I’m not a masochist, but I want to challenge the idea that pain is something to be avoided.
In this world, we are told that feeling pain is bad and feeling happy is good. And when I’m teaching yoga, I often tell students to avoid pain in their bodies, as this is our body’s way of telling us that something is going wrong. And I do think, as much as possible, that physical pain should be avoided. Emotional pain, on the other hand, is something to dive into head first; avoiding emotional pain leads to all sorts of discontent and dishonesty (mostly with ourselves).
Emotional pain is an essential part of life. It allows us to see the light and shade of life, and cliched as it sounds, pain is where the growth happens. By avoiding it, we miss out on the realisation of our strength and the understanding of our power.
That’s not to say it’s easy – allowing ourselves to feel pain is one of the hardest things we can do. And we are bombarded by a plethora of ways to avoid it; advertisers have made an art of offering solutions to avoid pain, and technological advances have allowed us to have on-demand distractions which again, take us away from being in that difficult place.
Sometimes these distractions are useful, but not in the long term. When the pain is fresh it can be too much to handle, and sometimes the distraction allows us to keep going, to do the daily things we need to do to survive without breaking and shattering completely. But eventually we need to find some space away from the consumption (shopping, scrolling, over-scheduling) and find a way to feel our feelings.
Allowing ourselves to sit with our pain (much like allowing ourselves to sit with our fear), can have a deep and profound impact on how we go through life, how we show up for other people, how we feel about ourselves and how we approach certain situations (like risk). The first time is the hardest, but it gets easier each time. And while I don’t think any of us would voluntarily put ourselves in a position where life is painful, when these situations occur, here’s what I do:
Step 1 – distraction. I binge on Netflix, trashy books, social media, and eat food/drink that I might usually avoid, until I get to a place of acceptance with what’s going on.
Step 2 – stillness/quiet time/meditation. I try to allow the feelings to surface and allow space for tears, rage and/or whatever else comes up.
Step 3 – talking or writing. Both help me to get to the root of the issue, and to understand what’s happening. Sometimes having a sounding board (whether a friend or a blank page) can put things into perspective.
Step 4 – getting into my body. Exercise, massage, reiki, craniosacral therapy, acupuncture, etc. I move my body and get outside help (via trusted practitioners). My body and heart know what I need, way more than my mind. Keeping in touch with the physical signals they send helps me to avoid spiralling into negative thought patterns.
Step 5 – reflection/more quiet time. Once again, I try to allow the feelings to be there. More tears/anger/etc.
Step 6 – action. I start to make changes based on what I’ve learned, whether that’s quitting a job, changing friendships, changing personal habits. This step is difficult, but important to me because it shifts me from feeling like a victim to giving me a sense of autonomy over my life. The changes may be small to start, but over time they can make a big impact.
This isn’t always a fast or easy process (in fact it’s usually quite slow), and sometimes the steps are not linear (one step forward, two steps back and then a sashay to the side). But this process of listening, feeling and action has been useful to help me feel empowered in my life, even when the pain comes from an external source (like loss or tragedy). It’s also helped me to understand that pain doesn’t need to be avoided; looking back, I always realise that it is times of pain that have made the biggest positive impacts on where I am today. Those times have taught me about my strength, my resilience, my ability to get to the other side unscathed (but not unchanged), and have really made me who I am today. I no longer fear pain. Although I can’t say that I enjoy it, I appreciate what it can do and where it can lead.
For more on dealing with pain in life, I recommend reading Pema Chodron’s book “When Things Fall Apart”. She explains these concepts clearly and eloquently and offers simplicity to some of life’s complicated stuff.
We don’t always choose what happens in life, but we can always choose how to react.
What are your strategies for dealing with pain? I’d love to hear more – leave me a message in the comments below.
Photo by Ali Schilling Photography.