Tag Archives: learning from pain

Emotional Pain and Sanity

My recent blog about psychological violence elicited a very good point from Robin Herne – namely the way in which more New Agey approaches to life suggest that it’s up to us not to feel hurt or upset. We shouldn’t in this system, need or want to experience pain, and we can let it pass over us, and not be affected. This is an approach that facilitates bullying, and is often deeply unhelpful. Part of the problem is the tendency towards a glib simplicity that isn’t equal to real life situations.

Firstly there’s the issue that being able to cheerfully ignore that which might hurt, is insane, and not something to aspire to. We need negative feedback, it tells us when we are short of the mark, actually wrong, or causing pain to others. There are few things more difficult to deal with than the person who will not hear that they are causing pain and distress. No matter how uncomfortable it may be, to be a sane and functional human being we all need to be able to hear that we’ve messed up. That can hurt. We need to take that pain on the chin, and respond to it. We also need a culture in which is it allowable to make mistakes (and therefore to learn), but that’s a whole other issue. It’s very easy to tune out the negative feedback, maintaining your inner calm through total disinterest in the feelings and needs of the rest of the world. That’s not Druidry.

Then there’s the kind of hurtful stuff that comes as a result of other people’s pain, fear, insecurity and so forth. Fragile egos and wounded souls can inflict hurt, not out of malice, but sometimes because they have no idea how to do better. The ‘do unto others before they can do unto you’ mentality. Responding in kind will further entrench hostility and increase pain all round, which helps no one. Ignoring it certainly isn’t guaranteed to make them go away, and may also reinforce erroneous beliefs. If the flailing person is your partner, parent, colleague… they need dealing with, compassionately. It requires seeing past the spikey surface and finding a way to engage with what is underneath. Think about how you might try and work with an injured wild animal, and take that as a model. Move slowly, make no sudden movements or alarming noises, be patient, expect to get bitten. People who cause hurt out of their own pain can be helped out of that place and it can be well worth the effort and the odd bite. They need to learn that not everyone is going to hurt, attack or humiliate them.

There are hurts that come because someone enjoys causing pain. I think these are often more subtle, so you won’t even notice at the time that you have been reduced. Instead, you’ll be apologising for having got it wrong again, for misunderstanding, for not being good enough, clever enough, patient enough. These are the hurts that don’t (unlike the first set) offer ways to improve. They give you a sense of failure, unworthiness, insufficiency. There’s often no sense that you could do something to fix it, either. You *are* a bad person, a waste of space, a nuisance. You can’t fix that, and they treat you accordingly no matter what you do. The hurt doesn’t necessarily come in the moment of abuse, either. It’s a slow desolation of self. If you are a never good enough child, self-esteem trampled by parents or teachers, you may never even realise there are alternatives, you just internalise how rubbish you are, and that puts spikes on the inside, that will shred you perhaps for the rest of your life. It can happen in workplaces and in relationships too, although there we stand a better chance of spotting it, but not everyone does. You can break a person and them not realise what you have done, which is truly awful.

The only way to respond to the third kind of pain, is to recognise it and get the hell out. The person who will wound you and declare you never good enough, will never be impressed or won round. They may well encourage you to think it’s possible, the eternally dangled and unreachable carrot that allows them to beat you conceptually (and sometimes literally) when they please.

Emotional pain can be dealt with productively. There’s the sort we learn from to grow and develop. If you can grow and develop by taking onboard something that hurt, then it was useful pain and you benefit from it. There is the pain caused by the suffering of others, and if you spot that and deal with it compassionately, things can improve for both you and the other one, and for people around you, too. The third kind of pain serves no purpose beyond entertaining the sadist who practices it. The only thing to do is recognise them for what they are. If you can never get it right and never be good enough, you are experiencing the kind of pain that needs not only to be ignored, but to be escaped from. The greatest agony in this can be the requirement to recognise that someone whose opinion you have respected, and you have trusted, is actually rather awful. That one hurts, and fear of that pain can keep us prisoners when we should be running away. It can be easier to internalise the blame, than face the hideousness of a corrupt soul. We can fool ourselves into thinking we can save such a person, or that they only do it out of pain, but stay there long enough and you’ll see that nothing changes – you do not become ‘good enough’ to please them and they do not become secure enough to let go of their justifications for abuse. There comes a time when sanity demands saying ‘enough’ and walking away.