Pain is defined by the Miriam-Webster Dictionary as “a localized or generalized unpleasant bodily sensation or complex of sensations that causes mild to severe physical discomfort and emotional distress.”
What it doesn’t say, is that pain is inevitable. There is no scenario in which a human being will live a pain-free existence. So what do we do with that fact? Most of us, would rather pain did not exist at all, and take great pains (no pun intended) to avoid or diminish it when it occurs.
But what does that mean for our lives?
For many of us, that means taking pain medication for physical pain, and doing our best to avoid painful situations, or anesthetizing ourselves against emotional pain.
If you’ve ever had a sprained ankle, a broken bone, or a deep cavity, you know that pain killers work…briefly, and that inevitably the pain returns. Thus, we take more pain killers and ride the wave of numb… pain… numb, until the body has healed itself and the pain is gone. But what of emotional pain?
Well, we do the same things. We feel emotional pain, and either do an activity, (like watching television, cracking open that bottle of wine or perusing various distractions on our phones), to avoid thinking about it and thus feeling it, until it returns, and we search for a way to numb it again.
We use a plethora of methods to manage pain, all the while hoping that when our chosen painkiller wears off, we will remain numb. Unfortunately, this rarely works, and we find ourselves in an endless cycle of miserable indulgence in the vain hope of leaving pain behind.
This is suffering.
You see, pain in and of itself is just sensation. Simply put, it is a sensation that tells us something. A message from our brain to our bodies that something is wrong. That is all. That it is a sensation that we dislike, is not the point. However, because we dislike it, we use varying techniques to try to numb ourselves in an attempt to avoid feeling it.
Here’s the secret though: It is not pain that makes us suffer, it is our desire to be rid of it that does.
Hear me out.
Physical pain can tell us, for instance, that that we are too close to a fire, or that we need to be careful not to repeat an action because it can cause injury. In other words, the sensation of pain in and of itself, is not a bad thing. It is just an alarm bell. No one knows this with more certainty than the unlucky few that are born without working pain receptors. Many of us, when we learn that such people exist, can be more than a little envious of that inability to feel pain because we somehow equate numbness with happiness. Yet, as is evident from the extremely difficult and dangerous lives that those suffering from the inability to feel pain live, nothing could be farther from the truth.
As a messenger, emotional pain is no different from physical discomfort. Emotional pain warns us that we have ventured too far from what we value, that we need to make a change, that we are unfulfilled in an area that matters to us.
Instead of acknowledging that the pain serves a purpose, and accepting and heeding its warning, we often just want it gone. Indeed, we may even know on some level that it serves a purpose, but we still just do not want to experience it.
Unfortunately for us, we have no choice.
As I said above, pain is an inevitable part of life, but we don’t have to suffer with pain just because we experience it. Often, to help clients understand how to overcome emotional pain, I teach them this equation.
Pain x resistance = suffering.
When we resist pain, we suffer because what we resist, persists.
Because we don’t want pain to be there, its very presence magnifies our discomfort. However, when we learn to lean into the painful spaces, accepting them without judgement, simply feeling the sensations of sadness, grief, fear, envy, disgust, anger or any number or combination of emotion in our bodies…it hurts, sure, but, like an ocean wave, it also passes.
Science has determined that the lifespan of an emotion is approximately 90 seconds. When we nonjudgmentally ride the wave of emotion… it gives us the warning and moves on. Too often though, we tense up, and unwittingly hold the wave of emotional pain there with our thoughts, resisting it with everything we’ve got and numbing it with food, sex, substances, relationships, emotional volatility, or mindless entertainment. The result then is that we hold the wave at its highest point. Excruciatingly exacerbating our experience of pain, and keeping it in place, sometimes for years.
The irony then, is that FEELING pain, is the key to being pain free.
So, the next time you feel that flutter of unwanted emotion in your body, pay attention to it. Simply feel it. Acknowledge what it is trying to tell you and focus your attention, without judgement, on the physical sensations it brings to your body, no matter how unpleasant. Perhaps even thank it for making you aware that something needs to change. This resilient action, known as interoception, can eventually help you to let the wave pass. Using these techniques can, over time, slow down a stormy sea of emotion and make it, while not entirely placid, a lot less frightening and overwhelming.
This process, the nonjudgmental awareness and acceptance of pain, can ultimately help us to regulate our emotions, and thus lead to a higher sense of well-being.
For Further Reading
Sassy’s Blog is named for the very astute cat of WRC’s Clinical Director and Counselor Kai Qualls, M.A., LPC. The theme of the Blog is Resilience, which is especially timely given our shared uncertainty during the COVID-19 crisis. We hope you will enjoy and benefit from Sassy’s Blog, this month written by Clinical Director Kai Qualls, M.A., LPC.