Life Includes Pain
“Life is pain.” This dismal statement is how M. Scott Peck, M.D. begins his legendary book, A Road Less Traveled. Life brings pain for all of us but such a dreary outlook is depressing.
When experiencing the hard things of life people usually respond one of two ways:
1. Avoid the pain at all costs
2. Identify the pain as being part of their identity (see Healthy Living: “Connecting To Your Authentic Self”)
This article will focus on our propensity to avoid pain with the illusion that, by so doing, we can reduce the pain in our lives. Ironically, the more we avoid and try to protect ourselves from the hard things in life, the greater the intensity of the painful experiences.
Expecting a life free of pain makes the hard things even harder. Pain and joy can sit side by side and often dance the tango together. This is a confusing concept.
You might think, “Are you crazy? Who wants to sign up for pain? Not me!” However, pain always comes. Every life has it. The meaning you assign to hard experiences and how you cope determines how the cookie crumbles.
Working with pain instead of against it helps build acceptance and trust toward the process of life that also brings peace and wisdom. (See Anxiety: “Working Within Your Situation”)
Yesterday, while working on this article, a close friend visited. She had a long addiction to prescription pain medication but has been clean and sober for over two years. She had been suffering from a migraine for four days, and Ibuprofen brought no relief.
Her mind chatter (those thoughts that continually run through our minds) was screaming that she couldn’t stand it anymore–that it was more than she could handle. She knew where she could get a Loratab to make everything OK. She was fighting with these desperate thoughts and feelings when she decided to come over for some support.
Her logical brain knew that this kind of lapse would be a major setback in trusting herself and did not honor the courage of her sobriety. She knew her disappointment in herself would be much bigger than the pain of the headache. However, the emotional part of her brain said, “I deserve this headache.
Why do things like this always happen to me? I am trying so hard. It’s just not fair.” Feeling helpless and vulnerable, she was slipping into depression. I said little as I listened to her talk herself through the insistent mind chatter and fear.
“I just want the mind chatter to shut up. My mind chatter wants me to believe that I can only be OK if I have no pain. My fear says if I could just live a pain-free life, then I could be happy. My whole life I have told myself I just can’t take it. That is a lie. I can handle this if I choose to. I am not afraid of having a little pain. I can do hard things.”
The next day she came to my house again, this time a happy person. The headache had passed, and she was still clean and sober. Had she fallen into the notion that she shouldn’t have any pain and relapsed into her addiction she would have been stuck in an emotional pain much greater than her headache had been. (Empowered Life Solutions supports the appropriate use of medication. This story is offered as an illustration that pain does not negate well-being.)
Resistance to the Hard Stuff Can Make the Pain Worse
We all have experiences that give us great pain. We experience hurt, not only in childhood, but throughout our lives.
Not wanting to experience this pain, we build walls around ourselves to protect us. The walls keep the hurt at arm’s length, but there is always a price to be paid for these walls. We feel isolated and alone.
When asked what they want to get out of therapy, most clients respond with something like, “I just want to be happy.” It’s as if we believe we’re entitled to a life without any pain which we somehow believe equals happiness. I suggest that despite painful experiences, we can still live full, abundant, and happy lives.
Allowing movement through the pain makes it less intense. You don’t need to fear the pain. Expecting a pain-free life makes you feel the inevitable hard times with greater intensity.
Bernie Siegel, M.D. is a renowned cancer doctor who suggests that, “When life is healed and free of conflict, pain is manageable.” He concludes that there is a life lesson to be learned from pain. “Make the pain your teacher. Learn from it, listen to it. What is the pain like? What are you experiencing? Write down the words that fit your pain: squeezing, pressure, knifelike, burning. List all the things in your life that are squeezing you, pressuring you, stabbing you, burning you up. Deal with those issues. This will help heal your life, and the pain will lessen; it will be controllable.”
A 14-year-old girl sat in therapy with tears streaming down her face. She had experienced a serious trauma six weeks earlier and wanted to know when the pain was going to go away. She wanted to take that piece of her life out so it didn’t exist.
The victimization of her experience had been overwhelming, and she didn’t know how she could bear the pain. Her answer was to pretend it didn’t happen.
This is a common solution to hurtful experiences in our society. We attempt to avoid the pain. Eventually this young, innocent girl learned that she could not slice this day out of her life. It was part of her life experience.
She learned to face the pain with courage as she found an inner strength and resilience which helped her heal. As she faced the pain instead of ignoring it, she moved forward to a scarred but fully-functional life despite the trauma she experienced.
I worked with a woman who built a wall to protect herself from the pain of rejection in relationships. She kept others at a distance with unrealistic expectations.
When others didn’t measure up, she judged and rejected them. She complained of being lonely and blamed others for not reaching out to her. I suggested that her perfectionistic view was a wall shutting out others and making herself miserable and lonely.
