Pain is such an intimate thing.
I’m talking about any kind of pain — physical, emotional, spiritual. We experience pain in a way that makes it almost impossible to describe to someone outside ourselves. And for that reason, the experience of pain can be an immensely isolating experience.
Have you ever had an injury or an illness or even an emotional wound that affected you in such a way that you wished for someone to just climb in your head and share that experience for a second, just to make you feel like you weren’t alone? To have someone say, I know what this feels like and I know how badly it hurts.
I know I have.
The reason I began thinking about this is because I identify as an HSP — a “highly sensitive person.” This designation refers to an innate personality trait in 15-20% of the population in which the wiring of a person’s central nervous system causes “hypersensitivity to external stimuli, a greater depth of cognitive processing, and high emotional reactivity.”
Basically it’s the neurological equivalent to a perfect storm of FEELINGS.
What that means for my daily life is that I’m hyperaware of sensations in my environment and I’m also often unable to cut off my cognitive and emotional processing of those sensations.
Over the years I’ve come to accept and appreciate this as a superpower. It allows me to be highly empathetic to others, extremely self-aware, and a simple smell or the heat of the sun on my face can send a wave of the deepest joy throughout my entire being. I wouldn’t trade the capacity for that kind of transcendent beauty for anything.
BUT… because of this trait, I’m quite literally wired to experience pain differently.
Anything from the smallest paper cut, to a pounding headache, to a broken bone, to a broken heart… there is no blocking it out for me. I can’t compartmentalize it or bury it or rationalize it away, and the sensation often consumes my thoughts.
My husband Jason and I often joke about this by referencing my need for a “pain journal” where I can write down the various sensations I’m aware of on a regular basis. The truth is though, while we joke about it and make light of it, when I dig deeper I can admit that my relationship to pain is something that I actually feel incredibly self-conscious about.
I’ll find myself in situations where even the tiniest sensation of pain becomes problematic. For example, since I started my running challenge two weeks ago, my toe joints in my left foot are incredibly sore. Objectively, it’s such a simple and insignificant injury, one that most people probably wouldn’t think twice about. But, with every step I take through our house, a neurological signal pulses throughout my entire body alerting me to this pain in my foot.
That’s when the inner conflict starts.
On one hand, out of self-compassion I want to honor my authentic experience of that pain, however mild or severe it might be.
And yet on the other hand, I find myself judging that experience, feeling weak and fragile, and wondering why I can’t push past a simple sensation -- especially when other people experience far greater pain or adversity on a regular basis.
This conflict becomes even more heightened when someone else is involved.
For example, if Jason and I are in the gym, I know (cerebrally) that I have to push beyond a certain threshold of discomfort in order to get stronger. But there’s a difference between discomfort and pain, and sometimes an exercise creeps past discomfort and into pain. It could be a sharp sting in my wrist or a tweak of my knee or those pesky sore toes, but suddenly I have to stop what I’m doing and listen to my body.
Those are the moments I feel most isolated because I want to be able to push that pain aside and challenge myself, but I also recognize the reality of what those signals are telling me. I do my best to communicate this to Jason, but the more I try to explain it, the more critical I become of myself and the more alone I feel in my experience.
This is going to sound strange, but this is the most honest discovery I've made about situations like this, and it's the most important thing I want to share with you. In those moments of vulnerability and isolation, I can feel myself clinging to my pain.
feel myself defending it. I feel myself wanting to stay there in that sensation, as if to provide my own source of empathy and validation that I can’t seem to find any other way. Can you relate to that feeling at all?
Here's the danger with that behavior: In seeking someone who will say “this IS real, this IS painful, this IS hard” I only end up giving that pain more power over my thoughts and my decisions.
I know there are some of you out there with chronic pain, and I just want to say I can’t begin to understand what you go through on a regular basis. It’s possible that this talk of sore toes and weak wrists is so insignificant compared to what you have to deal with (there I go judging again🙄), but I’m hoping you can still relate to how complicated and isolating the experience of pain is and I'm betting you too have struggled with how much attention to give to the very real sensations and challenges you're facing.
