Why pain is not your enemy

It’s not difficult to see the that physical pain exists to let us know of our limits, to let us know when something is wrong and needs attention, and ultimately to keep us safe and healthy. To see proof of this, we just need look to the people who do not feel physical pain. Congenital insensitivity to pain and anhydrosis (CIPA) is a rare hereditary disease that causes affected individuals to be immune to pain and unable to sweat (anhydrosis). Children with CIPA are at far greater risk of frequent and serious injuries. And since they aren’t motivated by pain to care for their injuries, they are at greater risk of infections as well. Since they don’t feel temperature changes and cannot sweat, fevers and environmental factors can also put them in grave danger.

Emotional pain is also useful, if we allow it to be. The feelings of loss, of loneliness, sadness, grief, and fear let us know that something is wrong or missing. If we allow ourselves to feel that pain and listen to its message, then we have a chance at doing something about its source and improving our lives and relationships.

Most people are not very good at this. Instead of listening to the pain, we figure out ways to suppress or escape it. We all find our go-to sources of relief: cigarettes, booze, TV, gaming, sex and masturbation, gambling, biting our nails, hoarding. Also exercise, time in nature, music, art, friends, dancing, community, and sports.

None of these things are evil and most are not unhealthy, at least not in moderation. We all find our solace somewhere. But when we find that solace in something that is unhealthy and begin to use it in excess, it becomes a real problem. As we continually suppress and avoid our pain, it only festers, growing more and more intimidating and difficult to face and process. Eventually, this cycle can develop into addiction.

Addicts are the worst of all at accepting and listening to pain and discomfort, instead immediately craving escape and acting on impulse to do so as soon as possible. As our problems get bigger and scarier, we use more. We use so much that now we have new problems and new pain that’s caused by the addictive behavior. Maybe we lose friendships, fail classes, sabotage relationships, damage our physical health, or lose our ambition or our self-respect. As long as we keep turning away from it all, everything just keeps getting worse.

When we recognize what’s happening and start to change our ways, all that pain we’ve been suppressing will come to the surface sooner or later. It will be ugly. We can and we will survive it. We will learn to process these thoughts and feelings in healthier ways. The best thing we can do is to talk it out with other people. Friends, family, clergy, therapist, counselor, coach, support group, 12-step—we have options. If you’re like me, you’re probably reluctant to do this. You don’t want to burden other people with your problems; you just want to handle it yourself. And we shouldn’t expect others to solve your problems. But the people who care about us want to know what’s going on in our lives. They want to be there for us. Let them. You might be surprised by how much better you feel after just talking it out.

As we begin to accept and process our pain, we can start to address our real core needs. Perhaps you realize that you are deeply unsatisfied in your career or relationship, and something must change. Perhaps you have neglected the things in life that you’re passionate about and bring you joy. Perhaps you are feeling disconnected from nature, from your family, or from your own body. Perhaps you have unprocessed grief from the loss of a loved one.

Whatever it is, when we embrace and listen to that pain, we stop fearing it so much. We realize that though it hurts, it’s not deadly, and with the help of others it’s not unmanageable. The more we listen to the pain, the better we get at it. We stop seeing problems as insurmountable monsters and start seeing them as challenges and opportunities. It’s not easy. It’s not comfortable. That’s OK.