We instinctually try to move away from experiences that are painful and move toward experiences that are pleasurable, but when we try to avoid pain entirely, we often suffer.
Pain can be best thought of as discomfort, whether it is emotional pain or physical pain. Relationship difficulties, physical health issues, and any time when things are generally not going the way we would like them to, are painful.
Suffering, on the other hand, occurs when we psychologically attach to pain. When we psychologically attach to pain, we create negative meanings about what our experiences of pain mean. “I’ll never find another relationship”, “My health issues make me lesser than the person I would be without them”, and “I am a bad person for doing/thinking/feeling X, Y, and Z…” are all forms of suffering.
Many of us suffer from pain, not because we want to, but because the brain is actually designed to make meaning out of our experiences…especially the painful ones. Clearly, the brain is not always working in our best interest. In extreme measures, suffering can lead to depression, negative self-image, substance abuse, and even suicide. Thanks, brain.
Pain is simply a fact of life. There has never been a human life without discomfort. I’m sure you’ve had your fair share already. And I hate to break the news, but there is plenty more pain to come. We will all face unfavorable circumstances in life that challenge us. We will face financial setbacks, lose loved ones, and one day we will die. But there’s good news… well, sort of…
THE PARADOX OF PAIN
There is no getting around pain, but there is the ability to move through pain. Moving through pain is necessary to reducing suffering. When it comes to suffering, moving through pain rather than trying to get around it, is the difference that can make the difference.
There’s an old saying that “you’ve got to feel it to heal it.” Sometimes, I think children are more talented at this than adults are.
Have you ever watched the way a child is having fun, suddenly gets upset for not getting their way, cries for a minute, then stops and resumes having fun? This is because some children feel their feelings fully, and so are better able to move on. However, the older that child gets, and the more that their brain develops the capacity to use logic and reason, the more meaning they are able to attach to their pain and the slower they are to move on from it. This is why as adults, life is a never-ending recovery.
The paradox of pain is that we have to move through the pain to heal it. If we try to get around pain, if we try to avoid the feeling of discomfort that is natural to the human experience, what we will actually create is unnecessary suffering, and then we will really have something that we want to avoid.
Many people enter psychotherapy because they are suffering. One of the reasons why some people say psychotherapy makes them feel worse sometimes, I believe, is because they are starting to enter into the pain that they weren’t able to move through before.
Feeling your feelings in psychotherapy (and in general) is one of the most useful things you can do to reduce unnecessary suffering long-term. When people expect therapists to get rid of their suffering, or when therapists prematurely offer clients solutions, suffering may be inadvertently prolonged because people never get to experience what it means to sit with pain and live through it.
The truth about change is often quite different than what people believe it is. You’ve got to feel the pain in order to heal it!
Here are some practical ideas for how you can move through pain and reduce unnecessary suffering.
HOW TO MOVE THROUGH PAIN INSTEAD OF AROUND IT
- Give yourself permission to feel your feelings. In cultures where pleasurable feelings are labeled as ‘good’ and unpleasant experiences are labeled as ‘bad’, we can be especially hard on ourselves just for having an unpleasant feeling. Imagine that – we feel bad about ourselves for being human. When you feel pain, acknowledge that you are having a painful experience, that it is going to last however long it needs to, and that it’s okay. Practicing this piece alone can markedly reduce unnecessary long-term suffering.
- Become aware of your feelings. Ask yourself, “what am I feeling?” You may only notice one feeling at first if you’re new to observing your emotions. The more you practice observing your emotions, the more you will notice yourself having feelings about the way you feel. For example, you might notice that you feel angry, and that you react to your own experience of anger with shame. You feel that anger is a ‘bad’ feeling you shouldn’t have. Often, the way we feel about our feelings is conditioned by family experiences from childhood.
- Observe your feelings without judgment. Simply practice the art of noticing your emotions without attaching meaning to them. Know that you will inevitably attach meaning to your emotions, because you’re human, and that’s okay. Just keep observing your internal state and your inner-talk. Get curious about it. Observe it as if you were observing a film where the actor is shown having a silent internal monologue.
- Experience the beauty in pain. I’m not talking about some Fifthy Shades of Grey thing here. The more you practice living through human pain, the more you may be able to locate some modicum of beauty in your experience of pain. This is a rather abstract concept, and we all struggle to get to this point because of how strong we have been conditioned to take “the easy” way. But in truth, the “easy way” is actually the hard way. Through practicing awareness of pain without attaching meaning to it, you may suffer less, and you may actually accept that pain is a necessary human experience. Experience can be your greatest teacher if you are willing to train as its student.
- Trust that pain will make you a better person. Some say that everything can appear 20/20 in hindsight. Often, the greatest lessons of our life don’t come during the moments that we want them to. It is typically only after the fog clears that the lessons we’re meant to learn appear. How differently did you feel about your last relationship one year after it ended versus one month after it ended? Three months after it ended? As long as you continue to trust that moving through pain (and not around it) will make you a better person, the more likely you are to eventually learn those lessons, and the less likely you are to suffer extensively.
THE ONLY WAY OUT
We’re always looking for the easy way out. Really, we just don’t want to go inside. We experience pain because we’re human, and our brains try to make meaning out of pain because that’s what a brain does. Unfortunately, our brains often work against us in ways that lead to unnecessary suffering. Culture hasn’t helped much either.
The paradox of pain is that we’ve got to feel it to heal it. What we try to resist will only persist. We must become aware of our emotional experiences and trust that it’s all a necessary human experience.
Once we accept the paradox of pain, then we might just stop looking for an easy way out, and instead we will see that the only way out is in.