The Paradox of Opening to Pain

If something hurts us, we should avoid it, right? If you put your hand on a hot stove, it physically harms you, you experience pain, and you pull away instinctively. If someone is physically abusive in a relationship, the best course of action is likely to seek support and exit the relationship. It seems commonsense enough. But what happens when the pain we are trying to avoid is the internal kind? When it is psychological and emotional pain? So much of contemporary culture tells us that if there is discomfort, something is wrong, and we should "fix" the discomfort to feel better. But is this good wisdom? Is it working for you, me, or anybody else?

Research shows that efforts to suppress, medicate, or avoid emotional discomfort rarely work in the long-run and may in fact make things worse for us. It seems that discomfort and pain are a natural part of life such that trying to suppress pain actually creates more suffering for us. This is the paradox of emotional and psychological pain - the less willing we are to have it, the more we get. I'll give a brief clinical example. Consider the individual struggling with depressed mood. Depression is quite uncomfortable - there can be fatigue, sluggishness, physical discomfort, sadness, and other difficulty feelings/emotions. No one really wants to feel this way. In an attempt to avoid these experiences, the depressed individual spends more time inactive, trying to distract themselves with TV and sleeping more and more. Logically this seems to make sense "I am feeling down, depressed, and fatigued. I don't want to feel this way, so I'll just sleep more to avoid the pain until I start to feel better."

The problem is that experience does not follow the logic. The more the person sleeps, the less engaged they are in the meaningful, rewarding, and valued parts of life. As this disconnection and disengagement continues, they tend to feel worse. If they continue to sleep in order to avoid the pain of being depressed, the worse they feel, and the more the depression presses in on them. The paradoxical answer is to say yes to the pain and discomfort. This is a special sort of yes. It's not the yes of "I like this" or "I want to feel this way." Nor is it the yes of "I'll agree with what the depression is telling me." Rather it is the yes of "I am willing to be open to feeling this pain and discomfort so that I stay connected (or reconnect) with life."

This concept of emotional or experiential avoidance/suppress applies to broad areas of life and various emotional strategies. For example, trying to suppress the intense pain of grief and bereavement actually intensifies the pain, delays the healthy resolution of grief, and can actually lead to the formation of other clinical issues such as depression, anxiety, or substance use. Similarly, attempts to suppress the horror of witnessing trauma, vowing to oneself "I'm not going to be horrified/bothered but what I saw," actually leads to worse psychological outcomes in the long run.

Opening to pain is not easy and seems illogical, but it is a necessary part of living truly meaningful, present, connected, and engaged lives. You can practice this simply saying "Yes, I am willing to feel this" the next time an uncomfortable emotion shows up. As you say this, try to adopt an open physical posture - relaxed face, open hands, loose shoulders. Practicing this opening to pain gives us much more freedom in how we can choose to live life when difficulties show up. Try doing an avoidance/suppression audit of your life. Examine how you spend your time over a couple of days. Take note of everything you do to avoid/suppress emotions. This can include self-medicating with substances, excessive sleep, over eating, distracting yourself when you're bored by watching TV, scrolling on your phone, playing video games, avoiding difficult situations, etc. Ask yourself "Am I doing this activity because I genuinely value it or am I using this activity to avoid some type of discomfort?" Then consider "What discomfort can I open to feeling in order to live more fully?"