I’m not sure this is even a real phrase or concept, but I think it accurately describes what is a useful feeling that is often ignored. I know – it sounds like Sylvia Brown or tarot-card reader with indigestion or bunions. And I want to differentiate psychic discomfort from psychic pain, which is non-physical pain that is associated with mental suffering. Mental illness such as depression can cause psychic pain.
I’m not talking about mental illness. I’m talking about when we experience discomfort, a nagging feeling in the back of our minds or the pit of our stomach that something is amiss. This feeling comes up when we find ourselves laughing at a cruel joke or a funny prank that could result in a serious injury or loss, when we catch ourselves after the fact saying something unkind, when we cut someone off on the freeway, when we play finders-keepers without trying to find the rightful owner, when we remain silent when we are undercharged at a restaurant, when we don’t tip a waitress because service wasn’t perfect. The list goes on and on, but I’ll bet you can look back on the last few weeks and discover a time or two where you felt this discomfort.
Pain is a good thing. It is an adaptive tool that has evolved to make humans change their behavior. Physical pain, such as burns, means that next time we avoid getting too close to the fire. Psychic pain serves the same function. Fear, for example, can help us avoid dangerous situations. Anxiety can help us choose safe behaviors such as driving defensively or avoiding unnecessary risk.
Though laughing at a cruel joke is not on par with the possibility of wrecking the car and everyone in it, the discomfort we feel is still a warning sign. We have a choice when we have these feelings: recognize and respect our psychic discomfort (and perhaps say, “this is cruel, not funny”), ignore the discomfort (keep laughing, tell another cruel joke, and repress the accompanying feelings of discomfort), or to rationalize that the joke is harmless, maybe actually a good thing (“it’s a harmless joke”), or even attack someone who disagrees with us (“well if you think this joke is cruel then maybe you should get a sense of humor”). The brunt of the attack may actually fall on ourselves if we over react to our poor judgement (“I’m such a worthless, good for nothing, human being.”)
I have written several times in the past on this blog* about how we should be careful to not criticize others because that criticism (or those feelings we are accusing others of having) is usually regarding characteristics we hate about ourselves (or feelings that we are having). This very natural, but unhelpful, behavior is called projection. When we project our feelings or self-judgment onto someone else, a part of us realizes that we are creating an injustice that we sense through psychic discomfort.
I’m not saying that others are never misbehaving, having hostile or negative feelings, or are always doing the right thing and that we have no right to have concerns about their behavior. I am saying that we, more often than not, have a role that may be invisible to ourselves in the situation we’re complaining about. I might blame someone for losing something (which I may or may not have had a role in) and then feel, on some level, that they’re responsible for my feelings of loss of control, anxiety, or anger, rather than taking ownership of my own feelings. I might decide a colleague is getting in my way and is evil, but feel discomfort when I complain about her because I know that I play a 50% role in our dysfunctional relationship. I might feel discomfort because I know I owe someone an apology (or a tip) and yet I remain silent and do nothing.
The trouble with repressing our psychic discomfort is that those unresolved feelings accumulate and escalate. These unresolved feelings could cumulatively result in actual psychic pain, such as depression. We may continue to suffer poor relationships with others because we don’t take responsibility for our feelings and roles in those relationship. We perpetuate and reinforce our feelings of unworthiness, unlovability, and incompetence while hiding behind bravado, arrogance, martyrhood or depression. The more we act against our conscious, the more we confirm to ourselves that we are unworthy and unlovable. So, in the end, we’re only hurting ourselves by not respecting and heeding our better angels.
I’m no Sylvia Brown, but I do know that hiding from our pain and discomfort only creates more pain and discomfort. Like a toothache, the more you ignore it, the worse it gets. We have evolved these adaptive mechanisms to grow and improve. Going against our basic nature of heeding our pain, psychic or otherwise, impedes our natural growth and evolution to become a self-actualized person. The good angel inside us is our guide: treasure her wisdom. Doing the right thing and following our conscious, though it might seem harder in the moment, is easier in the end.