What I’m about to talk about is universal. 

By that I mean, we all have one.

No, I’m not talking about a heart, or a lung, or a brain.

I’m talking about a story – a painful story. A story about a challenge that we have faced or are currently facing. Most of us have dozens of these stories. And you know what? These stories make it much harder to manage the unavoidable discomfort and pain that comes with a human life.

There are three challenges that we live with – but only two of them are necessary. 

These challenges are discomfort, pain, and suffering, and for the sake of this article, I’m going to define them in my own way.

Discomfort is any negative feedback to your nervous system that is mostly unconscious. It may be that we are sitting awkwardly so our body shifts position. Or that someone says something that we don’t like, so we snap at them. Or even just that we feel hunger, so we eat. Discomfort is necessary to keep us alive.   

Pain is a strong sense discomfort that recognised by our conscious mind. Consider times that we roll our ankle, bump our head or burn our hand on a stove. Some of us have chronic pain, such as arthritis, headaches or back pain. 

Suffering is an existential pain that arises when the sensation of pain also becomes a painful story about “me.” This is the fuel for most emotional pain that we experience.

Put simply, what we tell ourselves about the pain, i.e. how we ‘own’ it, determines both how long the pain sticks around and the intensity with which it arises. If there was no story about the pain, and only a sensation, there would be no suffering. This is true for both acute pain and chronic pain. 

When you look closely – through the lenses of direct experience or science – there is really little difference between the beliefs that cause emotional pain and the physical pain we feel. In fact, on a neurological level emotional and physical pain is actually processed in very similar parts of the brain: the anterior insula and the anterior cingulate cortex. 

Fortunately, we can start to break down these beliefs by questioning our thoughts. Not just once or twice, but over and over again, until they start to unravel. 

Think about beliefs like a sweater that we walk around with and thoughts like the threads that make up the fabric. As we question the thoughts we are pulling at threads, until eventually the painful belief that we carry around with us just falls away. This is a longer process that requires more than what is contained in this article, but the following questions are useful starting points. 

#1: What is the story I am telling myself about this pain?

If pain is in your conscious awareness, then there is almost always a story you are telling yourself about the pain. Maybe it’s something like “this is the worst thing that has ever happened to me” or “I used to be happy before I had this problem.” Whatever the case, if you don’t first identify the story then it’s very hard to question it, and you’ll go on assuming that it’s the reality, rather than just a painful story.  

#2. How have I mistaken the story of this pain to be my identity?

Almost all stories have a degree of ownership to them. Anytime you notice the use of “I, me, mine” in a story about pain, then you’ve taken this story to be part of your identity. There are, however, different degrees of identification with our painful stories. For example, “My sore ankle is going to stop me from rollerblading next week” is more like a leaf on a branch, whereas “I’m just the guy in pain, everyone sees me like that” is more akin to the tree-trunk.  

#3. Do I truly know how I’m going to feel tomorrow?

The degree to which we perceive future certainty over our stories of pain is also the degree to which we become anxious about the pain. If you look close enough at your experience of pain, there may be very little consistency. Maybe you have a headache and the pain wants to tell you “You’ll have one in the morning as well.” But can you really know this? Have there been times where you expected to have pain, but didn’t? Or you expected to not have pain, and you did? Pain can cause fear and fear causes anxious predictions about what tomorrow brings.

#4. If humility could talk, what would it say about this pain?

What role does humility have in dealing with pain? Well, it’s simple. On a basic level, pain tells our brain that we are in danger. An organism in danger is one that is forced to put itself first. In terms of a painful story, this is usually translated through the mind as “this shouldn’t be happening to me.” “I don’t deserve this.” Or “This pain is unnatural and unfair.” Humility, however, is the opposite of this. It is capacity to see that that discomfort and pain is everywhere in nature. It’s normal and it says nothing about who or what you are, or what you “deserve.” Does a shrimp deserve to be swallowed by a whale? Does a fly deserve to be caught in a spider’s web? Does a tree deserve to be struck by lightning? Maybe your mind will argue that someone or something (like a medical system) has wronged you, and that without their errors or malintent, you wouldn’t have this pain. But then that wouldn’t be humility talking, would it?

#5. Could I be less interested in this painful story? 

Interest is the ingredient that keeps the painful stories going. Imagine your mind has a Netflix-like algorithm. The stories are only written if the viewer shows interest in them. If you stopped being entertained by episodes like “This isn’t fair.” “I can’t be happy while I’m in pain” or “When I get rid of this pain, everything will be ok,” then soon enough they’d stop appearing on your timeline, and eventually they would be discontinued altogether. The less interested you are in the stories about your pain, the less your brain will pay attention to it.

Question your painful stories and they will loosen their grip.  In time, suffering will become a painful sensation and painful sensations may even become unrecognised discomfort. 

How have you learned to separate pain from painful stories? Let us know in the comments!

Ben Fishel

Ben is an author, psychotherapist and the creator of Project Monkey Mind, a blog that looks at Psychology and Spirituality to find practical wisdom for the digital age. He holds an MSc. in Applied Neuroscience from King's College London and a Bachelors in Psychology from the University of Queensland.

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