Why Pain Is Your Best Friend

…and when positivity can work against you.

Here is a challenging question for you. Which would you prefer in your life: more pleasure or more pain? While most people might reply, “Pleasure”, their life choices often ensure, “Pain”.

Pain can be searing and unmistakable, or be defined by discomfort – physical or psychological – such as disturbed or inflamed function. This includes skin, hormonal, weight, mood, digestive, muscle, joint problems and more (for a full list of inflammatory markers, see my TIPS article: Inflammation). Some people are born with a genetic defect so they feel no physical pain. This may sound advantageous but it makes life far more dangerous. Such people have been easily burned and scalded; have bitten their lips and tongues idly until plastic surgery was needed. Most suffered fractures or bone infections that were only noted when they started limping. So pain is a useful message that warns of danger.

Disruptions to vitality levels, such as fatigue or anxiety are often the first indicators of suboptimal function. Often people endure or dismiss sustained discomfort. Or many try medications that briefly suppress pain or its associated systemic signals without addressing why this is happening. Pain is not a nuisance phone call. It is the body’s only way to direct your attention to a situation of peril. By ignoring or suppressing pain you miss out on learning from it. There is a central message it is trying to impart that if heeded would make your life better. When discomfort is not listened to then it usually intensifies or broadens in scope. Poor gut health might compromise immunity which leads to fatigue and poor mood regulation. No problem – just take an anti-depressant! Meanwhile gut health and immunity worsen, plus the many side effects of medications now need dealing with.

Attempts at short term solutions to pain – just like short term quests for pleasure – often increase pain and decrease pleasure over the long term. Some people try to dismiss their life’s pains by choosing street drugs, alcohol abuse, overeating, overspending, gambling, promiscuity or other reckless behaviours. These divert briefly but create worse problems later. Other distractions are more insidious. In some ways they are more dangerous because they look good, or at least acceptable, on the surface. Working long hours, rescuing others, perfectionism, escapist entertainment, sweet or high fat foods and caffeine – when in excess – are likely being used as avoidance mechanisms.

Pain Wants to Lead You to Gain

Appropriate solutions to life’s pains are virtually opposite in nature to the ‘folly formula’ of short term thrill followed by long term regret. They tend to involve more work at the start, but yield far more rewards later – think relationships, financial investments, education, career. Strategies such as regular exercise and a natural, balanced diet require dedication and learning new skills. In time this becomes automatic and – like bathing regularly – a habit you do not want to give up. This is not maintained out of some stiff sense of virtue, but for the pleasure and personal awareness it enhances. And over time, as an investment, it pays off in ways far beyond what you were initially aware of as possible.

Pain is useful to shove the stubborn past complacency and into change. Few people volunteer for deep rooted attitudinal or behavioural change without being pushed by pain. If everything in your experience was delightful why would you bother to change? Without pain you are less inclined to reassess what you are doing and where you are heading. Development would likely cease. Why would you bother taking the risk of romance, parenting, higher education, new home/job/travel, or trying a different haircut or café?

Of course new activities can be chosen for positive reasons such as curiosity, sense of adventure, logical analysis or intuitive promptings. How can you tell whether your choices are motivated by avoidance mechanisms or an urge to growth? (See The Shape Diet; Inner Voices: guidance or self-sabotage? pages 102-123). Surface appearance is not sufficient to clarify hidden intent. After a long day should you phone for a pizza or go jogging? Most of the time exercise increases vitality and is the best invigorating option. But on occasion, pizza might be the socially accommodating choice while the exercise urge could be based in driven self-punishment. Each situation has a unique set of factors that a memorised code of behaviour may not fully address. Being alert to small but frequent symptoms is like promptly dealing with problem areas in your home or relationships, rather than waiting for serious rot to enforce action. As with other skills it requires effort over time to develop expertise.

The Danger of Self-Image

Occasionally my clients are hampered by a positive self-image. This may sound peculiar but an automatic assumption such as “I am in great health” can become a hardened perspective that is unreceptive to re-evaluation. In consultation such people – while marvelling that they somehow just had a stroke or cancer diagnosis – try to convince me how healthy they have been, and what good habits they uphold. Compared to the general public they can be right. Some even get defensive as I ask simple questions that elicit a list of health issues. “You make me sound very unwell”, might be irritably declared. Yet the list is self-generated! I only hold up a mirror; having to admit to what they see is what annoys them.

The self-image they have created is used as a shield to prevent facing the many long-term symptoms they have not listened to and acted on. The problems didn’t fit their self-image so they refused to acknowledge them as significant. Finally the body comes up with something they cannot ignore and so they blame (wait for it) genetics. In science there is a wonderful saying, “Genetics is the gun. Environment pulls the trigger” (see The Person Next To You May Live In A Different Universe). A small percentage of people are born with disabling genetic conditions with yet no cure. Mainly though, life is less about what you are handed and more about what you do with what you are handed. After observing clients for over 30 years (and my own foibles much longer) I suspect that most adults create at least 80% of their problems.

The most rewarding attitude to maintain is one of being keen to learn. Risky thrills are not needed when each day is a multi-spectrum adventure – whether pleasant or unpleasant. No matter how skilled you are in an area, you are eager to find out more. A key attribute of the vigour of youth is curiosity. There is little growth without it. The only biological – and probably psychological – alternative to growth is decay. Being able to register discomfort and respond appropriately to it is an evolutionary advantage not only for protection, but for compounding levels of enhancement as individuals and as a species.

The Personal and the Collective

Something that is demonstrably true of all life since its known beginnings is progressive development – perhaps this is even the purpose of life. Progressive development is evident with the Big Bang; the formation of the sun and then the earth; the inception of the first life form (bacteria) and onward to water-based then land plants, simple and complex animals, and eventually human beings. This process is manifest in each individual life and in humanity’s sociological stages (see The Dark Side of Science; and Ken Wilber’s brilliant and readable synthesis A Brief History of Everything, or the weightier Sex, Ecology and Spirituality).

We begin as infants unable to differentiate between self and other, reality and imagination (on the large scale this relates to primitive magic-based societies). We progress to toddlers who focus solely on self and its boundaries often declared with an emphatic “No!” (represented by clans formed around ego-centric, non-empathetic leaders such as dictators). As older children we experience the benefits of cooperative play – I’ll share my toy if you share yours – within the security of the family surround (groups formed around simple contracts and absolute moral codes not open to review). Adolescents move beyond the family nucleus to identify with a wider peer faction; many adults have a similar primary group identity (beyond bloodline, individual leader or narrow code to more broadly interpreted social affiliations such as artist, working-class, victim/gay/racial and other rights’ groups).

Some people substantially orient to global awareness and citizenship (this may be inspired by rational science; or multi-national corporatism promoting democracy and industrialisation to expand the marketplace and share resources; or an environmentally respectful earth-focus). Progressive stages are increasingly inclusive, but each one so far views itself as the zenith with anything further as dangerous or implausible. Then there are those who gain levels of experience and understanding that include but transcend form (also with its own developmental stages), honouring interior timelessness as well as ceaseless exterior evolution.

Being keen to observe how the small and the large of life are mirrored in each other is an ever fascinating way of adding to our analytical and sensitivity skill base. It can increase a sense of meaning and joy in the one unfolding story we share and the role each of us can play. Now there’s pain relief.

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