If you view life as a classroom in which you have certain life lessons to learn, you might agree with me that some lessons are significantly harder to learn than others. Sometimes it feels as if we have been handed a big old pile of turds – and if we don’t have the ability to transform that waste material into something useful, we remain stuck with a rather crappy load (and outlook) on life.

Most people (in fact, I’d like to say everyone, but the journalist in me refuses to allow absolute generalizations without substantiation, so I’ll stick to saying “most people”) have some painful issue that has been festering in their hearts and minds for years. It could be a childhood trauma – and most of our life lessons do originate in childhood – or it could be something that only happened to us much later in life, but somehow, somewhere, we all sustain emotional injuries that, if left untreated, could scar or even cripple us for life.

Very often, the people that hurt us had absolutely no intention of causing us harm. These people, who actually are our teachers in this school of life, do the best they can with what they have and know. In many cases, our first teachers are our parents. As I and most other parents have had to learn the hard way, there is no textbook to prepare you for parenthood. We all just seem to make it up as we go along and we often, subconsciously or unwittingly, repeat the patterns we had been raised with – unless we are aware of the pattern and have the emotional wherewithal to change it.

No parent would harm their child on purpose, unless there is something seriously wrong, but for many people the hurts caused by their parents’ words, actions or choices continue long after they’ve grown up and left their childhood homes. I once voiced my belief that all parents mess their children up in one way or another to a woman who claims to have had an absolute idyllic childhood, with no conflict whatsoever. She was horrified by my opinion that parents should make peace with the fact that they are, in one way or another, causing their children some emotional discomfort or distress.

I was quite taken aback by her vociferous insistence that, as a life coach, I am behaving unethically if I tell parents – and especially women – to cut themselves some slack as most of us harm our children (unintentionally, of course) in some way or another. As a coach, it is my job to help people examine their beliefs and to help them reformulate or change beliefs which no longer serve them – so of course this incident made me take a very critical look at this belief and gave me the opportunity to refine it.

The way I see it, if you want a plant to survive, you have to give it enough water and sunlight – but in order to grow and thrive, it needs food. For me, the emotional bumps and bruises caused by our parents’ particular way of raising us serves as manure, which can help us to grow – if we allow it. You don’t have to accept or embrace the way you were treated as a child – but you don’t have to suffer as a result of it either. The Japanese writer Haruki Murakami said: “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.”

I’m not a particularly adept gardener – but my brother is a soil revitalisation expert and he tells me the best way to use manure is to first compost it. I’m speaking under serious correction here, but if I understand the process correctly, bacteria and microorganisms break down the manure, causing a heat reaction. If you want the raw material to be turned into compost sooner, you have to turn it, to give it oxygen.

If we equate this process of turning waste material into usable plant food with emotional transformation, the heating up of the compost heap can be likened to those times when – as adults – we think back about those incidents in which we were hurt (whether it was by our parents, a teacher, a school ground bully or whoever). This process of thinking back gives us the opportunity to “turn” the rotting material by adding air (in some esoteric traditions, the element Air represents our intellect, our ability to think, so by thinking about the incident, we are already helping along the process of breaking it down).

Airing our emotional manure also helps us find the lessons we can learn from it – if we are open to this process and are looking for the lessons. Speaking to a psychologist, life coach or even a compassionate friend might make the “composting process” a little easier – but in the end, it’s up to you whether you end up with emotional compost or manure.

I’m not pretending for one moment that this is an easy process – and it most certainly is not a once off event either. In fact, I often describe dealing with emotional baggage as similar to peeling an onion. Once you’ve dealt with a particular issue (or person), another layer or aspect of the same matter crops up when you least expect it. Then you deal with that aspect and think the matter has been settled – merely to find that you’ve only uncovered another layer of the same issue.

As with peeling a real onion, this peeling away of layers of emotional pain is very often accompanied by tears. Allow them – as Dr Judith Orloff explains in this article in Psychology Today, crying helps us in more ways than we can ever imagine the health benefits of tears