Let’s face it; who wants to be in pain?

It’s accepted wisdom that we want to avoid pain and suffering in our lives. And so we medicate the physical with a fistful of pharmaceuticals and the emotional with a fistful of, well, what’s your fancy? Food, drink, sex, drugs, internet, a hellish schedule, maybe all of the above?

And yet, from time to time, I find myself in a chance conversation. I become honoured by someone’s trust and hear what only whispers in their heart; how quietly, deeply, unhappy they are.

I hear how painful their situation feels: how unloved, how unmet, how unheard or unfelt. How it racks them and fills them with hurt and confusion.

And almost every time, after all this pain has been laid bare, I know that they’re staying. That they are choosing, consciously or unconsciously, to remain in their pain.

Sometimes I see them bristle against it. Sometimes they make plans, make decisions, disrupt their natural order. Very occasionally they rise above the stories they have about themselves and, with an uncommon boldness, set themselves free. It has been a joy and privileged to witness such courage, whether it happens near or far.

And yet. And yet. Those are the exceptions. So few do.

For a long time I’ve wondered why.

Hell, I’m not immune to this phenomenon. I’ve stuck it out. I’ve stayed. I’ve gone head-first into a blizzard of red flags. I’ve remained where I wasn’t loved or wanted. And, God, it hurt. The pain was insidious, engulfing. At times I thought it’d almost kill me. At times I almost wished it had.

So much of what I’ve read about human nature points to our instinctive aversion to pain, how we hide from it or push it away through pleasure or distraction.

But what if it’s not that? What if we’re not trying to push away the painful things in our lives? Not in a Buddhist, ‘sitting with’ pain as a way to become friends with it and diffuse its power and our suffering, but in a very non-Buddhist ‘clinging to’ that god-damn ENSURES we continue to suffer?

What if we’re using pain as a way to protect ourselves; as a protection against our deepest fears?

Think about it;

  • The pain of staying in a relationship where our needs aren’t met, for fear of the unknown;
  • The pain of staying single and lonely, for fear of becoming dependent and then abandoned;
  • The pain of overwork, for fear of experiencing the despair and loneliness we feel in quiet moments;
  • The pain of indecision, for fear of what we could lose with the wrong choice;
  • The pain of staying in a situation which eats at our soul, for fear of other people’s disapproval;
  • The pain of not knowing how we feel, for fear of the true depths of our grief and unhappiness.

The pain may be immediate or acute, but the fear it masks is deep and abiding. Because, at their heart, at our core, all of our deepest fears point to one thing: our belief in whether we’re truly worthy of love and belonging.

It’s a fear that feels too huge, too primal, too all-encompassing to engage with. And so our monkey minds cling to the withered vine, even though we can feel ourselves plummeting to our fall, even though we’ve lost true hope that it’ll still swing us where we long to go.

You’ve probably heard the phrase that “pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional”. I don’t agree; to me, pain and suffering are both part of the human experience. Pain is a messenger, and our suffering reflects our relationship with that messenger. Holding onto our pain gives a false sense of control, in the face of the unknown.

We can, however, honour our experience in four powerful ways; grieving for what we’ve lost, knowing we’re not alone, giving ourselves space, and, finally, taking stock.

1. Grieve for what you’ve lost

From Charles H Whitfield‘s Personal Bill of Rights:

“I have the right to grieve over what I didn’t get that I needed, or what I got that I didn’t want or need.”

We all need love, a sense of belonging, and a genuine connection with others. We’re hard-wired for it as a species, as vulnerable soft-bodied beings. Not having those needs met is painful, whether we’re 3 or 93. You have the right to feel grief over that lack of responsiveness.

Indeed, in many ways, love can be thought of as responsiveness – the desire to know the other and meet another’s needs as much as is possible without undue self-sacrifice. The legendary relationship researcher and psychologist John Gottman calls these requests for responsiveness ’emotional bids’;

“Throughout the day, partners would make requests for connection, what Gottman calls “bids.” For example, say that the husband is a bird enthusiast and notices a goldfinch fly across the yard. He might say to his wife, “Look at that beautiful bird outside!” He’s not just commenting on the bird here: he’s requesting a response from his wife—a sign of interest or support—hoping they’ll connect, however momentarily, over the bird.

