When we’re in pain, our first job is to acknowledge that pain exists in our world right now, and needs to be managed.
A lot of people lose a lot of momentum in managing their pain by going through a long period of denial, in which they try to pretend their pain doesn’t exist.
The reason I want you to acknowledge your pain, rather than pretending it doesn’t exist, isn’t because I’m some sort of sadist.
The reason is actually pretty simple: you can’t manage something you refuse to admit exists.
Let me say that again: you can’t manage something you refuse to admit exists.
This holds true for all sorts of pain: physical pain, depression, anxiety, grief. If you’re interested in managing it and not letting it control you, you’re going to have to look it in the eye.
No way around it.
Pain inconveniences and incapacitates us exactly as much as it does. No less, but no more— unless we tun the volume up on that pain by pretending it doesn’t exist.
If we acknowledge our pain— its exact nature, its exact intensity, the exact ways in which it incapacitates us— we can start to formulate a realistic plan to work around it.
If we acknowledge our pain, we can begin to consider useful, effective strategies to minimize and turn the volume down on that pain.
Put another way: how do you expect to formulate a truly effective strategy to work around or work through something if you haven’t acknowledged and examined the EXACT parameters of that thing?
Pain freaks us out. We don’t like it, obviously.
But pain freaks us out on an even more basic level: when we experience pain, our evolutionarily-honed response is to escape that pain as soon as possible, because we don’t know when the hell we’re going to be out of that pain.
The cave-people ancestors in our evolutionary history figured out that things that hurt you often end up killing you. So the instinct to escape pain as soon and as emphatically as possible has been hard-wired into our behavioral repertoire.
It takes our more evolved cerebral cortexes— our bigger brains— to understand that if our first or only response to pain is to run the other way as fast as possible, we’re likely to just prolong that pain…or run headlong into situations that are more painful than the one we’re trying to escape.
Productively acknowledging pain doesn’t mean we have to like it.
It doesn’t mean we have to revel or languish in it, though some people do seem to have an interesting habit of jumping into painful situations and swimming around in them (whenever this is the case, I get curious about the greater pain they think they’re avoiding by doing this— or, conversely, how they’re somehow deriving pleasure or reinforcement from that behavior).
Acknowledging and assessing pain is a simple, but not easy, skill. It requires us to get over our initial panic— to stop freaking out for a sec— and to learn to take a few steps back from ourselves…while, yes, still experiencing the pain.
We can do that— observe ourselves while still remaining attached to our experience. We do it all the time, in fact. (It’s a trick we psychologists call developing your “observing ego”).
When we experience pain, the first thing we need to do is throw our self-talk skillset into gear.
If you’ve ever watched a professional boxing or mixed martial arts fight, you might have noticed the fighters’ respective cornermen shouting instructions and encouragement to the athletes, especially when they get into trouble. When we experience pain, we need to be our own “cornermen.” We need to learn to talk ourselves down from that reaction of fear and panic that accompanies pain. We need to be our own “coach” that helps us descend from that place of anxious desperation.
Then, once we’ve put on our self “coach” hat, we need to put on our “scientist” or “researcher” hat when it comes to our pain.
We need to ask questions of it. We need to assess it. We need to observe it.
Yes, we need to do all of this WHILE we’re hurting. (I didn’t say this was an EASY skillset to develop.)
The thing is, though? As we develop those two skillsets— our self-“coaching” skillset and our “researcher” skillset— we’re going to find our pain is ALREADY more manageable and managed than if we were simply denying that the pain exists.
Learning to talk yourself through your pain and look at your pain through a “scientific” lens begins to put YOU back in charge of your experience.
Denying and disowning pain only robs you of the ability to control your experience in any way.
Pain isn’t easy to manage, and no one is saying it is. Moreover, no one knows what your pain, specifically, is like. I would never, ever be so arrogant as to tell you I know exactly what you need in order to handle your specific experience.
I do know, however, that nobody— and I mean that, nobody— has wished or willed their pain away through the magic of denial. Nobody has ever effectively managed a problem, pain included, in the long term through denial.
I want you to acknowledge your pain because I want you to both feel less pain and manage the pain you do feel well.
And you can.
I truly believe that.
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