Rating your pain can help you brush off the little stuff and focus on what truly matters. “While this rating system doesn’t take the pain or hurt away, it helps me put it in perspective.”
Perhaps you’ve heard the saying “What upsets people is not things themselves but their judgments about things.” I thought about this quote from Epictetus, a Greek teacher and philosopher, last week when my time during a Zoom meeting was cut short. I was hoping to share some information about an upcoming presentation I would be doing later with the group. We all had a scheduled time to speak, but when it came to my turn, there were less than five minutes left before adjournment time. I felt slighted but decided to rate my hurt as a five and let it go.
We all get hurt at times. We might put a band-aid on a physical hurt or see a doctor if it’s more serious. But what about our emotional hurts? What do we do with these? If we bury them, they tend to grow. So what do we do? For me, a helpful first step in dealing with pain is to rate it. If it’s an eight or less (on a scale of 1–10), I tell myself to let it go. And if it’s a five or less, I have no trouble naming it for what it is—little stuff.
I got the rating idea from a visit to a doctor’s office when I was asked to rate the level of pain I was experiencing in my shoulder. I found this rating system helpful in communicating with the doctor about the intensity of my physical pain. I find a similar system helpful in communicating with myself about the intensity of emotional pain. While this rating system doesn’t take the pain or hurt away, it helps me put it in perspective.
I sometimes use a similar rating scale when I’m feeling sad. To me, it’s important to distinguish between feeling hurt and being sad. Sadness can be triggered by real tragedies and irreversible losses, including the losses due to the pandemic and out-of-control wildfires. When these tragedies or losses occur, I allow myself to feel the sadness. But I also look for ways to soothe my troubled soul. At times, I’ll call a friend, go for a hike, or do some gardening.
(More from Ruth Wilson: “Following the Spiritual Path of the Coyote”)
But sadness can also be caused by little stuff, which might come in the form of frustration or disappointments. The birds ate my peaches; I broke my glasses; we had to cancel a picnic because of rain. When I realize it’s the little stuff that’s making me feel sad, I turn once again to my rating scale, but with a different twist. Instead of focusing on my level of frustration or disappointment, I ask “How much does it really matter?” If the answer is a five or less, I let it go. I don’t want to give the little stuff the power to upset or disturb me.
Using the pain scale reminds me to take a look at what I fuss over, to see what it is that upsets and disturbs me. If it’s little stuff, I decide it’s best to let it go. Fussing over little stuff gets in the way of peace and happiness. Epictetus believed that philosophy should be a way of life, not a discipline to be studied. Using a scale to rate my hurts and disappointments is one way I put the advice of Epictetus into practice. His insights and advice seem to have staying power over the years. I find similar advice from a current teacher, the Dalai Lama: “Although you may not always be able to avoid difficult situations, you can modify the extent to which you can suffer by how you choose to respond to the situation.” My first response is to rate the pain. This response gives me valuable insights into what I might do next. At times, I just let it go.