A few weeks ago, I talked about how to open a connection with yourself by using three techniques. One of them was to allow yourself a few moments of silence during your day. I mentioned that people often don’t like to be still and silent, even for a few minutes at a time, partly because they believe they “aren’t doing it right.” There is another, more profound reason that exists, however. We run from our thoughts because those thoughts are often painful, and human beings run from pain faster than anything else. Pain, especially the sudden pain brought on by an unchecked stream of consciousness, is nearly unbearable to us.
Have you ever heard what happens to a frog in boiling water? If the water is heated quickly, the frog will jump out. But if the water is heated slowly, the frog boils to death. The pain of our thoughts is like the water that is heated quickly. A painful thought appears in our consciousness, and all we want to do is get away from it, and we will do almost anything to accomplish that. Social media, television, food, exercise, and sleep are all preferable to experiencing painful thoughts. One study (Wilson et al., 2014) even found that people would rather receive an electric shock than spend a few solitary moments in silence, simply thinking.
So many of us have experienced a great deal of pain in our lives. Trauma in our families, our peer relationships, and in society at large leaves its mark on us. People struggle with depression and anxiety at alarming rates these days. Autoimmune diseases force people’s bodies to turn against them. Every day, the news brings us stories of people who commit unspeakable violence toward one another. Whenever we become quiet, it seems that negative thoughts and memories are the first to creep in. Is it any wonder, then, that we try to get away from them as fast as we can?
Yet there is no “away,” not really. Those thoughts are always there, waiting for us to find them again. We try to avoid them, push them away, distract ourselves from them, or perhaps even deny their very existence. Yet they find their way back to us. There seems to be no true escape.
There is, however, a path through. Glennon Doyle (read more here) says that resilience is built through the conscious experience of pain. And, she argues, this is one of the only ways that resilience is ever built at all. We have to go through the pain to get through it.
This is a concept that most of us were never taught. If we were taught how to experience pain at all, it was probably as an endurance test. We were told we simply needed to grit our teeth and wait it out, like the guys in old Western movies who were given a shot of whiskey and a leather strap to bite on while a bullet was removed.
But what if our pain is meant for more than our endurance? What if it is meant to teach us more about ourselves? What if it is meant to show us the path that we are truly meant to walk in this world? Even if we don’t believe in destiny as such, we can still view pain as our teacher. No matter why it is here, it has arrived, and it is our choice what we will take from it. It is our choice whether to try to abandon it or to learn what lessons it has brought.
When we allow the experience of pain to become part of our journey in this life, we open ourselves to the opportunity to build strength and compassion. We become strong because we know that we can endure what seemed unendurable. The loss of a child or a spouse; the loss of our sense of self due to abuse; the loss of a career or a home due to a fire are all losses that can seem unimaginable and insurmountable. And yet people find a way through those losses to experience joy and even peace. How can that be?
We often assume that “they” are built differently. “They” are wired for pain in a way that we are not. That is an assumption that is simply not true. We all have the same potential within us. We just need to know how to access it. I once heard that the actual experience of a painful thought lasts approximately 12 seconds. Yet human beings will spend years or even decades trying to avoid that experience. A lifetime of avoidance in exchange for 12 seconds of pain that can in turn lead to the freedom of knowing our own capabilities. And yet we see this happen all the time. Why is the pull to avoid pain so strong?
I believe there are a couple of reasons. First, human beings are wired for survival. If we can avoid physical pain, our brains tell us, we have a better chance of living to see tomorrow. It makes sense, then, that emotional pain would trigger a similar response. Avoid, avoid, avoid. Tied to this response is a second layer of avoidance, however, which is fear. If we fear that we can’t handle the pain or can’t overcome it, we will do literally anything (as Wilson et al.’s research tells us) to avoid it, including experiencing physical pain as an alternative. Physical pain is something that seems to be viewed as endurable, while emotional pain is not. We refuse to even attempt to wade into the depths of emotional pain because our fear that it may overtake us is so strong.
Do you watch the show, “This is Us?” In a recent episode, two of the characters, Kate and Kevin, are grappling with their grief over the loss of their father. At one point, Kate says to Kevin, “You know what? When I went to my weight loss camp and I saw a therapist and she asked me about Dad’s death, and I couldn’t talk about it. I couldn’t talk about it. And you know what she told me? She told me that if I don’t learn to face my grief, that it would be like taking in a deep breath and holding that breath for the rest of my life.” That sentence eloquently captures what our fear of emotional pain can do to us. It stifles our growth and our potential to live a life of wholeness and oneness with ourselves. Fear separates us from ourselves and from the people around us. It drives us toward potentially self-destructive behavior, which we see in the same episode when Kevin tries to ignore a knee injury and later starts to overuse pain medication as a way of avoiding his fear of failure. That fear of failure, in turn, is directly connected to the unexpressed pain he feels about his father’s death…that breath that he can’t stop holding.
Some people hold that breath for their entire lives. Others reach a tipping point at which they decide that the pain of holding that breath is greater than the pain they might feel letting it out and truly experiencing their sense of loss and grief. Giving voice, giving full expression to our pain may take time, and it may take the support of a caring professional. Although the most intense experience of pain may last only a short time, it can come in waves and it may reoccur as our thoughts about it evolve. That prospect can keep people stuck in their avoidance patterns of behavior for a very long time. “You mean it’s not one and done? I have to do this again and again? No thank you,” a person may say. But consider the cost. Consider that that avoidance costs you much more in the long run. Missed connections, missed opportunities, missed growth and resilience. It occurred to me recently that we contemplate many experiences only to the point of pain. Whether our thoughts turn to a disrupted relationship, past trauma, a difficult conversation, or a tough workout, we play out that experience in our mind up to the point that it begins to feel painful, and then we stop. If we could continue to envision that experience to the point of a possible resolution, our lives could be incredibly enriched. Experiences that extend beyond the point of pain are, in fact, the point of that pain—those experiences are the reason our pain comes to us.
As Glennon Doyle says, the opportunity to develop the muscles of resilience is actually our work. That is what we are here to DO. We are here to become resilient because that is the path to experiencing the full spectrum of what it means to be human. If we deny ourselves that opportunity, we also deny ourselves all of the opportunities that lie beyond the experience of pain. We deny ourselves the chance to really find out what we are capable of doing and becoming in this life. We will reach the end and wonder, “what if?” What if I’d given myself that chance? How else might I have connected with my family, my friends? What might I have created? How might I have contributed?
You get to choose. You get to choose, when pain knocks on your door, whether you will answer or stay locked in your living room. In opening the door, you invite in a wave of pain that may feel as though it will crush you at times. Talk about it, write about it, scream about it—do whatever it takes to let that experience of pain pass through you, because it will. It will pass through you, and on the other side you will find the strength that comes from knowing you can survive it. That is the birthplace of resilience, and resilience is the foundation upon which a life of meaning can be built. That is the point of your pain.
Doyle, G. (2017). The most valuable thing a parent can do for their
kids. Retrieved from Oprah.com.
Wilson, T. D., Reinhard, D. A., Westgate, E. C., Ellerbeck, N., Hahn,
C., Brown, C. L., & Shaked, A. (2014). Just think: The challenges of
the disengaged mind. Science, 345, 75-77.