I have often come across a misconception about the difference between pain and suffering and how to tell the difference. Pain is a factual reaction. What I mean by this is when you are in physical pain you can’t will or force it away. Hopefully it doesn’t linger or can be made bearable after a couple ibuprofen, but the experience in itself is very real. When we hit our funny bone or stub our toe we just have to ride out that wave of pain, knowing it will subside and at worst leave a bruise.
But what if after your hit your elbow or stubbed your toe, your day was totally ruined? Then you would have entered the land of suffering and that is a place that is very easy to crawl into, but takes work to crawl out of (like with lot of things). My hope with this example was to illustrate how pain (a very real experience) can be turned into suffering. Suffering occurs when we have had a painful experience and make a choice to let it stay on as a permanent house guest. Just to clarify, I am speaking more in terms of emotional pain than physical pain now. Let’s say that you had a challenging interaction with a co-worker this week and found that you were still upset about it when you got home or days later. At the time your emotional reaction was a fact. So your brain may say something like “Ugh that conversation made me feel so uncomfortable. My heart started racing and my stomach felt like it twisted into a knot.” At that point you can make a decision to either feel the uncomfortable feeling until it passes or let that uncomfortable feeling stay with you. Instead of your brain saying “That was a tense experience, I think I will go make a cup of tea or try to focus back on my work,” it would say “How dare my co-worker talk to me like that who does she think she is? I am going to call up my best friend and vent for an hour instead of getting my work done.” Can you relate? I know I can! I am the queen of throwing a pity party. Are there times when we can’t help that a situation has derailed us? Absolutely. My hope isn’t that you apply these tools to anything major (even though it might help a little), but more to help you get over the little things that can trip us up and keep up from staying on track. You do not need to boo hoo about a co-worker who is not an important person in your life! Save your gloom energy for when your really need it.
Step 1: When your emotions say “ouch” tune into your body, not your thoughts
A feeling can be a very simple experience if we choose to be mindful of the physical sensation we are experiencing. I know that when someone says something to me that I perceive as hurtful my heart will start racing and my cheeks will feel hot. That is my body’s way of telling me that I hurt. I have found that when I can stop and pause while focusing on physical sensations, I can more often than not, find some relief. I might splash some cold water on my face or put my fingers to my pulse point to try to regulate my breathing. I have noticed that when I don’t take this moment to pause and just react to something hurtful, I become reactive and might either start crying or snap at the person without giving myself the time to calm down and think things through. The problem with this is that I am reacting to my thoughts vs. my feelings. Our feelings are very wise and only ask that we take care and soothe them, whereas our thoughts can take us on an emotional roller coaster that is totally unnecessary.
Next time you feel triggered I challenge and encourage you to isolate your focus to your body sensations. Our bodies have some serious wisdom and the best thing you can do in the moment when you feel angry, sad, scared, worried is to do what needs to be done to physically relax vs. overanalyzing and attempting to be intellectual in the moment. Voila! Problem solved.
But if you are still feeling the burn…
Step 2: Ask yourself if the cut is superficial or deeper
After you have taken a moment to calm your body down you might still feel upset. This could be for a number of reasons. Maybe someone you really care about did something hurtful or an area of your life where you experience a lot of fear has been activated. Taking the time to calm your body down is very helpful because it will at least deescalate you. The next step is to figure out if you can handle the discomfort or if more needs to be done. This is a good time to scale yourself and test out whether something small is going on or something bigger. Ask yourself “On a scale of 1-10 (with 10 being the absolute worst pain) where does this fall?” I generally direct my clients to try an let go of anything from 1-5 and take a deeper look at anything 5-10. I have found that using numbers can often help us have more perspective about any given situation and provide the reality check we might be needing in those more tricky life moments. If the answer is 5 or below this is a good time to use a more intensive coping skills (ex. leave the situation by going for a walk, take a bath or listen to some music) to try to shift the mood and change the channel on whatever got under your skin.
Next time you feel triggered scale the level of discomfort from 1-10 to determine your course of action. If your answer is a 5-10 proceed to the next step.
Step 3: If the cut is deeper ask yourself if the injury will still hurt in 6 months
The next step is to figure out if you can handle the pain or if more needs to be done. This is typically when I like to ask myself the question “Will this still bother me 6 months from now?” If the answer is no, it is a good time to learn how to tolerate emotional pain vs. acting on it. This means finding ways to comfort yourself in the moment (ex. call a friend to vent, making yourself a cup of tea or go for a long drive) instead of doing something based on how you are feeling. For example, I know that when my best friend snaps at me about something stupid, it hurts but typically she never says anything that mean. I will often find out later that she was having a bad day or going through something and her snapping was completing unconscious. I would have felt awful if I had used that as a time to get confrontational. In the moment I might want to say something rude back or tell her she sucks as a friend, but I know that is would regret it and it wouldn’t be true.
