Whether our pain is physical or emotional, chronic or acute, we encounter suspicion that we did something to deserve it or have not done enough to fix it, and if we just corrected our course the pain would disappear.
Pain signals a problem
Pain is the brain’s way of signaling a problem. The problem could be a bleeding cut or a kidney infection or a complex combination of past and present sensations. Triggers that are harmless in themselves can cause pain through a cascade of associations with past trauma. The nervous system can become sensitized so that even light touch causes pain. No matter how confusing and frustrating our pain becomes, its source is our brain doing its best to keep us safe.
Emotional pain also signals a problem. Unmet needs for care and connection carry the double pain of the need itself and the lack of someone to meet it. Our attachment system is a primal part of our nervous system. For infants and young children, abandonment is a death threat. Shame is meant to be a signal that our essential social bonds are at risk, although we often mistakenly carry shame for other people’s transgressions. Grief and loneliness hurt as much as physical wounds.
Pain is a private experience. Just as no one else can know what we see when we see “blue,” no one else knows what we feel when we experience pain. Medical practitioners ask us to evaluate physical pain on a scale of 1 to 10, or show us pictures of faces. Emotional pain is even more difficult to express and compare. Many people underrate their pain, partly because there is such pervasive suspicion that people overrate pain.
Exposing pain is vulnerable. Pets often instinctively conceal pain or illness, appearing as normal as possible for as long as possible. Many of us do the same in an effort to remain functional and guard against further harm.
People worry that pain is catching. There is a narrative that people who carry emotional pain are “toxic” and that we can improve our lives by surrounding ourselves solely with glowingly happy and healthy companions. It is true that our nervous systems resonate with each other and we can become entangled in each other’s pain. At the same time, when we disconnect completely from other people’s pain, we shut out large parts of the world, and probably large parts of ourselves as well.
We carry around a reservoir of unsoothed pain and unmet needs which has likely grown larger during this year of pandemic crisis and isolation. Whether we have had too little time alone, or too little time with others, our lives have been disrupted.
We bury our pain like giant metal barrels marked with warning signs, or like an unused underground swimming pool still smelling of chlorine. We try to siphon the pain away, believing we are only healthy and free when the reservoir is empty. When we push our pain away or try to contain it in the smallest possible space, it becomes frozen in place, along with the additional pain of abandoning ourselves.
Open to the sun
Imagine a world where pain is acknowledged as a natural part of being alive. Our reservoir could be open to the sun, and we might even visit it now and then, even if we still do not want to go swimming in it. We could let other people know that we see and respect their pain as well. Everyone deserves to have their pain acknowledged and tended.
When we respect our pain, our relationship with it can come into balance. We neither run away from it, nor drown in it. We might learn to breathe with pain and befriend it rather than clenching against it. Perhaps in the warmth of the sun, some of the pain can be transformed or release into the air or flow into the earth.
We can seek pain relief not in desperation to appear normal, but as part of learning to care for ourselves as tenderly as possible. We can apply harm reduction strategies to our pain relief as we experiment to find what helps us the most while causing the least amount of additional harm.
Like scars that ache in stormy weather, most of us carry old pain from the twists and turns our lives have taken. Some kinds of pain might become so much a part of us that we would miss it if it disappeared. Some pain might be from an inner child crying out, “Don’t forget me!” Respect your pain as a signal and a badge of honor. Attend to it with care, and give it room to flow and change over time.
- Wong-Baker FACES Pain Rating Scale, originally developed for young children but now used for all ages.
- Explain Pain by David Butler and Lorimer Moseley, a scientific and playful book about understanding and healing chronic pain.