As a life-saving alarm system, pain keeps us focused on distress, for the purpose of relieving it, that is, pain motivates behavior that will help heal, repair, or improve. A pain in your foot, for example, motivates taking the rock off it, getting more comfortable shoes, soaking it in a tub of warm water, or visiting a podiatrist.
If we do not act on the motivation to heal-repair-improve (or fail in our attempts to do so), the alarm of pain intensifies and generalizes. The toothache becomes facial pain; the sore foot seems to throb along the whole side of the body.
When pain intensifies and generalizes over time, it becomes suffering. Suffering is repeated failure to act on the natural motivation of pain to do something that will heal, repair, or improve.
Like its physical counterpart, normal psychological pain (not caused by brain disease or severe emotional disorder) is localized in the beginning, usually in the form of guilt, shame, or anxiety triggered by something specific. When we do not act on the motivation of those specific painful emotions, the pain generalizes into a kind of self-ache - persistent dysphoria with low or unstable self-value.
When it comes to emotional pain, the behavior choices that will heal, repair, or improve are more ambiguous. Psychological pain is, therefore, more conducive to suffering.
Anything that numbs or avoids emotional pain undermines its ability to motivate corrective behavior and thereby causes suffering. The most common examples are blame, resentment (expecting someone else to relieve the pain), anger (punishing someone for not relieving the pain), addictions, and compulsive behavior. All render us powerless to heal, improve, or repair. All cause suffering.
Pain and Basic Humanity
Using blame, denial, or avoidance to numb or elude pain not only causes suffering, it cuts us off from our basic humanity. We cannot recognize the pain of others when inured to our own.
Basic humanity is the innate capacity for interest in the well-being of others. In its more developed expressions, it motivates respectful, helpful, valuing, nurturing, protective, and altruistic behaviors. In adversity it motivates sacrifice. In emergency it motivates rescue.
To prevent suffering we must follow the motivation of pain to heal, correct, and improve, which in turn will enhance the sense of basic humanity. For example, we experience guilt when we violate personal values, especially interpersonal values like love, trust, compassion, and kindness; guilt can be resolved only by acting according to those values. Shame signals a perception of failure or inadequacy; the motivation is to reevaluate, re-conceptualize, and redouble effort to achieve success. Anxiety is a dread of something bad occurring that will exceed or deplete coping skills; the motivation is to learn more about what might happen and develop plans to cope with it. Anything that undermines these motivations provides, at best, temporary relief from guilt, shame, and anxiety, suppresses basic humanity, and, in the long-run, creates suffering.
If it's that simple, why does it seem so hard? In a word, habit. Many of us have developed habits of numbing or avoiding the pain-signals that would otherwise motivate healing, repairing, or improving. Some of these, for example, blame, denial, and avoidance, began in toddlerhood. All animals, including humans, are prone to retreat to earlier habits under stress.
It takes mindfulness and emotional reconditioning to break entrenched emotional habits like blame, denial, and avoidance. The first crucial step is to take responsibility for your emotions and pain, so they can work for you instead of against you. There are various techniques for changing habits. I happen to favor those put forth in Soar Above: How to Use the Most Profound Part of Your Brain in Any Kind of Stress.
As we overcome habits that inhibit the natural self-correcting and self-healing mechanisms of painful emotions, we achieve a more consistent realization of basic humanity. When I stop blaming the poor for being poor, I am free to give as much as I can afford. I like myself better when I give than when I blame. When I reach the limit of what I can do, I’m not angry that they remain poor, I recognize that they are as valuable and worthy of respect as everyone else, and I like myself better than when I resent them.
Emotional healing is activated by pain. Accepting a certain amount of pain is the only way to avoid suffering and alienation from our deepest sense of humanity.