12 Ways to Grow Your Capacity for Pain

Pain is an inevitable part of life, because pain has a purpose… 

The purpose of pain is to show you where in your internal landscape things have gone awry, become too constricted, have too long gone unaddressed, or need healing. When we avoid and ignore pain, we remain in a state that in the long run will cause more damage than if we meet it with open acceptance. To do that, we must develop the capacity to experience pain’s challenging sensations with a greater sense of awareness and expansion.

Here are 12 ways to grow your capacity for experiencing pain:

  1. Grow your social support network

Often easier said than done, but having the proper amount of support is one of the most important factors in addressing life’s pains. If you lack social support, try starting with making one meaningful connection with one person and go from there. Also, getting off the internet and into real-life settings is probably the best way to make real connections that have the potential to turn into a tangible and supportive community.

  1. Increase your emotional awareness

Start paying attention to how you really feel. If you find yourself avoiding certain feelings, ask yourself why. If you don’t know how to label what you feel, find a feelings wheel online and start using it as a tool to learn emotional language. The more emotionally aware you are, the more you can allow whatever emotion you are having to run it’s course so that it does’t get trapping in your body as unresolved stress which could lead to manifestations of physical pain or worse emotional pain down the road.

  1. Increase your self-compassion

Be patient and gentle with yourself. Feeling pain doesn’t make you weak or a moral failure. Pain is a normal part of life and it has a very important protective role to play. When you hold yourself in shame and blame cycles you create constriction in your mind-body. Constriction is a major source of physical and emotional pain. Self-acceptance and self-compassion create expansion in your inner landscape. Expansion allows for the flow and movement needed to relieve pain.

  1. Listen to your body

Physical and emotional pain can often be mapped and tracked in the body. The more you can actually FEEL your body and identify when and where you feel pain and other sensations, the more empowered you will become to address it. If you have a lot of trauma and are very dissociated, you may not easily feel your body or some parts may have stronger sensation than others. This is normal. Even if you cannot feel, that’s great feedback. Get curious about what you do or do not feel. Ask yourself what it’s trying to say. If you need help connecting with your body, somatic coaching or psychotherapy might be a good place to start. 

  1. Increase your capacity for discomfort

When you feel pain, experiment with staying with it before you jump to your usual methods of pain-avoidance. It doesn’t have to be long, even a short pause is enough for you to begin growing your capacity to experience pain and discomfort. You can also challenge yourself by doing things like holding a piece of ice in your hand for as long as you can (this is a pain coping experiment taught in Birthing from Within classes). 

  1. Find ways to feel empowered

When you’re in the thick of feeling pain, especially if you find yourself feeling powerless, look for little things that you have control over. Having a sense of power, agency, or control over a situation can have a big effect on whether or not you develop PTSD or some other maladaptive stress response after a traumatic experience.

  1. Let go of perfectionism

As a “recovering perfectionist” who recently uncovered yet another layer of perfectionism in my habit nature, I know it’s easier said than done. However, it can be done. Try addressing the underlying fears that are at the root of your perfectionism while adopting a “failing forward” growth mindset. Give yourself permission to make mistakes, plan to make mistakes, even try to make mistakes on purpose. It’s okay to do something wrong and learn from it. When you find yourself trying to make everything perfect, find one small way to release control and notices how that feels. Try to stay with any discomfort and allow it to shift and change in the moment. 

  1. Self-Soothe

What makes you feel better? Self-soothing in a conscious and healthy way is a very advanced skill that many of us never learned to do. A lot of our self-soothing is reactive and maladaptive and not actually good for us in the long-term. Give your past self some love and appreciation for having the wisdom to access soothing strategies even if they aren’t particularly helpful now and then start to explore ways that you can soothe yourself in healthier, more sustainable ways. Some ideas for healthy soothing are using cozy blankets to curl beneath, drinking healing teas, slowly savoring delicious food, and self-massage. 

  1. Make meaning with rituals

Life is a lot harder when there isn’t a sense of meaning or purpose around it. Ritual helps us to intentionally create meaning in our lives, adding a layer of richness to it. Ritual is often associated with spiritual practices, but they don’t have to be attached to any such thing. You may already have habits in your life that you can bring more intention to, turning them into a ritual instead. For example, when you wash your hands after using the bathroom, you can add a ritual element to it by pausing to really feel the water in your hands, then think of something you want to release (how about your pain?) and imagine the water washing it away down the drain. Wah-la! You now have a ritual where once there was merely a habit. You took a simple, mundane moment and made it special – full of intention and meaning. 

  1. Tap on the resistance

If you are feeling a lot of resistance towards feeling better or accepting your pain, resistance tapping is a great tool. You can learn the basic EFT Tapping sequence or even simply tap your fingers together while stating the truth about what you are feeling. For example, you have chronic pain and feel like there is not hope that it will ever improve. While tapping, you would say 3 times, “Even though I don’t believe that I’ll ever be pain-free, I love and accept myself.” Then you would go on to say things like, “This pain will never be better. It will always be with me. That makes me angry, scared, and sad.” You say all these things while tapping and then once you go through a couple of rounds, you assess if anything has changed. At worst, you have created some acceptance around your situation and at best, you will find that your pain has seemingly miraculously subsided somewhat. 

  1. Turn your gaze towards your sites of pain

Have you ever looked AT your pain? Many of us have a tendency to avoid seeing our pain, whether figuratively or literally. Say you have physical pain in your arm… you may find that when you point your eyes in the direction of the pain it either reduces or increases. The same could happen if you direct your eyes opposite of the pain or in some other direction away from it. Strange, right? But it happens. Same goes for emotional pain. When we draw our gaze directly to the pain, we get valuable information about it. This phenomena can be found when employing the Brainspotting technique and with somatic awareness techniques. Try literally moving your gaze in different directions while bringing awareness to your pain. Are there positions that increase or decrease sensation? What happens when you stay with the discomfort of the pain in areas of increase? What happens when you look towards the areas of decrease? You may find as you stay with the pain, it begins to shift in interesting ways. Similarly, you may find that you need to stay in the decrease for a while because the pain is just too much at the moment. Follow your intuition on this an do what feels right.

  1. Find meaning in your pain

As I covered in my previous post, pain has a purpose in general, but is there a specific meaning or purpose that your pain has for you? So often when we are in pain or are suffering, it becomes difficult to find the meaning in all of it, but when we have a sense of meaning, we have access to hope. Hope is the fuel needed to deliver us out of our pain and into a state of release and relief. Hope keeps us going. Sometimes, we take hopeful action to address our pain only to be disappointed by the results and that’s very hard. Having hope isn’t easy and we don’t always get what we want, however, it’s imperative that all living creatures keep at least a glimmer of hope going at all times. When hope dies, despair takes over, life turns in on itself, and the pain and discomfort of it just increases. Sometimes a person needs to lose all sense of hope and meaning before they can shift into a state of greater possibility, but sometimes it just kills us. Despair is a dangerous landscape, so if you find yourself traversing it, take back up, make sure you have your go bag, and do everything you can to find any tiny glimmer of hope to transport you back to even a modicum of meaning and purpose.

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