The Hidden Benefits of Owning Our Own Pain and Facing It Head On
By: Jen McWaters, Psy.D. | February 28, 2020
Coping with our own pain and suffering is something I talk about often in therapy. Coping skills help us own our own pain and suffering while offering powerful options for dealing with them head on. But that’s not all.
Many skills exist for helping us cope with difficult emotions, such as accepting our experiences for what they are, or shifting focus from our own pain toward something else. That something else might include the nature around us, addressing a complex task, or even acknowledging someone else’s pain. For example, when a client feels significant anxiety in session, I often offer the option to focus on colors in the room or by doing a distracting mental math problem. Quickly, the anxiety becomes more tolerable and manageable.
A tactic to cope for more than a moment includes accessing and tapping into gratitude to gain perspective for the good that we have, instead of the pain and suffering we have but don’t want. Another coping skill is to focus our attention on giving to those in need around us, such as through volunteering. Caution is called for here, however, as many of us may use caring for others to avoid dealing with our own problems. Or, we might minimize or invalidate our own painful experiences in comparison by thinking “I shouldn’t feel this way, other people have it worse.” That is not what I am suggesting here! Instead, caring for others is a way to acknowledge that pain is an experience all humans share. Caring for others can also soften the intense focus on our own pain — the unhealthy focus that makes our own hurt hurt even worse!
Think of it this way: Let’s say you injure yourself or get sick, and for the whole day all you can think about is how miserable you feel. Sound familiar? I’ve been there too, mentally ruminating on how horrible I feel, making me not only feel worse but also more distraught about my predicament. My thoughts expand and snowball, making my suffering even more intense. Then, my suffering takes over my whole day, adversely impacting my interactions with people I care about and making me irritable, anxious, or depressed.
Many options exist for coping with these kinds of situations, acceptance and mindfulness being the important “owning it” and “facing it” skills to practice in these moments. However, less often do we use coping through gratitude (example: “Even though I’m injured, I’m thankful that I will be able to heal and get to take sick days from work to recover”), or by turning our attention to the pain of others (example: “Although I’m not feeling well, I want to be a good partner and be present for them if they’ve had a hard day”).
Being in pain ourselves and being there for others are not in opposition. Let’s work on accepting ownership of the painful experiences we have as human beings in this life. Facing them head on for ourselves as well as others lightens the painful load we all bear and highlights the beauty of relationships we are also afforded in this life.