The wife now has a choice. She can respond by either “turning toward” or “turning away” from her husband, as Gottman puts it. Though the bird-bid might seem minor and silly, it can actually reveal a lot about the health of the relationship. The husband thought the bird was important enough to bring it up in conversation and the question is whether his wife recognises and respects that.

People who turned toward their partners in the study responded by engaging the bidder, showing interest and support in the bid. Those who didn’t—those who turned away—would not respond or respond minimally and continue doing whatever they were doing, like watching TV or reading the paper. Sometimes they would respond with overt hostility, saying something like, “Stop interrupting me, I’m reading.”

These bidding interactions had profound effects on marital well-being. Couples who had divorced after a six-year follow up had “turn-toward bids” 33 percent of the time. Only three in ten of their bids for emotional connection were met with intimacy. The couples who were still together after six years had “turn-toward bids” 87 percent of the time. Nine times out of ten, they were meeting their partner’s emotional needs.”

The Atlantic, Masters of Love

Grieving takes acceptance and the loss of hope; the hope that things will be different, that history can be rewritten, that the ‘happy ever after’ we clinging to finally comes true.

Grieve not only for what you have lost so far, for those unmet bids and unmet needs, but for what you’ll lose through acceptance.

2.  Know you’re not alone

You know that list you read earlier? It’s drawn from lived experience, of my own and of others, some now history, some still causing sweat to glisten on a furrowed brow.

If you take nothing else away from this, know this: you are not alone.

As human beings we’re all prone to certain actions and beliefs. Some of the dumb shit we all do once had an evolutionary benefit to ensure an ancestor’s genetic legacy, a legacy which, eventually, became the person you squint at in the mirror each morning.

For example, we’re wired to believe that it’s ‘better the devil you know’, and to be loss averse; because we are “concerned more about losses than about gains, we often prefer to remain with the status quo even when leaving it means a huge potential gain.” If you’re scared of taking action, you’re completely normal;

“Every human being acts, from one moment to the next, knowingly or unknowingly, on his sense of probability, on what he expects to happen when he takes action .. But this is a truth we cannot know absolutely. It’s what we believe to be true.

[The] truth is known – and can only be known – when we take action into the depth and breadth of our world and brave its reaction.

We’d all like to have our cake and eat it too .. on the other hand, we must risk something that we want or have in order to gain something else .. a dilemma we strive to avoid.”

Robert McKee, Story – On Risk

It’s a risk, letting go of the pain we know so we can embrace the unknown of what we truly want. Braving the world’s reaction takes guts. It’s the path of a hero, of a warrior, of someone who writes the story of their life, and it’s scary. But guess what? You’re not alone in how you’re feeling. You’re just human.

3.  Give yourself space

It’s pretty hard to hear your inner voice when the demands of life are clamouring for your attention. In many ways this is the easiest and the hardest of the suggestions: take time out to just be.

But look at my To-Do list. Look at my diary, all the work I have to do, all the people who are relying on me, all the roles I have to fulfil. I don’t have time to BE when there is so much still to DO.

I understand; I was the same until chronic illness ensured some hefty ‘unable to do anything’-ness. And truthfully, one of the hardest parts of becoming so incapacitated was the loss of identity through the things I did and the roles I undertook. It took me a long time to realise it was how I gave myself value when I didn’t feel I had any.

Who are you without your to-do list, those roles, those activities, those things you define yourself by?

Can you give yourself space and silence to find what’s behind all that ‘busy’? Can you give yourself the permission to fail?

Giving yourself space means different things to different people. It can be a formal retreat, a weekend in the Lake District, or just scheduling an hour at the park. You don’t have to meditate, although I recommend it. Too many people say they can’t meditate, by which they mean they sit down, realise that their head is a Grand Central Station of compulsive thinking and Dear God let me have something to distract me (like pain. LITERALLY).

Here’s a secret; you meditate not to ‘get peace’ or to ‘stop thinking’. You’re not doing it wrong. You meditate so that you practise spending time noticing what’s going on in that Grand Central Station.

