking, laziness and moralization.

And both types are usually very sensitive, where every triviality leads to an emotional overreaction. Not a nice life to live.

18. Not wanting kids

In some rare cases, not having kids can be a rational decision, maybe because of financial, health or any similar reasons. But the reason for not wanting kids can also be because of huge emotional pain. A child can be a reminder of how tough your childhood was.

Consequently, it’s natural to feel resistance to have a daily reminder of how painful your upbringing was for years to come.

Similarly, you might be asserting that you don’t want to bring a new human being into this cruel world; even though you live in fairly good life conditions and circumstances.

In such a case, you usually see reality much darker than it is, through the negative lenses of your negative mind. You’re suffering and you don’t want any new person to suffer like you have.

There are two more indicators we can add to the list:

19. Physical pain as a distraction from psychological pain (stomach ache, pinched nerves etc.)

20. Excessive fantasizing – excessive fantasizing is usually a reaction to your insecurities, a way to distract yourself from burdens of reality. But your job is to accept reality as it is.

Now you know the most frequent soft indicators of psychological and emotional suffering. We all experience most of these things from time to time and that’s completely normal.

But if any of the indicators have a consistent presence in your life or if they escalate to irrational dimensions, it’s absolutely worth it to explore what is happening in you, start exploring your subconscious mind and maybe even find professional help if things get too heavy.

Luckily, I found more than 13 soft indicators. :)

About the author

Consulting and management coaching

Blaž Kos has managed venture capital investments over the past 12 years and participated in the development of the start-up ecosystem in the region. Today, he advises companies on growth strategies, process optimization, the introduction of lean agile methods and the digitalization of business. In addition to the Slovenian blog, he also writes an English blog, which was selected among the 50 best bloggers in the world in the category of personal and business growth.
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