The importance of pain

Pain is part of life, companion of many important life events, a clear sign that something demands our attention, a conspicuous signal that something is wrong or not quite right, and an invitation that we should ask for help.

Pain might be physical or mental/psychological. Psychological pain is sometimes defined as “the affective state associated with the discrepancy between ideal and actual perception of self.” Psychological pain is tied to any form of inner suffering or strong unpleasant feelings (e.g. guilt, fear, loneliness, panic, helplessness, despair). Suffering can be caused by frustrated psychological needs, such as the need for love, belonging, autonomy, success, etc. Fulfilling these needs is a drive to action—it can be a big part of human motivation per se. However, personal meanings and the unique story of each person differ from one human being to another, even when the same or similar needs are not satisfied. So, the suffering and pain of each person are specific: in order to understand something about them and to approach the inner core of their problems, we must first understand their life story.

Psychological pain is at the heart of many psychological problems. In depression, the pain is often described as “physical,” which can further lead to an over-exaggerated reaction to negative images and stimuli. Consequences might include feelings of unhappiness, guilt, ruminations, etc. Very intense pain could lead to suicidal thoughts and suicidal behaviors. The risk of suicide rises as general psychological and emotional pain becomes stronger. Suicide happens when the pain becomes excruciating—when it becomes intolerable—so the very act signifies escape from unbearable suffering.

Pain is the inevitable part of life and it cannot be surpassed. It can vary in intensity and frequency. All modern cultures are concerned with diminishing pain, very often they associate or define happiness as the absence of pain so that pain is always perceived as something unwanted and something that must be immediately abandoned. With all the necessary resources that are here at our disposal, we have come as close as it gets to the Epicurean hedonistic ideal: maximizing enjoyment and pleasant feelings, whilst minimizing pain. This impulse is so omnipresent in societies today that we are usually not aware of it, and it spans from consumerism and our daily spending, over most psychological and medicinal interventions, reaching all possible sorts of self-help books. British philosopher David Pearce thinks, for example, that all societies should strive for “paradise engineering”—a blissful state of continuous happiness which could be reached with the use of advanced technologies, such as genetic engineering, nanotechnology, pharmacology, and neurosurgery.

However, as our capacities for pain reduction are growing, so our discontent and number of mental problems proliferate too. The number of prescribed antidepressants for teenagers and adults in the US has risen by 400 percent between 1988-1994 and 2005-2008. Also, 23 percent of women age 40-60 age in this country take antidepressants. In Great Britain, the number of prescribed antidepressants has become two times bigger in the past decade.

We should live in the era of unprecedented happiness, yet that is obviously not the case. What is wrong?

Pain and satisfaction are linked at the physiological level. When we reduce our experience of pain, we will most probably reduce our experience of satisfaction as well—by “killing” pain we also constrain our inner experiences, by and large; we also constrict our emotional spectrum and emotional intensity. On the psychological level, satisfaction and pain are opposites, so every experience that can bring satisfaction, from watching the sunrise/sunset to buying a new car, cannot exist if not compared to something—if it does not exist in contrast to something else. For example, our satisfaction will grow bigger if, after a long period of isolation, we meet friends and grab a few drinks. In conclusion, satisfaction must be examined and understood in the context of all past events.

If our energies are directed towards achieving happiness, satisfaction, and gratification, we might experience quite the opposite. Not only that our consciousness will be constricted only to the positive side of life, but also when we reach the peak of satisfaction, as time goes by, we will feel less and less satisfied. This phenomenon is known as hedonistic adaptation—paradoxically, if we have an unlimited source of pleasure, we will experience less and less satisfaction.

When we ignore negative emotions, we actually amplify them more and more. In modern societies today there is an omnipresent “positivity imperative,” whereas “being positive” is more appreciated and valued than authentic psychological resilience. When we suppress negative feelings, which are often authentic reactions to life events, we negate a vital part of ourselves, trying to enforce positivity at all cost, losing the capacity to live in the world as it is, not as we would like it to be.

The conventional view, by which emotions are classified as either positive or negative, is very rigid in itself. This kind of rigidity might become quite toxic to the person who is subscribing to this view and perspective of their inner world and mental content. Some psychotherapy approaches, such as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), emphasize psychological flexibility as “an ability to stay in contact with the present moment regardless of unpleasant thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations, while choosing one’s behaviors based on the situation and personal values.” Simply put, in this therapeutic modality, the focus is on committed action that is governed by values and goals, and not so much under the influence of the incessant flow of thoughts and emotions. Thoughts and emotions cannot be directly controlled, so every attempt of control is futile, and can only deepen and magnify the initial/original suffering. Instead of suppressing thoughts and feelings, ACT is more concerned with accepting all our experiences as the root of therapeutic change.

Thoughts and emotions are intertwined in an incessant stream of psychological processes, so adopting the attitude of an observer of mental contents might be truly healing for many. In that way, a sharp distinction between positive and negative emotions weakens, and emotions can be accepted as they are, as authentic reactions in the here and now. When “negative emotions” and pain arise, they have a certain purpose and role in the broader context—they speak something important about the person who experiences them, the situation which s/he is in, and the relationship between the person and the situation. They demand our full attention. If these emotions are honored and respected as a vital part of human life experience, they come and they go away.

The famous psychotherapist Carl Rodgers once said: “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.” By accepting emotions and thoughts as an integral part of our personality, we no longer reinforce our personal suffering, transforming it into agony, adding new thoughts, and accumulating new emotions to the existing “psychological wound.” By allowing these mental states to come and go, we are opening space that can contain them—facilitating personal growth and change at the same time.

For thousands of years, many religious and philosophical schools acknowledged the fact that suffering is an integral part of life. Pain is understood as something that has value and meaning in itself i.e. something that can clear the path towards spiritual change and transformation, becoming part of a newly formed identity.

In psychotherapy, implications of this insight are multifaceted. A client who came to therapy for high levels of anxiety might firstly direct her attention to the origins of her anxiety (what has caused it); how long this problem existed in her life; what the common triggers are, etc. Understanding herself better and the nature of her problem, the client might gain a deeper perspective on what is bothering her, learn how to cope with and not to eschew her anxiety all the time, and realize what role the anxiety plays in her life.

Therapeutic change, in this case, would spring from the increased flexibility of the client and it often brings along not only reduced levels of anxiety but also a broader change in the way in which the person sees the world and herself. By accepting all experiences as an integral part of living, problems and pain will come and go, but they will be “solved” in a different way as we develop deeper insights around our emotional reactions. In fact, the gradual balance between pain and satisfaction is then perceived as a natural flow of life, which has its own purpose and meaning.

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