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Pain as Teacher, Not Foe

Updated: Apr 27, 2022

Pain is a huge topic. In this article I'm going to focus on our cultural regard for pain. Without this understanding any solutions I present will be at best temporary patches. We're laying the groundwork for long-term gain.


Speaking of gain...

A sledge hammer breaking some pain pills
Break the pain pill cycle!

No Pain, No Pain


Pain is one of those things that stirs a deep sense of shame to those of us raised in the U.S. No one likes to show that they are in pain because it's a feeling that exists largely outside of our control. Also, it usually foreshadows downtime to recover, which brings with it a sense of dread. We identify so heavily with our ability to "produce" that the idea of taking time off from the daily grind puts tension knots into our necks. Bottle up that shame and dread for long enough, and you'll be pissed at anyone or anything that doesn't meet your expectations; this is anger (more here on shame, dread, and anger).


People will come in desperate for some relief just so they can get back to work. Their bones will be warping through overuse, just months away from permanent disability and they will still want to get back into the kitchens, the fields, whatever workplace will use them until they break. Usually this is defended with "gotta pay the bills." If you keep pushing your body until it shatters, then there will be no more work to pay any bills with.


Almost 20% of Americans who report living with disabilities are of working age (18-65yrs), the most common types being those involving walking, independent living, or mental health (Bialik 2017).

The lengths we go


Self-administered food massage
Self care is the first line of defense

Painkillers take on many shapes (in alphabetical order):

  • acupuncture,

  • alcohol,

  • cleaning,

  • eating,

  • exercise,

  • gambling,

  • hobbies,

  • internet browsing (what you're doing right now)

  • masturbation,

  • organization,

  • pills,

  • recreational drugs,

  • sex,

  • sports,

  • social gathering,

  • social networking,

  • socializing,

  • television,

  • training,

  • videogames,

  • working

Notice that some of the items on that list aren't even poor choices. This is because there is a difference between coping with pain, and numbing it. Ask yourself:

Do I have a healthy definition of "overdoing it?"
How will I know when I'm avoiding a problem?

I will hear "exercise is a good thing," but when pressed with, "how will you know if you've gone too far?" the response is silence. Red flag. Without that safe guard definition you are just lucky if you don't hurt yourself, or someone else.


This is where I suggest you find professional help. Usually it's our honest expectations that got us into the various messes we find ourselves in to begin with. So by the time you recognize that your own judgement isn't getting you the results you desire, get someone else involved.


A word on emotional pain


It is the most pervasive cause of long-term chronic health issues today. One large factor is the idea that our mind and body are separate objects. They are not. No one thinks about the long-term bodily cost of holding a grudge.


Then there's the obsession with intelligence and our rational faculties. No one wants to be "emotional," so we repress and deny until we are experiencing feelings we aren't even aware of or familiar with. We choose emotional ignorance and exile.


Jealousy is a great example. How many people know and admit when they are behaving jealously? Then when they deny being jealous, do they think of themselves as being prideful?

How would you feel if you decided to accept that you are the worst qualities people assign to you?

Don't shy away from these questions! There are lessons to be found in their answers.

When to push through, and when to stand down.


Regarding physical pain, the challenge is...

  • On the one hand pushing through safety mechanisms could lead to serious injury.

"Never play any sport or do any training under the influence of painkillers or muscle relaxants." (PPC pg75)

Vs.

  • On the other hand, a degree of pain truly is necessary to make the most meaningful gains in a healthy lifestyle.

So far I've boiled it down to these axioms:

Pain + Fear- don't go near;
Pain + Rage- don't engage;

but...

Pain + Doubt- you can still hold out!

In other words: if you're in pain and are afraid to stop doing whatever it is you're doing, you really should be stopping. If you're angry and are pushing through pain, you are likely borrowing from tomorrow to pay for today.


And finally, if your pain makes you feel like "you don't have what it takes," you likely need to push a little farther.


Detecting which sort of pain you're experiencing takes patience and introspection, and even then I'm not sure anyone can get 100% accuracy. Still, making the effort matters!


The road less travelled.


Finding a lasting solution can't always be easy, especially if you've been beating a pain back for several years. You could be 1. breaking an old habit and 2. forming a new one, which might even include 3. adopting new ways of seeing the world, and 4. letting go of old views.


I'm talking about inducing a rite of passage, where you give yourself permission to become your body again. This can only happen when you stop treating pain like an inconvenience keeping you from getting back to the lifestyle that created the problem in the first place. Also be sure you aren't treating it like a sign of failure worthy of shame. Committing to this perspective comes with a remarkable payoff! Once I get through each internal rite I'm thrilled, and want more.


In the aftermath of a healing crisis, it's like my daily operating systems have just gotten an upgrade and suddenly I'm capable of seeing, and doing things I never believed I could do. Sometimes when pain gets bad, I'm begging to quit! I always think I've got a handle on suffering, and wielding it for maximum growth, but then the universe finds new ways to make it hurt!


To most people this is crazy talk. If you're living in a world filled with suffering, maybe the only way out is being crazy! There are very few cultural allowances for the downtime necessary to learn from or heal our pain. Take the time while you can. Be crazy.


Your body is the only object that will stay with you through thick and thin, until the day you die. To those who walk this road less travelled, the "shame" is in turning a deaf ear on your first and only true worldly gift.



References and Special Thanks:

  1. Chew Ming, Goden Stephanie. 2009. The Permanent Pain Cure. McGraw-Hill. (PPC)

  2. Bialik, Kristen 2017. 7 Facts about Americans with disabilities, Pew Research Center, Accessed 11-28-19, <https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/07/27/7-facts-about-americans-with-disabilities/>.

  3. Dr. Harvey Wong

  4. Dr. Kevin Liao

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