Overall, pain has developed a bad reputation. Even the word itself, for some of us, feels a bit sinister. In this blog, I hope to shift the perspective on this a bit and show that many people’s view on pain is missing the boat.
First, I want to clarify that I, in no way, wish to come across as calloused to pain and its effect. It is very real and it is formidable, whether more physical or emotional in nature. People in pain can feel driven to do things that normally they wouldn’t even consider just to escape it for even a moment. Gabor Maté in his book In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts points to pain as the source of all addictions. “Not why the addiction,” he says, “but why the pain.” (Maté, 2013) Throughout this excellent book on addiction, Maté illustrates how his years of work with addiction have helped him to see that, while addiction and destructive behaviors can present very differently, the deep root of it is always the same. Pain. As a therapist, I can attest to this as well. In my role as a counselor, I have developed the habit of immediately attempting to look past the behavior and look for, instead, the pain driving it.
It’s important to note here that we’re not talking strictly about emotional or physical pain. The reality is that attempting to create some significant distinction here is futile. After all, according to the human brain, there isn’t much of a difference. It’s been known for years that a brain scan will show the same activity when an individual is experiencing physical pain and emotional pain. While some of us struggle to admit just how devastating emotional pain is (a whole topic of its own), I believe most of us would probably choose physical pain if given the choice. Emotional pain hits us at a much deeper, more core level, and it’s a force to be reckoned with. It also generally includes other people, and our connection (or disconnection) to others carries serious power.
Not only are they experienced in similar ways neurologically, it can also be surprisingly difficult for us to tell the difference within our own individual experiences. Just ask someone who has ever experienced a panic attack, “Is it emotional or is it physical?” The answer is it’s both. In our culture, we tend to have this unfortunate habit of wanting to completely separate the mental/emotional and the physical. This is simply an uninformed, perhaps over “Westernized,” perspective. I understand it though. Things would be simpler, maybe even easier in some instances, if we could totally separate the psychological from the biological/physiological. We’re just not given that option. Even psychology 101 students are constantly reminded “Everything that is psychological is biological.” (Myers, 2015) The research in trauma therapy, among other branches in the field, is beginning to focus more and more on the vital connection between the mind and the body. Bring on the yoga!
So we’ve established that pain is real and it’s not all “in your head” or your body. Now I want to invite you to perhaps a newfound appreciation, even, for pain. When I introduce this topic to clients in the counseling office, I usually start with a metaphor. Let’s say we’re chatting in my kitchen and I accidentally lean against the stove and my hand lands on a hot burner. Luckily my slower rational brain goes offline and the automatic fight/flight part of my brain quickly sends a message to move my hand before I even have a chance to think about it consciously. In that moment, of course, I’m cursing the pain in my hand and would wish it away if I could. Let’s then imagine the same thing happens but this time I have some type of nerve disorder where I cannot feel pain. In this instance, it may take us a few seconds or a minute to notice that my hand is on the hot burner. By then my hand has likely been damaged beyond repair. In this moment, I’d most likely be upset for not feeling pain and would wish for it.
The moral of the story? Pain is good for us. Pain is always telling me something. Without it, I think I’d be in some serious trouble. For me personally, I have no idea what would or could stop me from taking on way too much or for trying to do it all alone if it weren’t for pain. Pain in the form of stress or sickness keeps us from trying to be a human doing instead of a human being. Pain in the form of loneliness keeps us from unhealthy isolation. Pain in the form of anxiety illuminates the fears we need to face or deal with. Pain in the form of trauma responses shows us we have memories or experiences we need to process, perhaps with a professional. Pain in our bodies works the same way. This list could go on and on but I hope you’re getting the picture.
As difficult as it may be to admit most days, pain is our friend. It’s consistent, it’s loyal, and it cannot be fooled by any level of mental gymnastics we use in an attempt to get around it. Pain also demands to be felt. Whether we’re dealing with pain by going to therapy or in other ways, we’re going to come out better on the other side of it. When we ignore it or pretend it’s not there, we’re always missing an opportunity for growth. From this perspective, I would confidently argue that pain is a blessing to be grateful for. As a therapist I get a front row seat to how pain can, and often does, serve as a catalyst. Often it is what brings people to seek professional help through therapy and, on a broader scale, how it is often the force driving us down the road toward healing.
“We can ignore even pleasure. But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”
― C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain
Lewis, C. S. (1940). The Problem of Pain. New York, NY: HarperCollins.
Maté, G. (2013). In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction. Mississauga, Ont.: Vintage Canada.
Myers, D. G., & DeWall, C. N. (2015). Psychology (11th ed.). New York: Worth.