Learning to Deal with Pain

“Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.” The Dread Pirate Roberts (Wesley)- The Princess Bride by William Goldman

Pain may seem like a depressing topic, but bear with me for a bit.  Pain has an important purpose in the existence of all living things.  To feel pain is to learn.  Pain guides our path through this world, and defines the boundaries of our action.

In our early years, the pain of a parent’s rebuke teaches us manners and values and expectations.  Pain precedes injury.  It is a warning that we are nearing our physical limitations.  Emotional pain is a building block of the human social contract.  It shows us, through our own agony, what our actions can cause in others.

The natural reaction to pain is to recoil.  Our built-in survival mechanisms steer us away from the thing that caused the hurt.  Pain is remembered much longer than joy.  That’s a survival mechanism too.  Creatures who continue to repeat the same painful mistakes are no benefit to the collective gene pool.

To live a good life though, you can’t be afraid of pain.  Sometimes to grow, you have to embrace the pain.  Strength training is hard and painful, but in the end you have gained an advantage.  Risk and failure are painful, but without them, learning is stifled.  Child birth is painful, but the new life it brings into the world is the future.  A little poison can help you build a tolerance.  A the sting of the needle delivering a vaccine can prevent the disease.

How do you find the right balance?  When should you allow pain to dictate your actions and when should it be ignored?  What is the deciding factor between healthy and destructive pain?  Here are a few of my thoughts:

Are the results permanent?

The pain of sore muscles after a workout is temporary.  The pain of a torn tendon from overtraining is debilitating.  Breaking up with someone and being alone is painful but you will heal.  The pain of staying with someone who is abusive or unfaithful is destructive.

Are the potential rewards greater than the risks?

Being refused when asking for a raise can hurt, but it has virtually no effect on your life, and the upside can be very rewarding.  Being rejected by a publisher, or attacked for a blog post can sting, but the no one has ever been successful without taking a risk and putting their work out there.

Is the pain real, or only your wounded pride?

We like to believe that we are smart and strong and creative.  The truth is, there are lots of people out there who are smarter or stronger or more creative than us.  It’s painful to find this out.  This pain however, is not real.  It’s only in your mind.  It’s a product of your inflated ego.  It might never go away, but without learning to ignore it, it can easily hold you back.

Pain is inevitable, but it doesn’t need to be feared.  What are your thoughts on pain?  What role has it played in your life?  Let me know in the comments.

I am addicted to learning about why. From nutrition to neuroscience and philosophy to behavioral economics I am always seeking to understand. When I am not completely immersed in the latest book to catch my eye or practicing Brazilian jujitsu, I am usually cooking for my wonderful wife, playing with my two beautiful kids or out running with one of our dogs.


    1. Thanks Rob. This writing stuff is a lot harder than engineering. Sometimes it’s like beating your head against a wall trying to get the thoughts out of your head and onto the page…I guess that’s not so different.

  1. Good stuff Thad.

    The way I see it, very little of the pain we feel these days is “real” when we’re talking about improving our lot in life. And this is the problem. Our systems work well at avoiding pain – but they’re designed for the kind of pain a sabre tooth tiger might have inflicted on our ancestors, not the wounded pride we might experience today.

    Although I’ve expereinced soem very real pain when overestimating my own snowboarding ability 🙂

    1. I agree Rob. It seems like too much comfort is poisonous. You have to get out and crash and burn every so often, both literally and figuratively, to avoid stagnation.

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