Pain as a facilitator of learning

This morning my foot fell asleep. At first it was numb. I laughed sleepily as I flung it about like a rag doll, unable to sense any motion. Then the tingling started. “Oh crap,” I thought as the synapses in my brain connected, reminding me of my previous experiences with waking up sleeping body parts. The tingling spread like a paint roller covered with millions of acupuncture needles up my foot towards my calves. After attempting to speed up the process by violently shaking my foot, I sighed and relinquished my control to the inevitable. The pain swelled and receded like tumultuous ocean surf until at last, calm seas.

I think it is a very human response to turn away from pain of any form. When we are on the precipice of a painful experience (be it physical, emotional, spiritual or otherwise) our natural inclination is to flee. Masking, avoiding, shutting down prematurely, feeling in increments that we incorrectly perceive are “as much as we can handle” all lead to the pain not serving its purpose: to teach us.

Pain is the original facilitator of learning. The stove is hot. We touch it and burn our hand. Lesson: don’t touch the stove, you dumb dumb.

Allowing ourselves to fully experience pain as it happens, letting it work us over, creates the most productive type of learning: a combination of intellectual comprehension with a physiological sensation to reinforce the message. Any time we intrude upon the process out of intolerance for momentary discomfort we rob ourselves of the opportunity to learn this specific lesson.

As you undergo individual experiences with different types of pain, try to fight your natural responses to shut down, for your own long-term benefit. Pain acknowledged, felt, and addressed will lead to a happier existence. Pain ignored and pushed aside will reemerge in intervals until it receives the attention it was intended to receive. After all, pain demands to be felt.


Aiding others by being sensitive to their reality

For a long time now I have been known to throw around the phrase “perception is reality.” My whole career is based on distinguishing truth from fiction as it relates to the more complex realm of individual perception. Having your reality based on only things that you see can feel very isolating, even though to some extent we all live that way. I can’t properly convey how life affirming it is to sit with someone and accept their reality, to acknowledge that their suffering is real and that you are there for them. For some people I will be the first person in their life that lets them know, “I hear you. I see you. I see it.”

In October I sliced my right hand open after an antique Anthropologie doorknob decided to give up the ghost. At the ER, I was seen by a gruff triage nurse who explored the crevasses of my wound with his stubby fingers and declared it non-fatal, a fact that was obvious to all in the room. As he roughly irrigated the gash on my hand I asked him politely if he could be a little gentler. He was appalled. “Why? You think this hurts?” I stated that it did, in fact, hurt. He laughed piously to himself. “Before this gig I was in Iraq. I treated guys who had limbs blown off. This doesn’t hurt.” I informed him that he wasn’t in Iraq anymore but in the upper middle-class suburbs where sympathy for lesser wounds was considered good bedside manner. He ignored my lecture and sent me to the back to get glued up.

Except for in certain circumstances (like in Dialectical Behavioral Therapy where grounding a person by telling them they’re acting crazy is an effective intervention) I think that the best way to help someone is to relate to them on their perception. As a therapist I readjust my preference towards a one-size-fits-all pain scale to accommodate the individual’s experience of reality. To bring it back to the story, it wasn’t helpful for the triage nurse to measure my pain on his scale of 1 to amputee, because I will probably never experience those extremes in my suburban lifestyle. By negating the pain I was experiencing, the nurse failed to do part of his job as a healer. Also he got a formal complaint that, from the look of his supervisor, wasn’t the first formal complaint on his record.

Most of us in times of crisis are just looking to be told that we aren’t crazy or we aren’t on a deserted island of our own creation. By taking the time to see people’s pain and let them know that you see it, we can help alleviate other’s distress. What I’m trying to say is don’t lose out on an opportunity to share someone’s burden just because you don’t think their burden warrants your attention.