Pain is a Teacher. Listen to It.

Sometimes people forget that I’m human. An imperfect, sometimes anxious, often tired, accidentally invalidating, blind-spot driven, limited human being.

As a psychologist, others often imagine that I’ve escaped the trappings of our species through my sheer knowledge of human behavior and brains. That I’ve somehow transcended to a place where I’m never angry, I never stick my foot in my mouth, and I never struggle. Clients, students, acquaintances, friends—they all return to the tale that those extra letters at the end of my name somehow mean I’ve figured it all out. 

I assure you—I haven’t. 

Over the years, both in my work and in my personal relationships, I’ve observed one common struggle that others seem to grapple with over and over again: the difficulty of accepting the imperfect and uncomfortable makeup of human experience. It’s always a different version of the same story with a motif that suggests that there’s a sanitized way we’re supposed to be as people. 

Learn to Embrace Discomfort

The story says that when this decontamination is achieved, life will be filled with peace and free from strain. I understand the power of this story because I believed it once too. A life without discomfort sounds appealing—tantalizing even. But as I’ve come to learn, a life without discomfort is not achievable. A life without discomfort is a life that doesn’t exist. 

As humans, our suffering is unfortunately a product of our design. We’re great at problem-solving. We fly to the moon, write poetry, build skyscrapers! And we’re great at believing that everything we experience is a problem that needs to be solved. But if we listen to what the Buddhists have been saying for thousands of years, we’ll learn that pain and discomfort are inevitable parts of being alive. 

There isn’t a living being on this planet who doesn’t—and won’t—encounter discomfort in some way. That’s the deal. You don’t get to walk this Earth without agreeing to the experience of grief, feeling nervous, or burning your finger on a hot stove.

This gift of exceptional problem-solving has led us to inaccurately believe that there’s a way out of all this pain, discomfort, and struggle. It’s in this fight against reality that we create suffering. 

SimplePractice Pain is a teacher Image 2

An Indicator of Growth

What might happen if we were to become curious about this pain we’re meant to experience instead? I had a yoga instructor who once said that “pain is a teacher.” She encouraged students to notice pain in the body and use that information to inform our next choice.

She gently warned that some of us may notice that pain and attempt to force our way through it—ignoring our bodies’ signal to step away or shift positions. By doing this, we’d likely incur more physical distress. 

The yoga instructor said that others may notice pain and choose to give up, quit class that day, or stop practice altogether. When we quit, we’re abandoning any opportunity to work with this distressed part of ourselves and still move forward, even with the pain present. 

Pain is a teacher because pain is information. I try to think about this every time discomfort shows up in my body or brain. I think about it when a client says something to me that I don’t like or when I feel sad that something didn’t turn out the way that I thought it would. I even think about it when my upper back aches after a long day of paddleboarding.

Though the urge to problem-solve my way out of pain never goes away, I bring myself back to the knowledge that I’m supposed to feel uncomfortable—that this discomfort is trying to tell me something if I’m just willing to listen.

When viewed this way, pain and discomfort become opportunities to learn and grow. Even if a life without discomfort was possible, it wouldn’t be desirable. If we pay attention and maintain an open mind, every experience of discomfort is a chance to understand ourselves and the world a bit better. We could even make the changes we need in life.

So, I don’t try to forget that I’m a human. And I remind the people that I care about to remember that they’re humans too. I return back to this truth that none of us like—being uncomfortable is a part of being a person. I get curious about the pain that shows up. I shift positions, and I learn.

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