I remember the day my first dog died. Her name was ‘Lady’, of course. She had wandered onto our property when I was about one year old and despite our efforts to find her owner, no one ever claimed her. I can’t recall my childhood without including her because she was with me for the first 14 years of my life. On that day when we finally put her to sleep, I remember shutting down in an effort to avoid the pain. Several months later I found myself weeping over my algebra 2 text book, overwhelmed with the sadness and pain that I had been trying to keep at arms length. How much energy do you invest in trying to AVOID the feelings that you don’t want to feel? Would you say you spend a quarter of your energy avoiding unpleasant feelings? How about half of your energy? How much energy should you spend in an attempt to avoid pain? Here’s the kicker to the equation, no matter how much energy you spend trying to avoid pain, it will always present itself to you regardless of your desire to be free of it.
We all know the dance that we engage in when something happens that we believe will cause us pain. Maybe we immediately go for the container of frozen sugar or we break the speed limit to get a place in the front of the buffet line. Or maybe we reach out to that person that we know will validate us immediately. Or, click on our favorite bookmarked pages so that we can flood our brains with the chemicals that bring that safe, familiar feeling. Some of us straight up deny that anything affects us. Others of us take on the negative feelings in such an unhealthy way and begin to find our significance and meaning in a broken life. In this life we will have much pain. That’s a reality that no one in their right mind would argue. So the question becomes, what will we do with the pain that will certainly come our way?
I propose that we meet these painful feelings head on with an open heart and mind. Why would we want to do that? Because it is the best way forward. It is honest and true and is one of the most loving things we can do for ourselves. It acknowledges that we are human. When we deny our pain, in a sense, we deny our own humanity. But when we allow ourselves to feel the full brunt of the hurt in our lives, we affirm that we have value. We affirm that we care about ourselves enough to process our feelings in a healthy manner.
Here are three reasons you might want to reconsider hiding from your pain.
Limiting our pain limits our joy
Often times our inclination to avoid pain is more of a reflex than a decision. The problem is, we can’t turn down the volume on one emotion while allowing the others to sing. There is only one master volume knob for our emotions. Either we are avoiding them, or we are experiencing them. So if we choose to minimize the way we feel our pain, we also minimize our ability to experience joy, love, hope, compassion and gratitude. That may be worth the trade off for some people. But is that the life you want for yourself?
The fear of pain magnifies even the smallest discomforts
Thomas Merton says it best, “The truth that many people never understand, until it is too late, is that the more you try to avoid suffering the more you suffer because smaller and more insignificant things begin to torture you in proportion to your fear of being hurt.” Imagine a person that spent their life trying to avoid even the smallest amounts of discomfort. Eventually, that person find themselves on the couch in front of the television with processed food within reach and a heart that’s been emptied by the lack of life experience that is necessary for fullness. If you can find the courage to open your heart to feel every emotion, including pain, you will find a freedom that begins to spread like a virus through your entire life. That freedom will compel you beyond your comfort zone where life takes on a richness and fullness that can never be found from the comfort of your couch.
The energy used to avoid pain in the past can be harnessed to live a full life.
Imagine what life might be like if instead of spending half our energy on avoidance of negative feelings, we used that energy to not only face our fears and pains, but to take the kinds of actions in our lives that develop character and strengthen our hearts? I have yet to die from experiencing my feelings. And I’ve had some major disappointments in my life. When I embrace my feelings, positive and negative, I am able to move through them in real time. I can’t stress how important this is. Pain doesn’t lessen or go away until it is realized. Only after we realize the extent of our hurt and pain can we heal. If we don’t deal with it now, we will deal with it later. The difference is if we choose to deal with it in real time, we get to deal with it on our terms. The alternative is to allow it to creep into our lives in ways that we are unaware because we are ignoring pain.
The pain will go away in time. The sooner we face it, the sooner is begins to dissipate. What pain are you avoiding right now? Could you find the courage to face it directly and allow yourself to experience it in a healthy manner? Is there a trusted confidant you could call and begin to express exactly what it is you are feeling and why? As the great Burt Bacharach and Carol Bayer Sager once penned… That’s what friends are for.
"It is easier to find men who will volunteer to die, than to find those who are willing to endure pain with patience." - Julius Caesar
"Grief can be the garden of compassion. If you keep your heart open through everything, your pain can become your greatest ally in your life's search for love and wisdom." - Rumi
"I spent a lot of years trying to outrun or outsmart vulnerability by making things certain and definite, black and white, good and bad. My inability to lean into the discomfort of vulnerability limited the fullness of those important experiences that are wrought with uncertainty: Love, belonging, trust, joy, and creativity to name a few." - Brene Brown