One day I had her sit in the center of my office. I built a wall around her with large cardboard building blocks. Each block was assigned a toxic thinking pattern: “No one likes me. I have to be perfect to be lovable. I am disgusting. I can’t handle the pain of rejection.”
We couldn’t see each other. She could not reach out, and I could not reach in to help her.
She complained about sitting cross-legged in a tight position for so long, but she had built the wall. She was the only one who could bring it down. She tried so hard to protect herself from pain with negative beliefs that she actually caused the very pain she was trying to avoid.
After two sessions of sitting in a tight-legged position, surrounded by the cardboard brick wall, she carefully slid out one block so she had a peephole. I also had to sit on the floor to see her through the hole. I told her that seeing her in her painful position was making me uncomfortable.
She was surprised that her actions had any effect on others. She started to apply what she was learning with her family and her work colleagues. To her amazement, as she took the risk to soften her attitude, others around her shifted the way they responded to her.
She came to understand how her behavior of shutting others out was supporting the pain and loneliness that she came to therapy to address. With her new understanding of anxiety and depression, the toxic nature of avoiding her own pain, her power of choice, and the connection between her thoughts and her feelings, she felt empowered to make different choices.
She had been hurt in life, but her extreme measure to protect herself from experiencing pain was causing significant pain for both her and her family. Finally, one week she punched her fist through the blocks. She jumped up, threw her arms in the air, and yelled “Hooray!”
She felt free. The pain from her wall was worse than the pain she was trying to avoid.
The first step in any addiction recovery program is accepting and acknowledging the addiction. Until this step is taken, the addiction has control.
The same is true for anxiety and depression. I work with clients who have experienced severe childhood abuse. I am in constant awe of the resiliency of the human spirit.
Our capacity to heal and grow is tremendous. It is common for me to thank my clients for the honor of walking the healing journey with them. The struggle within the journey is tremendous and often overwhelming.
Healing requires accepting the lost innocence of childhood, but now they have a choice. Growth suggests accepting that they were not protected and nurtured the way a child should be. Accepting they have a wound which affects them, but does not define them, puts them on the path to healing. Acceptance includes acknowledging that you do have choice in the present moment.
Finding Meaning As the Hard Stuff Heals and Transforms
People have painful experiences in life. Researchers have shown that people can be incredibly resilient. When there is resistance, the pain is worse. When you are able to assign a positive meaning to the experience you continue to live with a sense of well-being.
In one study, new mothers who experienced a precarious delivery and/or prolonged hospitalization were asked if they found any benefits from the experience.
Seventy-five percent listed benefits:
- improved relationships with family and friends,
- realizing the importance of keeping life’s problems in perspective,
- increased empathy, positive changes in their personality,
- and the conviction that their child was now more precious to them.
Mothers who cited no benefits reported greater psychological distress including anxiety and depression from the experience.(Affleck, Glen, & Tennen, Howard)
The ability to find meaning from painful experiences (researchers call this benefit finding) consistently predicts physical and emotional well-being while experiencing stressful or painful life experiences. One victim of childhood sexual abuse said, “I would not have chosen the horrors of abuse, but it has taught me the value of every child. Every child deserves love and is completely loveable–including myself. No abuse can take that away. How else would I have learned such a valuable lesson?”
Through years of healing and growth she has given meaning to a painful life experience. She could not control that she was victimized, but she could choose how to live her life. She chose to live in the “light of love instead of the darkness of abuse.”
Bernie Siegel, M.D. explains how pain changed him into a man full of love for his family and patients. He speaks of our ability to accept, grow, heal, and love–all from the pain of life. He explains that even though he had loving relationships, working with the painful experiences of cancer day after day changed his heart.
He tells his own story:
When I became a physician I started to build walls around myself to protect myself from the pain and unhappiness that I was seeing. Yet it was also difficult to seal this pain in, to store it up inside me.
This hurt me, my family and my patients. The walled-in city dies. . . At one point when I was in great pain I used my hobby of art as a way of healing. I painted portraits of the family and then painted one of myself.
Only later did I realize how sick my portrait was. . . I painted myself, in a surgeon’s cap, mask and gown. Only my eyes were visible. If you appeared that way before a painter, he or she would say, “But who will know whose portrait this is? I can’t see you. . .” Yes, I was hidden. I had built a wall, and I wasn’t even aware of it. . . Ultimately I began to resist the hiding; it was too painful.
He concludes that avoiding and hiding from pain is another kind of death. He learned to give love because “it sustains the one who gives it as well as the one who receives it.”
The meaning he found from the pain helped him heal. Accepting life has pain, rather than hiding from it, gives you permission to live, grow, heal, and love.