We have all said "this is painful" or "there's pain when I do this". Here's why you might want to stop saying that. Not because I don't believe you, no. Your pain is real, I know that and we definitely want to do something about it. But that word - 'pain' - doesn't help us.
You know when you stub your toe on the coffee table? Ouch! Painful! Physical harm that creates this thing: "Pain".
But equally it can be painful to watch something embarrassing on TV, can't it? No physical impact but we describe it with the same word.
Eating really hot food? Exactly: painful.
Putting your feet in ice cold water? That can be described as pain as well!
But burning your hand when taking something out the oven? You get it.
I hope you can see that the word 'pain' doesn't help us understand what's going on - at all!
These situations couldn't be more different from each other, yet we only use this one word to describe what we feel. Isn't that weird?
So how about we come up with a better way that actually carries some value and that might get us somewhere on our journey towards a life with less pain.
"Pain"...it tells us something is going on. But if we want to understand it in order to do something about it, we need to be clearer. How about we give it meaning?
If you currently are in pain, or alternatively, the next time you are a bit clumsy and hit your head, try to describe what you feel as if you were talking to someone you has never heard of the word pain.
Give it meaning, give it life, give it a voice, give it feelings. If you do this on a few different occasions, you will be surprised just how differentiated pain can really be - and how different your responses to it might be. If you hit your head and it hurts, you will do an action that is very different to the one you do when you were too generous with the chillies in your meal.
If you suffer from recurring or persistent pain, this can be extremely powerful for a number of reasons:
1. You are able to notice and track changes.
If you say that something is painful, that's the end of the story. Pain or no pain... But you miss everything in-between, and you have no clue whether what you are trying in order to get from A (pain) to B (no pain) is actually doing something.
Let's say you suffer from persistent neck pain like I did. When you first think about pain in this 'new' way, you can use words like angry, frustrated, stubborn, scared (more on how to describe it below).
This is extremely useful because now you have a way to see whether what you are doing about it is starting to have a positive effect, or whether you are better off trying something else.
Let's say you tune in and realise that the painful area feels "scared". You then do something that you hope gets you out of your misery. After your intervention, it might feel "surprised". That's awesome! Why? You might still be in "pain", so what's different?
You have created a change in the right direction! Simply thinking about pain or no pain would not allow you to spot this nuance.
Equally, maybe things get worse and what felt angry, suddenly feels furious! You know that you want to stop what you just did there.
By attaching meaning and feeling you create a personal tracker that indicates whether something is changing within the sensation of "pain". I cannot tell you how powerful this has been for myself and many people that I have worked with.
2. You realise that there's hope.
This is intimately linked to the above. "I'm still in pain" makes it seem like no matter what you try - it's hopeless. But if you start seeing changes within the experience of "pain" then you might soon realise that there is something you can do about it.
3. You change your relationship with your body
This is a big one. Persistent pain can often bring walls with it. There's you and then there's your body. Two separate entities that over the years have moved from living with each other, to a place where they live against each other. Here's the thing: You ARE your body. If there is a wall between you two, then we have to bring it down down if you want to change how you feel. But not listening and jumping to conclusions is exactly what solidifies that wall.
What we need is communication, an understanding of each other.
To quote neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran: "Pain is an opinion on the organism's state of health, rather than a mere response to injury".
I like this quote - "an opinion". Why is that opinion there? What is it based on? Why is the perception there that something is not optimal in our "state of health"?
In this article I am stating my opinion. By reading it, you are taking in what I have to say and you can agree or disagree with me after reading it. But you have hopefully considered my viewpoint. We can then start having a discussion. Is that what you're doing with your body? Or are you trying to make it shut up?
When we are in pain, we often don't have the slightest interest in this opinion. Pain is often really bloody annoying. But if you want to change someone's mind about something, you are never going to win them over by shutting them up. You need to have a conversation with them. You need to hear them out. It's a good conversation if they also hear you out - as a result, either of you might change their mind and in an ideal world, you can find a compromise.
By ditching "pain" and instead describing what you feel you are starting to listen. You are starting to tear down the wall between you and your body and you start having a cup of tea together. That's what makes a friendship and that is what you need if you want to get out of pain.
Putting it into action
You might think I am onto something here but that you have no idea where to start. It can even be a little overwhelming, so here are a list of angles that you can come from when moving to a more descriptive approach. The ways to do this are endless - the list below are just inspirations that are hopefully useful.
1. Feelings / Emotions
I like getting inspiration from what's called 'wheel of emotions'. Just have a look at all the nuances that you can find when describing what you feel. Always take your body's viewpoint to find the one that closely matches what you feel.
Does it feel red or blue, black or white, dark or bright? I like this because when you start seeing change you might see that things look a lot brighter...
Kind of related to colour above, but does it feel hot or cold? Warm, cozy or shock-frosted? You get the idea.
4. Actions / Motivations
What does it feel like is it trying to achieve or do? Is it holding or bracing? Is it pushing? Or is it being pushed? Or is something pulling? Is something being crushed under pressure or is something applying pressure? Is it the bully or is it the victim? Is it asking for help or is it telling you off?
Here is a wonderful example that I received from a client recently:
"It [my knee] has been feeling a bit confused lately. It feels like the introvert person who kind of knows the answer to something but is too shy to raise their hand. I guess it wants to speak up but won't just yet."
But I hope you can see that this offers a lot more than saying "it hurts". Would you approach it in the same way as something that felt angry? Approach your body, don't demonise it.