Universally speaking, I feel it also should be acknowledged that this conversation is applicable to our society at large right now. There is SO much personal pain that is playing out through conflict on a national scale here in the US. There are people -- especially those that identify themselves as people of color, immigrants, Muslims, LGBTQ+, people with disabilities, the poor -- who are likely experiencing pain beyond what I could ever imagine as a white woman of privilege. I know that. And yet I still can feel the collective pain that our nation is trying to make sense of.
very time someone says “it’s not that bad” or “you’re overreacting” or tries to otherwise minimize the pain that is being felt across all kinds of cross-sections of our society, I see this same phenomenon play out. I see humans clinging to their pain, holding it up and declaring “my experience is REAL and I won't allow it to be minimized.” That instinct is understandable and truly valuable because my hope is that in sharing our pain, we’re able to become more empathetic to one another.
However, whether it’s on a personal level or societal level, clutching tightly to our pain doesn’t necessarily serve us. Defending our pain only keeps us locked in a room with it, unable to see the light that lives on the other side. But then judging ourselves for feeling pain doesn’t help us either, it only compounds the hurting.
So where does that leave us then? What do we do with this pain that is so very intimate and personal and very REAL, but that doesn’t serve us either?
Well, the way I see it, we have a few choices.
Option #1: We can let pain own us. We can give it the power to affect how much joy we let in, how many people we let close. We can use it to build walls instead of bridges, and we can cling to it so we feel seen. We can allow it to make us doubt ourselves and our capabilities. We can let it steer our thoughts to self-loathing or self-criticism. And when we do that, we are letting it define us.
Option #2: We can let pain exist without giving it power. We can let it be seen without letting it get fed. We can acknowledge it without cozying up to it. We can experience it, learn from it, be angry at it even, without letting it cloud all that is joyful and beautiful and hopeful.
I know which of those options I’d prefer for myself.
As I finally put these thoughts to paper, eventually I came to this mantra for myself: “Your pain is real, but it doesn’t have to define you.”
This is what I say to myself so that I can acknowledge whatever pain or sensation I’m feeling — physical, emotional, spiritual — and I can give myself permission to sit with it without judgment. Not to “push past it” or cast it aside. Not to pretend it doesn’t exist or that it’s a figment of my imagination. But it is also what reminds me that I can acknowledge its presence without defending it to the point that it defines me. That I don’t have to cling to it so tightly that I never learn what good things are on the other side of it.
This week my challenge to you is three-fold:
- If you too struggle with pain in any sense, consider using this mantra with yourself. Practice holding space and being your own advocate so that you can feel seen, but in that same breath see if you can loosen your grip on your pain a bit. See what positive sensations you make room for when you release your hold on it.
- Practice radical empathy with others when they’re in pain. Instead of using phrases like “it’s not that bad” or “it could be worse”, make them feel seen and understood. Even if you can’t relate to their pain, make them feel as though it’s valid. It’s REAL. It’s not an illusion. This just might be what they need to hear in order to loosen their grip on it too.
- Dwell in a place of love. We are living through a tumultuous time of pain for us humans these days. We see it play out in acts of hatred and violence like this weekend’s events in Charlottesville, events which feel like they only lead to more pain and suffering. But, as this letter says, if we continue to double-down on this pain in our instinctive search for empathy, I fear that we’ll never make it to the other side where the transformation lives. So I want to acknowledge the tragedies big and small, collective and personal that are very real across our world right now… without allowing them to define us. Let’s shed light as best we can on the pain that’s being felt, but let’s not dwell there. Let’s dwell in a place of love instead. Let’s look for the light. Let’s make love louder.
I want to leave you with this incredible video, one that I stumbled across on Twitter months ago but that I had forgotten about until I started reading this week’s letter. It’s the story of Ruthie Lindsey whose path led her to chronic pain but who has chosen not to let her life lead with that pain.
It’s incredibly inspiring, and I hope whatever pain you may be encountering in your life right now, however big or however small, that Ruthie’s story helps you see the light and beauty that exists as well.