Physical pain is a signal that something is wrong. Our automatic reaction is to reduce it as soon as possible. It makes sense that we react in the same way to emotional pain.
Besides, we are conditioned by our communities and culture to avoid unpleasant emotions, hide them and beat them down. We often perceive them as a weakness, as a signal of impotence and failure. But what if emotional pain can teach us the most and inspire us the most?
Emotional pain is often a signal that we are limiting ourselves, that we don’t follow our potential and our ideals, that there is something deep and vitally important from which we have distanced ourselves, or against which we have built internal walls. Emotional pain invites us to change.
If you pay attention to what your pain is telling you, if you are willing to hear not only what is wrong or missing, but also what choices are possible – if you are ready to drop your internal self-censorship and mental barriers – you’ll probably find that your pain wants to show you possibilities you didn’t think of, or rejected as too challenging and not safe enough.
It doesn’t necessarily mean (but it might) that you need to make dramatic changes in your life and start something completely different. Maybe your pain will simply tell you that you need more authenticity and deep honesty in life, more fulfilling relationships with others, or what would make you feel more alive and bring more meaning into your life.
For various reasons – tradition, habits, religion, security, control – our communities teach us quite early in life to suppress our authenticity and passion. Pain reminds us of what we forgot, of deeper needs we learned to drown in distractions. Ignoring pain (out of habit, fear of change or self-doubt) can keep people not only in shallow existence, but even in abusive relationships sometimes.
Two among the biggest religions/philosophies in the world (Hinduism and Buddhism) in essence focus on escaping and reducing suffering as their end goal. Another one – Christianity – teaches people to meekly accept suffering as a way to earn presumed reward in the afterlife. In the last few decades, the philosophy of “positive thinking” urges us to ignore, avoid or cut off all unpleasant thoughts and feelings. Can you imagine how different the world would be if all those philosophies taught us to make the best out of pain, using it to fuel our motivation and creativity?
The purpose of emotional suffering is to wake us up and motivate us. Once you are aware of this, it might seem insane how most people do whatever they can to suppress, avoid and ignore emotional pain. It’s normal to prefer happiness over pain. But we can’t live true fulfillment and wealth of experience if we close ourselves from the whole range of honest emotions and ignore what they try to teach us.
Pain, essentially, tells us that the change we want, our deepest longing, is far more important than all excuses, fears and walls we use to keep the status quo. Pain tries to motivate us to accept the challenge, to come out of the familiar into something new, to “stretch ourselves” further than we thought we could. Doesn’t it sound like a much richer, more meaningful life than just searching for fun and pleasure?
Don’t seek happiness, seek intensity!
I like to say to myself that any experience is better than no experience. Such an attitude requires accepting the possibility of experiencing disappointment and all kinds of discomfort in new situations. This in turn requires you to make friends with all your emotions, to recognize that even the unpleasant emotions are not there to hurt you, but to improve your life.
There is something deeply liberating and inspiring in willfully exposing yourself to potential discomfort. Not out of masochism and seeking pain, but as a way to discover more about who you are and what you are capable for, and ultimately to build a relationship with yourself than nothing the world could throw at you can shatter.
When I look back in my life, I can see how some painful periods pushed me forward and motivated me to do more and go further than I otherwise would. Also, this happened just about every time when I allowed happiness to lull me into comfortable routine, into slowing down and diminishing my expectations of myself. Recognizing that, I decided to never in the future allow myself to become complacent when I’m happy, but to keep straining my mind and seeking new challenges.
I believe that even the worst experiences in life can make you more thoughtful, more compassionate, more connected to what is really important in life, more intensely motivated and ultimately lead you to live a far richer life internally, than the life of content complacency. And who knows, perhaps if you pay attention and learn your lessons intensely from small crises, you might not need bigger drama in your life.
I’ve been writing before about how important it is to listen to all our emotions and to messages given to us by sorrow, longing and frustrations, and also about how children too need challenges rather than protectiveness. Yet I still spent many years thinking of emotional pain more as an anomaly than an important catalyst in life. In my work, I used to focus on resolving emotional pain from childhood and turning it into pleasant emotions. Now I think it’s much more important to turn it into motivation and passion.
In Western civilization, people with schizophrenia who “hear voices” in their minds, usually hear unpleasant, frightening or malicious messages. Did you know that in countries where “hearing voices” is considered holy rather than a frightening disease, such people much more often hear uplifting, encouraging, positive messages? Makes you stop and think a bit, at least I’d hope so. I find it’s usually very similar with less pleasant emotions: the less we see them as “negative” and wrong, the more empowering and inspiring they can be.
Once you allow pain to crush and strip away all inner rigidity, self-deceit and societal lies, all excuses and fears, you are left with who you truly are and what is truly important. It’s the end of “the long dark night of the soul”. You come out strong, full of purpose and passionately alive. The word “happiness” loses its meaning compared to this state. Will you get there? You have a choice, every minute of every day.