Pain Substitution

August 27th, 2010

“Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding.” -Kahlil Gibran

Our relationship to pain in life is an interesting one. The idea that a successful life could be measured by the amount of pleasure or pain we experience is as erroneous as the idea that as humans we seek to avoid pain. In truth, many of us seek out painful experiences, or at least knowingly and willingly submit to them. This has occurred to me recently in the back and forth driving I have been doing with my son’s daily doubles soccer practices.

Bruised and aching when he gets home in the morning and exhausted in the evening, he sleeps and feels even worse each morning when he gets up to start over again. Yet, there he is dragging his body out of bed at 7 am, committed to inflicting more physical pain on himself. He can do it because he knows it will get easier as he gets stronger and believes that this intensity of training is important for the team.

This is only one example of physical pain that we welcome into our lives. Body arts, which are equally painful, are also increasingly popular. A 2006 study done by the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, found that one in four Americans between 18-50 have at least one tattoo. For younger people, the percentage leapt to over one in three. The same study showed similar statistics for body piercings. Here again, we walk into those painful experiences willingly. Perhaps because we believe that the final art is worth the pain.

Yet our opening to physical pain rarely translates into a willingness to observe and work with emotional pain. In fact, equally disturbing percentages of people fall into self injury practices of cutting, burning or bruising to relieve their inability to deal with their emotions. Although this behavior reflects the most extreme response we have to emotional pain, the resistance and fear we have to feeling and experiencing our pain wreaks havoc in our ability to create and sustain the relationships and life we long for.

Heartbreak is a normal and expected outcome in life. Think about it, do you know anyone who hasn’t experienced some form of heartbreak? By virtue of being human and in relationship to other humans and even animals, life presents a wide array of opportunities to experience loss, rejection, and pain. Our heart is the hardest working muscle in our body, which never rests and yet we rarely trust its capacity to bear up to the inevitable pain associated with loving and losing.

The myriad of ways that we invent to avoid our emotional pain or substitute physical pain does a disservice to our hearts. In the same way that we build our body’s strength by allowing it to experience and endure pain, our heart’s capacity for courage develops and transmutes into a deep emotional intelligence that is often called wisdom.

When we believe our emotional pain will debilitate us and that we will never recover from the grief and loss we experience, we belittle what is strongest in us. In the same way that we become familiar with and extend the boundaries of our capacity to push through physical pain to know our strength, the exercise of facing and working with our emotional pain is at the core of a passionate vital heart.

4 Responses to “Pain Substitution”

  1. Alicia Bay Laurel Says:

    In 12 Step Program, I learned that addiction is a way of avoiding grief, usually grief over losing one’s self-esteem by being abused as a child by one’s caregivers. I learned that there is no end to the avoidance of grief except death. I learned that if I embraced and tried to understand my grief instead of avoiding it through addictive behaviors, there was a beginning, a middle and and end to my grief, after which I began to live a much fuller and more joyful life.

  2. Eunice Louise Says:

    I take heart in hearing your words. Yes, emotional pain is part of the human condition and the link you have made from emotional to physical pain is so true. I love your phrase “our heart’s capacity for courage…transmutes into a deep emotional intelligence…often called wisdom.”

  3. Suzann Robins Says:

    I am so glad to hear that the 12 Step program also taught that embracing grief is a path of the heart. Learning to access the lessons that pain brings is a way to self-learning. Why aren’t our young people avoiding pain rather than inflicting it on themselves through piercing and tatooing, cutting and burning. What did they miss that we can give back to them now?

  4. Laurel U-S Says:

    A year after my husband of 21 years passed away, I was so deep into emotional pain that I needed to experience physical pain. My husband-my hero-lost his 5-year battle with cancer 1 week before his 50th birthday. I took a picture of us on our first date to a tatoo shop and spent about 8 hours in the chair relieved by the physical pain as I was getting his face when he was young, vital, and healthy, tatooed on my body. I have NO regrets…and it was a ‘nice’ change of pain.

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