Pain, Our Greatest Teacher for Growth
“Pain can turn our world and our internal compass upside down and shove us into darkness. Simultaneously, however, pain can shock us or catapult us out of everyday autopilot.”
Pain can be an invasive, paralyzing part of life. Emotional pain, physical pain, pain caused by stress or disruptions in our career—we experience different types of pain for many reasons. Pain can lead to chronic stress and foster disease if our resilience reserve becomes depleted. Pain can be a shock to the system that jars us from the familiar and sends us hurtling into the unknown.
A client of mine shared a story about his friend, the CEO of a company in England. One day, his friend’s company imploded and went bankrupt. The day after, the CEO’s wife found him in their home, dead by suicide.
No tragedy, no matter how painful, means the end of life. When pain is so bad we cannot imagine continuing, we must pause, breathe, and make the choice to continue breathing. In the moment, pain can feel overwhelming, but pain will pass. As difficult as it may be, our job is to see pain as a teacher. To approach it as an opportunity for growth. Sometimes, that can be the only choice we have, and our life depends on making it.
Pain can turn our world and our internal compass upside down and shove us into darkness. Simultaneously, however, pain can shock us or catapult us out of everyday autopilot.
Everyone has experienced emotional and physical pain, whether that involves abuse, betrayal, abandonment, grief, shame, rejection, loneliness, chronic physical pain, disease, or countless other things. Yet everyone’s experience of pain differs. Further, what causes pain can differ. What drives one person to feel tremendous grief might not affect someone else in the same way. This is why it is impossible to evaluate, judge, or compare experiences of pain. What really matters, and what this chapter focuses on, is acknowledging pain when it exists, learning to cope with it, and growing from it as a result.
Acknowledging pain is rarely easy. We spend our lives trying to avoid pain, and when it arrives, we often try to deny or minimize it. However, the moment we feel pain is when we must pay attention to our thoughts, feelings, and actions. This fosters the understanding that helps us manage what hurts, persevere, resolve the problem (if possible), and better equip ourselves to handle pain the next time. Further, we can prepare ourselves ahead for life’s adversities by building our resilience reserves, and actively tending to our wellbeing.
We must recognize pain for what it truly is. At its worst, pain invades and paralyzes us, making us vulnerable to chronic stress and disease. At its best, pain is a catalyst and our greatest teacher. It can prompt new growth and make us more resilient. It presents challenges that, if we embrace them as opportunities, can make us stronger and better able to withstand or recover swiftly from difficult conditions. Pain is a tool in promoting our Self from one level to the next, in letting go and moving forward.
Everyone falls down. What matters is how we respond to the stumble and choosing to get back up.
Process Pain Mindfully
In a time of intense pain, we might think that life cannot get any worse and that we will always feel this bad. This sense of hopelessness is what drives some people to turn to suicide as an escape.
Processing pain, however, requires taking the time to feel and mindfully reflect on our experience. We acknowledge and accept what happened and our feelings, gain self-awareness, and finally let go and move on.
When we use pain to teach us and help us grow, when we allow a painful experience to shape us into a better, stronger person, we will eventually look back without regret, since pain will have made us who we are today.
Pain is always very individualized. There is no one correct way of understanding or responding to it. Processing pain also takes time and happens in phases. We cannot expect to just pause, breathe, and choose to say, “Okay, I’m over it!” We make progress in stages, and we should expect pain to return at times, while trying to avoid falling into a pit of chronic stress, which can lead to disease. The intention is not to merely endure pain, but by pursuing growth and happiness, to use pain to learn and improve ourselves.
Try the following approach to process pain (and modify it as needed):
1. Acknowledge what happened: When a sudden powerful disturbance rocks your world, acknowledge it. This is step one. We often react with shock, followed by disbelief and denial: This isn’t happening, or This can’t happen to me. This defense mechanism buffers the immediate shock, but recognize and acknowledge this defensive reaction so you can move on to the next step.
2. Feel, process, and accept the pain: Breathe, listen to your heart, and observe your emotions (see “Practice an Emotional Self-Check-In” below). Do not push them away or ignore them because what you resist persists. Experience your emotions as a wave, coming and going, and remind yourself that this too shall pass. Do not judge your emotions; let them be what they are, neither good nor bad. Try not to intensify your emotions, and remember that you do not necessarily have to act on your emotions. Practice loving your emotions by embracing, acknowledging, and accepting them.
3. Reflect on and learn from your pain: Step back and remember that you are not your thoughts or your emotions. Find the meaning and the lesson in the experience and in your reaction (that is, attend to your connections). Choose to be curious. Ask: What is the lesson in this? If it is not clear, pause, breathe, and ask: What is the upside of this situation that I don’t see at the moment? Remove the phrase I don’t know from your vocabulary, and keep reflecting until you discover the lessons. This often takes time, so continue your mindful self-check-ins and ask: What am I learning from this? What’s one thing I can do today to help myself?
4. Forgive: Consider forgiveness of someone else to be a gift to yourself, authorizing freedom. Through forgiveness, you choose to no longer carry the weight of ill feelings, whether toward others or toward yourself. Forgiving is often easier when we consider how much we have grown from a difficult situation and how much lighter and freer we will feel once we forgive.
5. Let go and move forward: As you learn the lessons of pain, forgive, put down your heavy baggage of the past, let go, and move forward. Do not look back. Let go of the pain and adapt to the new, wiser version of yourself. Rewrite your story as the stronger and enlightened person you are becoming. Celebrate your own growth and evolution.
Practice an Emotional Self-Check-In
Whether as a way to help process a painful experience or as a separate awareness exercise, practice this emotional self-check-in. Ask yourself the following questions and journal your findings to help become more aware of your emotions:
- Where does this particular emotion arise?
- Where was the emotion the moment before I observed it?
- Where does the emotion go when I no longer feel it?
- Have I stored unprocessed emotions in my body?
- What happens when I repress an emotion?
- How do I feel when I judge my emotions?
- How do I let an emotion go?
- What is the relationship between myself and my emotions?
- What would happen if I acted on my emotions as I was feeling them?
- What would happen if I didn’t act on my emotions as I was feeling them?
Adapted from the book from Pause. Breathe. Choose.: Become the CEO of Your Well-Being. Copyright ©2021 by Naz Beheshti. Printed with permission from New World Library — www.newworldlibrary.com.
Keep reading: “Practical Solutions to Forgive from the Heart.”
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