Who is Responsible for your Pain?

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Caylen Sunderman, MFT

We’ve all heard the horror story of the person who has ignored physical pain. Let’s say the man ignored the headaches for years. Perhaps the headaches began as infrequent and minor; perhaps they began after some sort of head trauma. Either way, they grow in frequency, intensity, and duration. Finally, he can’t take the pain any longer and sees a physician. The physician runs tests and finds a tumor in the brain. The man then makes a choice.  He must ignore the pain and the severity of the condition, which will then continue to decline without intervention. Or, he can acknowledge that this information gives him the power and control that he lacked before the diagnosis. We don’t know if the tumor is cancerous or not, but we know that ignoring it dangerous. This man now has power. The power is in his awareness of the malady and his treatment decision.  Because he gave it attention, he has the essential (though uncomfortable) knowledge that he has a problem that won’t go away on its own.  He no longer has the decision to plead ignorance or choose comfort, the ramifications will be grave. He now has to accept the responsibility to choose how to navigate this.

The treatment may not be pretty, it may increase the pain, it may have undesirable side effects. It may require surgical excision resulting in a scar.  He pursues the treatment anyhow, because he’s willing to trade the uncertainty of this tumor for the uncertainty of treatment and surgery. Because he endures the pain of treatment, he adds years to his life, which would otherwise have ended within the year. We don’t question this, do we? We don’t wonder why the man didn’t endure the headaches, or why he chose to have surgery.  If we hear of someone in pain, we offer solutions and encourage him to see a physician. We call them a fool if we find out they have had intensifying pain for years and didn’t intervene. We know that if we ignore physical pain, the results will be catastrophic, and potentially lethal. We have an intricate system of nerves that can help us detect specific areas in our bodies that are in need of attention, but it is our responsibility to pay attention to those signals.

Do you see where I’m going with this?

I sit with emotional pain for a living.  I get asked often, “how do you do it? Don’t you get sick of it?”  I actually love what I do, and I’ll continue to love it as long as people continue to want to be better versions of themselves.  While I do hear hard stories and work with traumatic situations, I find my clients are almost always transformed by their pain. That is often the only option for my clients. They’ve become sick of feeling depressed, tired of taking medications that don’t seem to be helping, just generally “sick and tired of feeling sick and tired.”

Some expect my role as a therapist to be one that reduces their pain and makes them feel better.  That’s not quite how it works in therapy oftentimes. The truth is that I help people slow down, ask them to face their pain and, truly experience the pain and pay attention to it, and help them learn what it is teaching them. THIS is how people can be different at the core, and how we can have the relationships we want to have!  This is how we set boundaries, understand how we contribute to the chaos of our lives, learn better postures and ways of responding, and how we grow.

Just as we do with physical pain, we pay attention to when and how the hurt (or depression, or anxiety, etc) shows up, we learn how it makes us act, and we CHANGE. Generally, with emotions our tendency is to do the opposite: we isolate, we stop talking, and we get really reactive, and we offload our hurt onto those close to us. If we treated our physical pain like we do our emotional pain, we will be incredibly unhealthy and have short and miserable life-spans.

“It’s a pivotal moment when you finally get tired of your own shit.” – unknown

One thing that keeps us stuck in pain (or depression/anxiety) is that we’re so surprised that we feel this way. In “The Subtle Art of Not Giving A F*%$,” Mark Manson suggests we tend to feel we’re TOO SPECIAL to be depressed, to have anxiety, to have the flu, to have cancer.  When we live life believing we’re special, we are unable to reckon with the reality of what we’re facing because we’re just so shocked that we could actually be facing it.  When a person who doesn’t think he *should* be depressed (but is), he’s wasting valuable energy by being shocked that he is susceptible to a human condition. The person who “did everything right” and still receives a cancer diagnosis must quickly overcome the shock of cancer (and that cancer doesn’t discriminate) and make a treatment plan.  They did their best but they’re not too special for cancer, and no one is too special for depression, anxiety, or pain. Believing we’re above these conditions will keep us ill and will delay an improved quality of life.  We are human, we are going to have physical and emotional problems.

Who is responsible for my pain?  ME.

We are responsible for our pain no matter who or what we think caused it. We must take control or we will be a victim to our pain because it will drive us to be an angry, closed, hurtful, and broken person. If we don’t take care of our pain, we’ll only end up hurting ourselves or others far worse.  We’ll be someone who numbs and offloads pain instead of someone who takes responsibility for their healing. If someone trips me and I fall and break my arm, I am responsible for seeking out the help I need to be repaired. Only I can understand how much it hurts and decide to have the arm examined. I could suffer each day and stuff my mangled arm into my shirt and pretend the pain and deformity aren’t there, and then I’ll have to deal with the long-term effects of not treating the fracture. The long-term effects are often much more debilitating and painful than the injury itself.

It isn’t the fault of the person who tripped me if I don’t choose to fix my injury. It isn’t the fault of the doctor is unable to properly reset my arm if I let my broken arm be untreated for weeks or months.  It’s not the fault of my husband, who repeatedly encouraged me to go to the ER, but finally gave up because it was clear I wasn’t listening.  It is my responsibility, and only mine, to take action. If I don’t take action, that is on me.

Imagine a world where we all took responsibility for our own pain and didn’t pass it along to those around us? Imagine if we all leaned into the pain, learned how it made us act, took responsibility for it, and repaired relationships that are hurting.

It starts with you, and it can start right now.

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