Let’s get one thing straight: we humans do not like to be in pain. It’s uncomfortable, inconvenient, and very often unbearable. Whether it’s physical aching, emotional grief, mental stress, spiritual wounding… nope. We don’t like it. Our world is full of it, and we’re well aware of this. Opening up our newsfeed, reading the paper, sitting with people in our own communities – it’s not difficult to find and experience the painful tension occurring around us.
Sure, some people appear to withstand pain longer than others, and we may perceive them to be stronger or more capable than us (which can be really motivating), but when it comes to our own pain, we usually do everything in our power to make it stop. We take a Motrin, eat some ice cream, walk the dog, have a drink, binge watch Netflix… to try and numb or dull the pain we experience.
To be clear, I’m not speaking about physical or emotional crisis or abuse. These are situations where immediate action needs to be taken. I’m speaking to the pain that lingers. This is the pain that won’t go away when we try to alleviate it by using a substance, avoiding it, or shoving it down into our gut.
But solving emotional problems with physical remedies doesn’t always work.
The problem of my pain comes when I don’t want to feel it, touch it, let it in, because, heaven forbid, it may take me out. It may level me. Also, if we haven’t been taught what to do with our pain and suffering, it may continue to follow us around for a while. From personal experience, this is utterly isolating and lonely.
The uncomfortable truth? Pain can actually be helpful. People who can’t feel physical pain get very sick and it’s quite dangerous to their health. People who don’t allow themselves to feel emotional pain actually dull themselves to things like happiness, joy, and gratitude. Feeling pain is the thing that causes us to know what it’s like to feel good.
So what do we do with our pain? It will always be with us and those around us. How do we engage with it in a healthy way?
I think this is where compassion and empathy come in.
Compassion (n.) a feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering. [emphasis mine]
Empathy (n.) the psychological identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.
Both of these words imply some of sort of relationship. They require personal agency and another person. Both are utterly necessary for us to be fully human, and be better people.
We need compassion to move us to where there is pain in the world.
We need empathy to stay put when we get there.
Maybe we move to where there is pain in our own lives.
Maybe we start learning how to stay put once we get there.
Maybe this is what makes us strong.
As a therapist, I daily have to confront my own personal discomforts with pain and suffering to be able to sit in it with others. While confronting my pain is …painful, I’ve found it to be one of the most fulfilling and growth-inducing practices I do. And when I do it carefully, mindfully… the easier it can be for others to enter into their own.
The easier it is to be empathetic with ourselves, the easier it is to confront the pain in those we love. This is difficult, long-suffering work. But in the end, I think it makes us personally stronger and better humans to each other.