Next time you are feeling pain at a level of 5-10, on a 1-10 scale, determine if this is going to still bother you in 6 months. If not, do whatever helps you feel loved and supported. This is typically a good time to reach out to someone who helps you feel more positive or at least can make you laugh At this point it may not be the best choice to sit with whatever is going on in your head alone.
If you have determined that the situation is still going to bother you in 6 months…
Step 4: Decide how to treat the cut
So far each of the steps require coping skills, but sometimes basic coping skills aren’t going to cut it. This would be a good time to reach out to a therapist,coach or trusted advisor in order to talk things through. They may be able to offer the more objective advice that we require in more difficult situations. The great advantage of utilizing a professional is that they have an outside prospective in your life and can often provide an alternative approach that you may not have been able to think of on your own. If you have been able to identify that a situation is still going to bother you in 6 months, it is still in your best interest not to take action in that moment. When emotions are high, it is unlikely that your brain is working in a way that will bring you ideas for problem solving or provide a resolution. The most simplistic guidance I can give is to sleep on it before you do anything. I know this can seem almost unbearable, but you will be rewarded if you can give yourself time to look at a problem with rested eyes.
Next time your find that a situation is still going to bother you in the next 6 months consider calling a therapist or someone wise who can help achieve some perspective. Make a conscious choice to sleep on it before acting and readdress the next day. Give yourself time. You will find a solution and/or resolution even if you give yourself time to seek counsel and rest. This isn’t something to rush.
And if that doesn’t work…
Step 5: Observe the situation as a witness instead of a victim
It can be so easy for use to fall into the role of victim when we feel wronged. This is often when we get caught up in believing we are right and the other person is wrong, blame, blame, blame, everything wrong happens to me etc. Even if you are the victim, it is not a very empowering energy to embody. I have done a lot of work with people who have had hugely traumatic experiences and I have found that without a doubt the ones that can shift out of a victim mentality, tend to heal and experience a more joyful life. It is the most incredible process to be see unfold, hands down!
The best way to start is to become mindful in the present moment without getting too caught up in what just occurred. Take a moment to really describe what is going on and the pain you are feeling. Maybe your pain has a color. Get creative! Next, you want to think in terms of explaining what happened using only the facts. I have noticed with my clients, that we take a lot of time on learning to focus on the facts of a difficult experience. It is so easy to begin to tell a “story” about what happened instead of what actually happened. You may even find that you can talk yourself off of a ledge by just focusing on what happened without trying to interpret. Lastly, remind yourself that even if the other person or circumstance is at fault, it is (and always will be) your responsibility to put yourself back together again. No one is going to rescue you sugar plum! You are more powerful and capable than you know.
And if that doesn’t work…
Step 6: Decide if external action needs to be taken
This is when we want to get a sheet of paper out and make a pros and cons list. Glamorous this is not, but necessary. If you have done all of the work in steps 1-5 chances are you have taking care of your side of the street. You have taken time to use coping skills, get some perspective and take responsibility for yourself. It is very possible that something may need to give so that your pain doesn’t become a lifetime of suffering. Maybe you need to leave a relationship, a job, or a home. Or maybe you need to have a conversation that could change a relationship (hopefully for the better) because something isn’t working. Whatever the case, it is helpful to weigh the pros and cons of taking an action step that could impact your life and other people. Chances are that once you have gotten to this step, something needs to change. A pros and cons list can give you some ideas as far as what direction you need to go in in order to move forward and heal from whatever suffering you are experiencing.
Make a decision from a place of love for yourself and others. This doesn’t mean that everything will be rainbows and unicorns, but it will be a step taken to living within your truth. Often when we are suffering it is because we are not living within our truth. Think about emotional pain as a sign that you need to do some serious checking in with yourself to make sure nothing has broken down spiritually, mentally, emotionally and physically. Think of this process as a very thorough maintenance check. You could learn valuable and vital information about yourself that you would not have if you had just ignored it.
And if that doesn’t work…
Step 7: Repeat until you feel relief from suffering
Get in touch if you get stuck 🙂 It is perfectly understandable to need to repeat the process as many times as necessary. Whatever happens and how it happens is what needs to happen.