When I first meet with clients in counseling sessions, I let them know that we might work through items in their life that they have been avoiding for some time, and in doing so, things might feel worse before they feel better. This isn't because I like to bring about pain in people's lives, but because I recognize that pain is a necessary component of our lives, and in avoiding it, we often bring about more suffering in the long run than we avoided in the first place. I think of a child who is crying because they don't want to treat a cut or remove a splinter. They are hoping to avoid the short term pain, but the long term consequences of infection are much worse. The same is true in our emotional lives. The following are some ways that pain has purpose in our lives.
Pain Is Communicating Something
When you are physically hurting, it is your body communicating to you. Sometimes it is that you had a good workout and need to take it easy before the next one. Sometimes it is that there is something seriously wrong and you need to go to the doctor. Emotional pain is the same way. Sometimes we are anxious because of real threats in our lives. This could be a hostile workplace, an abusive partner, or unhealthy lifestyle choices. The same is true with depression. Depression can be purely chemical/biological, but it can also be triggered by things in our lives. So I tell clients to start by listening to your depression. Depression causes us to slow down and be introspective. So, is there a reason your body might be telling you to slow down and look at your life? Again, this could mean changes are needed and by ignoring them for so long, your body finally said "enough" and shut down.
Pain Is The Best Teacher
We like to protect our children, but as parents, it is also our job to let our children experience pain to some degree. This isn't because we don't care, but because we do. If we shield our children from all pain, they will never learn to avoid dangerous situations. Simply hearing "don't do that" doesn't really teach, but experiencing the pain of doing something quickly embeds in our memory to not do it again.
The same is true as adults. When we experience pain in our lives and relationships it teaches us important lessons. These lessons can be how to better communicate, how to set healthier boundaries, and how to build resiliency (how to get back up). I see couples in counseling where they are working so hard to avoid the hard conversation (avoid the pain) that they never find out what is wrong in the relationship to fix it, and in turn they just build more resentment and anger. This is like an infected wound, and talking through the issues, while difficult, is like treating the wound to heal.
Pain Shapes Our Character
Think of all the stories of individuals who have achieved great things in their lives. How many achieved those things with no struggle? Pain and failure are a part of building who we are, and through that struggle we can propel ourselves further than had we experienced no adversity at all. This isn't to say we should seek out pain, just that through pain, through failure, through struggle, we can overcome and use it to shape our character in strong and valuable ways. I have found this to be true when working through grief counseling with clients. They would never say that they are happy to have lost their loved ones, but through that loss they have strengthened the memory of their loved one, built ways to memorialize that person, and even helped others who suffered or served in ways of their loved (like cancer foundations or helping those in need).
When Pain Isn't Helpful, But Is Accepted
With all this said, there are times in life that pain isn't helpful, but must be accepted. Acceptance isn't succumbing to something, but understanding the reality of it and moving forward. It isn't helpful to ignore pain, both physically and emotionally, but we also can't let it define who we are. In our hopes as a society to not experience pain we have built up an Opioid Epidemic that is causing more hurt in people's lives than the pain it was originally intended to protect against. Pain, unfortunately, is a part of life and aging. There are many things that medicine can help with, but I have seen clients who are at a point in life where there is nothing that science can currently do and they will always experience some level of pain. In these situations, after you have listened to the pain and taken the possible actions, we must work to accept it for what it is and move forward where possible. This is a mindfulness exercise, to be aware of the pain, but also aware of what else is there.
Think for a moment about experiencing a cut on your arm that hurts. All you are thinking about is that hurt and in doing so it gets worse and worse. Then, as you are walking through the house you jam your toe into a table. For a moment, all you can think about is the pain in your toe. The pain in your arm didn't go away, your focus just changed. Now think about times you have felt pain, but something joyful happened that temporarily took your attention away from the pain. The pain didn't change, just your focus. This is something we are losing in society. We turn to medicine as the one and only cure, and when it doesn't remove all the pain we wonder what might be wrong and become hyper-focused on the pain, thus increasing our sense of the pain.
I see this play out with emotional pain as well. When all we focus on is the hurt, we experience an increase in the sense of hurt. This isn't to say block out the emotion, just to acknowledge it, adjust accordingly, but not focus exclusively on it and not define yourself by it. Through understanding, adjusting for, and accepting our pain we can move forward in healthier ways.
James McMillian, LCPC
Resolve - Counseling and Wellness
Serving areas of Prairie Village, Leawood, Shawnee Mission, and Leawood Kansas