Why We Should Stop Running from Pain

Learning to face what we don't want to feel can change our lives for the better.

Posted Aug 02, 2020

It’s a natural human tendency to seek pleasure and avoid pain. Much of our lives is shaped around this instinct. We’re innately inclined to turn away from what hurts, and to seek safety in what’s pleasurable and familiar. But moving through life along the path of least resistance comes with a certain set of consequences.

The reality is, pain is fundamentally inescapable. It’s an undeniable fact of life that we will, at some point or another, experience some form of pain. That’s a fairly obvious thing. We’ve all experienced pain in our lives. But knowing that it’s true doesn’t make it any easier to accept.  

Pain can be catalyzing. It can force us to grow and get stronger. Without it, we don’t learn what we’re capable of enduring and overcoming. But even if we understand that pain is inescapable, and even if we know it can be good for us, we’re still conditioned to avoid it at all costs. And we’re socialized to believe that if we’re careful enough . . . if we buy enough . . . if we work hard enough . . . if we’re thin enough . . . if we get rich enough . . . if we stay busy enough . . . we can live a pain-free existence.

This indoctrination gets us highly skilled at designing masterful maneuvers to dodge what we don’t want to feel (or don’t want others to feel):

  • We reach for a drink any time we feel stressed.
  • We leave a relationship every time things get tough.
  • We people-please until we’re spread paper thin.
  • We procrastinate on important tasks and projects.
  • We hover over our kids to try and spare them negative feelings.
  • We talk ourselves out of our dream or ambitions.

At first, these methods can be pretty effective, since they keep us in a relative comfort zone. For a while, we can get tricked into believing we’ve outsmarted what we don’t want to feel. But over time, we start to feel a different kind of discomfort. The kind that comes with consequences . . . often painful consequences.

We aren’t wrong for wanting to avoid feeling pain. It’s a perfectly human, perfectly natural thing to do. It just turns out to be ineffective. Our efforts to escape just take us right where we were trying not to go. Heraclitus, a philosopher from the late 6th Century BCE, taught that everything, pushed to its extreme, becomes its opposite. He was right. We can try to run from pain, but we can’t hide from it. Eventually, some form of it finds us.

Eventually, whatever we’re trying to escape will just pop up somewhere else, in some other form. We might find ourselves sliding down a slippery slope into the agony of addiction. We might develop patterns of relationship avoidance that get more and more alienating over time. We might miss out on our lives and wind up deeply unhappy with the way things turned out.

It’s normal to want to numb bad feelings; it’s understandable to want to run away from what hurts. But sooner or later, running away won’t work anymore. It’s going to catch up; and it may hurt even worse than when it started. If we want to survive—and, no doubt, if we want to thrive—we have to develop a tolerance for pain. We have to train ourselves to stay present to what we’re feeling and breathe through it until we come out on the other side.

All pain is temporary. All bad feelings pass. And when we learn to lean in and let ourselves feel, we can turn these transitory feelings into sources of strength.