All those thoughts, dashing from one platform to another as if they’re the most important thing in the whole damn Universe, are just thoughts and not you. That’s all. And by regularly sitting with what is during quieter moments, you cultivate the discipline and ability to be present to what is during difficult ones.

I still get turned-over by my to-do list if I’m not careful. But it’s easier to do what’s actually important rather than what simply feels urgent when I’ve given myself some space.

4. Take stock.

It’s far easier to trust the next step if you have a good sense of where you are.

The Six Human Needs

Researched and conceived by the powerhouse that IS Tony Robbins, score your situation 0 – 10 on the following criteria;

Certainty The need for safety, security, comfort, order, consistency, control
Uncertainty The need for uncertainty, diversity, challenge, change, surprise, adventure
Significance The need for meaning, validation, feeling needed, honored, wanted, special
Connection/Love The need for connection, communication, intimacy and shared love with others
Growth The need for physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual development
Contribution The need to give, care, protect beyond ourselves, to serve others and the good of all

(For more, read this excellent explanation at http://upliftconnect.com/six-basic-human-needs/)

If Certainty is your priority, where are you making sacrifices to retain it? Can you still meet your need for Growth while holding onto what’s causing you pain? It’s arguable that by focusing on situations and relationships which rate highly on Growth and Contribution, that the other needs are met naturally (what can meet a need for Uncertainty more than growing as a person?).

The Work

Check if your pain is valid through Byron Katie‘s deceptively simple yet powerful four questions, The Work. Built around her mantra of “Judge your neighbour, write it down, ask four questions, turn it around”, it’s a great way to find out ‘who you’d be without your story’;

  1. Is it true? (Yes or no. If no, move to 3.)
  2. Can you absolutely know that it’s true? (Yes or no.)
  3. How do you react, what happens, when you believe that thought?
  4. Who would you be without the thought?

The ‘turn arounds’ can be particularly enlightening;

“The original statement, Paul doesn’t listen to me, when turned around, becomes “I don’t listen to myself.” Is that turnaround as true or truer? Now identify examples of how you don’t listen to yourself in that very same situation with Paul. Find at least three specific, genuine examples of how this turnaround is true. For me, one example is that in that situation I was out of control emotionally, and my heart was racing.

Another turnaround is “I don’t listen to Paul.” Find at least three examples of how you were not listening to Paul, from his perspective, in that situation. Are you listening to Paul when you’re thinking about him not listening to you?

A third turnaround is “Paul does listen to me.” For example, he put out the cigarette he was smoking. He might light another one in five minutes, but in that situation, even as he was telling me that he didn’t care about his health, he was apparently listening to me. For this and for each turnaround you discover, always find at least three specific, genuine examples of how the turnaround is true for you in this situation.”

The Work, Byron Katie

The Desire Map

We do things to feel a certain way, whether we know it or not; buy a house to feel secure, get a good job to feel appreciated, start a relationship to feel loved. But that strategy can backfire when our unspoken expectations aren’t met.

So think about it; how do you want to feel? Not just ‘happy’; what does ‘happy’ mean to you? Connected, intentional and abundant? Strong, free, and valuable?

The High Priestess of kick-ass provocation, Danielle LaPorte, puts it best;

“Knowing how you actually want to feel is the most potent form of clarity that you can have. Generating those feelings is the most powerfully creative thing you can do with your life.”

Danielle LaPorte, The Desire Map

With the clarity of knowing how we want to feel, the appeal of holding onto pain as protection palls in comparison. Decisions become easier when we have the right criteria to judge them by and can trigger small improvements we can make every day.

Ultimately, it’s in our hands.

We change for two reason; one, we learn enough to want to or, two, it hurts too much not to. And, if you’re reading this and knowing that you’re holding onto pain as a form of protection, that’s OK. We’ve all been there, and we’ll all be there again. That’s the nature of being human.

Be gentle with yourself and know that one day, you’ll have the faith to let go; take it from those of us who’ve walked to that edge.


When you walk to the edge of all the light you have
and take that first step into the darkness of the unknown,
you must believe that one of two things will happen:

There will be something solid for you to stand upon,
or, you will be taught how to fly

Patrick Overton

We’re rooting for you.

One thought on “Holding onto what hurts us: what’s your pain protecting you from?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.