On any given day in the US, nearly 700,000 prescriptions are dispensed for pain medications. If this number seems staggering to you, that’s because it is—especially when you consider that rates of opioid addiction and overdose in this country are at an all-time high. What can start as a pill here or there to manage pain can quickly unravel into a debilitating dependence. We don’t tend to (or want to) think about it this way, but many of the people who die from heroin overdoses started out in a doctor’s office. We’ve got a troubling epidemic on our hands in this country, and for the last several years of my career, I’ve been on its harrowing front lines.
I’ve worked with many people suffering from addiction to opioids and other substances; and while I treat each of my clients according to their unique circumstances, I often find that my conversations with them venture into familiar territory. One of the topics that comes up most often when I speak to these clients is a common one that also comes up when I speak to my other, non-addicted clients. That’s because it’s a topic that relates much more to the human experience in general than to the unique experience of becoming an addict.
The topic I’m referring to is pain. Not just physical pain, of course. I’m talking about the pain of everyday living. From momentary sadness to crippling regret; from a broken heart after a breakup to the devastating loss of a close companion. No matter who you are, no matter how fortunate you’ve been, pain is (or surely will be) part of your reality. And the truth is, your mental health and overall capacity to function in your life depend critically on your ability to effectively manage it. When I see the overwhelming numbers of people losing their lives and their loved ones to addiction every day in this country, I can’t help but think about how different things might be if we could all learn more adaptive ways to manage discomfort and cope with the tough stuff. People are suffering—and far too many of them are doing so in an effort to avoid feeling pain.
Though not everyone turns to substances, we all have ways of seeking to numb ourselves and avoid facing the parts of life that feel uncomfortable and unpleasant. We overeat, oversleep, overwork, or otherwise disconnect from our experience in the moment. And, in some ways, this makes sense. Pain avoidance is woven into the fabric of what makes us human, so it’s only natural that we look for ways to make ourselves feel better whenever pain arises. The problem is, instant gratification and immediate relief are terrible long-term strategies. They serve to lower our tolerance to pain so that we’re less equipped (and more afraid) to manage it the next time it comes up. It’s no wonder our society is more obese, addicted, and depressed than ever before. Our efforts to tune out and feel good in the moment only end up harming us in the long-run.
Life transforms dramatically when we learn to let ourselves feel pain. Trust me; I make a living helping people through this process. Many people spend their lives developing strategies—both consciously and unconsciously—to resist and avoid pain. But this is the worst thing we can do with painful emotions once they’ve arisen. The resistance only serves to strengthen the pain, making it harder for us to move through it. Think about how difficult it is to swim upstream. When you resist the current and try to move in the opposite direction of where it’s flowing, you make the journey to your destination much more difficult. You get stuck. You wear yourself out from the effort. When, however, you move in the direction of the current—going with what’s already flowing—you move much more swiftly. This is the way it works with our emotions, too. Though we’re naturally inclined to resist feeling painful emotions like anger, sadness, regret, or loneliness, we can move through them much more quickly and easily when we allow ourselves to feel them—going with the current, so to speak—than when we resist.
Our society compels us to believe that we should always turn that frown upside-down or find the silver lining on every dark cloud. But the truth is, life is as much about the difficulties as it is about the triumphs—as much about the happy feelings as the painful ones. Pain takes on a whole new meaning when we can learn to greet it and keep it company. Once we learn to let it hurt, we’ve taken the first step to letting it heal.
If something hurts for a while, or you experience difficult emotions every time you think about a particular part of your life, it doesn’t mean something’s wrong. Hurting is part of healing, and sometimes the healing process takes longer than we’d want or expect it to. If you find yourself stuck in this process and unsure how to manage it on your own, it might support you to work with a therapist, who can serve as a compassionate companion along your journey through pain. But whether or not you work with someone through this process or go it alone, trust that your efforts to make contact with your pain will lead you down the path toward healing. And not only will you heal, you’ll also strengthen your ability to face life courageously and open-heartedly, knowing you can handle whatever comes your way.
If we choose to see it this way, being in pain can serve as an opportunity for us to be with ourselves, slowing down and tuning in to our experience so we can move through it as gracefully as possible, learning what’s there for us to learn along the way. I invite you to begin the process of letting your painful emotions come and go; allow yourself to flow through them, supported by the knowledge that they will pass, so long as you let them.