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Who Do You Choose to Be Today–With or Without Your Pain

Being in pain exacerbates FOMO–everything looks better than now

Key points

  • Most of us intellectually understand that the only moment we have in life is this very one. That is it. 
  • But our minds play tricks on us constantly by worrying about the future and hanging onto regrets from the past.
  • Our unconscious mind is protecting us. It is continually scanning the present looking for situations from the past that were dangerous.
  • You can’t control this response, but, by using tools to stay connected to the moment, its impact can be lessened. 

For anyone who is suffering from chronic mental or physical pain, or any chronic condition, it is normal to wish that your life were different. Why would you not think that? A step beyond is that the view in almost everyone else's life is better than yours. Again, why wouldn't you?

I recently encountered a middle-aged man who had been experiencing crippling anxiety for many years. He joined the group sessions that I run and seemed to have a wonderful experience. He was extremely socially isolated and I thought that being in a group setting would help him move forward.

Instead, I received an email stating how everyone else seemed to have social support and was happier than he was. Of course, I knew how deeply each person in the group had suffered, regardless of how they appeared. I explained to him that his was a universal reaction—to look at other people's lives as better than his own. One of the problems created by such a mindset is that instead of committing to the moment and moving forward, people try to outrun it. It can't work, and it wears people down.

Commitment to change is one thing, but sticking with it is challenging, especially when you feel trapped. One way to help yourself along is to bite off small bits of change at a time and proactively make choices all day long. It will become a habit and your norm. A starting point is repeatedly asking yourself a simple question, “Who do I choose to be today?”

Source: kaliantye/AdobeStock

A tough start to my day

One morning I woke up feeling low, having just completed eight straight 15-hour workdays, including a long weekend. As I lay there exhausted on a Tuesday morning, I reviewed my choices: either 1) stay in bed feeling sorry for myself or 2) give thanks for the opportunity to help so many patients during the week, be grateful for how well the week went, and meet my work-out group early at the gym. I chose the second alternative. I got up, worked out, went into the office, and gave 100% to each patient and my staff. I’m not saying it was easy; but it turned out to be a great day.

Proactively choosing how to experience your day is the farthest thing from “positive thinking.” No one is asking you to pretend to be happy when you are coping with a difficult situation, especially ongoing pain. On the contrary, you must be aware of the depth of your frustration before you can choose to live a full and productive life with or without pain—or enjoy your day. Positive substitution—filling your life with positive experiences—is the essence of neurological reprogramming.

A tough beginning

Recently, I was talking to a friend’s teenage son. This kid was good-looking, athletic, and personable; yet he felt isolated, insecure, anxious, and emotionally unstable. He continually compared himself to others and tried to fit in. He was also justifiably upset about his family situation. His father, who was extremely critical of him, had essentially abandoned him by moving out of the country. I understood the feeling, since his experience was not much different from mine at the same age.

About halfway through our conversation I realized that he too, had a choice. I pointed out that, after years of stress, he had remained remarkably intact. He could choose to be proud of his resilience in the face of adversity and use this gift to take on new challenges. I could see his eyes light up.

Some suggestions

FOMO (fear of missing out) seems to be rampant. Maybe it is because we are overwhelmed with options. But what we are really missing out on is enjoying our day. It is a deeply embedded thinking pattern that doesn’t resolve over time. It requires specific action.

You can’t “solve” FOMO. By trying not to have it, you actually reinforce the neural circuits that sustain it. The answer lies in cultivating connection, meaning, and purpose. Trying to be “happy” actually doesn’t work either, due to the “ironic effect.”1 Research shows that when your rational brain seeks a positive high ideal, your powerful unconscious brain, trying to protect you, will create the opposite outcome.

· Nurture deep gratitude for what you have. It may not be as much as you want, but focus on it.

· Compare your situation to those who are less well off than you. It may not seem possible in light of your pain, but start somewhere.2

· Become aware of how frantic you get about your “to do” list and how endless it is. It is problematic for almost all of us.

· Have a separate "to do" list on which you don't put ANYTHING that you are not going to do TODAY.

· Frequently practice active meditation to connect yourself to the moment. Simply place your full attention on any sensation for 5-10 seconds intermittently throughout the day. By definition, you are connected to that moment.

· Listen to some of your favorite music, especially if it is connected to enjoyable experiences from the past.

· What is one thing you can do today that brings you pleasure? A cup of coffee accompanied by your favorite donut? A call to a close friend? A compliment to a family member or friend? Anything. There is an endless of list of small deeds that can change your day.

Recap: Your choice

What do you want out of your life? Is it more than being a sufferer enduring pain? Do you really want to live your one life this way? Of course not, you may be thinking. But it is unlikely that you will magically wake up one morning and find your troubles gone. Focusing on solutions is an ongoing conscious choice because your powerful unconscious automatically gravitates towards the problems. There are no shortcuts.

So, who do you want to be today? Choose carefully, because you will either be reinforcing old neurological circuits or creating new ones. What is your choice this year, this month, today, the next 15 minutes, or this minute? Carve a few minutes out every morning to ask yourself that question, ponder your options, and commit to whatever choice you make.


1. Wegner DM. The seed of our undoing. Psychological Science Agenda (1999); Jan/Feb:10-11.

2. Dalai Lama. The Art of Happiness. Penguin Random House. New York, NY, 1998.

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