A provocative title! Pain and fear are usually understood as things to avoid. Our survival is based on the instincts we’ve evolved to avoid pain and fear. How then, can there be gifts in pain and rewards in fear? I often think there should be two words for pain and two words for fear. I wonder if there are any languages where this is the case. It would make it easier, right from the beginning, to distinguish between the one and the other.
Athletes and weight-lifters have been known to say; “No Pain, No Gain”. We’ve all heard the quote. Yet there is no weight-lifter who will stab himself with a knife to get the gain from the pain. Why not? It hurts. Obviously because there is a very specific kind of pain, for which unfortunately there is no specific word, that actually builds muscle, increases endurance and expands flexibility. This is not only true for weight-lifters. Anyone who’s done Yoga for a while knows that there is a kind of pleasurable, luxurious pain which pulls you farther into the position. The same is true for Rolfing, or any kind of deep massage. The right amount of this kind of pain is the sure signal that you’re going to feel like a million bucks the next day.
In any kind of coaching or therapeutic context the same applies. There are processes here where avoiding pain is repression and/or resistance. Going into the pain is synonymous with going into the healing process. Not always, but often enough to make it a usable heads-up. At the same time there is pain which is most definitely, positively detrimental and to be avoided. Often, at least in my experience, they are very close together. I’m sure there are people out there with a natural instinct for the difference. Not I. It seems I need to go out of the envelope at least once to find the boundary. In running, jogging or HIIT training, for example, there is a very specific kind of general body pain (mostly at the beginning) which, when overcome, turns into the most ecstatic of physical sensations. Endorphins are flowing, colors are brighter, the breath flows joyfully in and out….what’s called “runner’s high”. Many runners, in order to find that balance, work through various injuries by pushing the envelope. As unpleasant as this is, it serves to clarify over time this important distinction between pain and pain (I’m tellin’ ya, we need two separate words!).
In any single exercise this distinction is crucial to progress; sit-ups, pull-ups, curls, etc. Going beyond the limits of your present strength is THE deciding factor in fitness increase. The signal for that is the ‘gain-pain’ I’ve been describing. If your form is off, even slightly, repetitions will result in injury. The signal for that is the pain to be avoided. When you’re an old hand at these exercises, the distinction is not that hard. If you’re trying something new, it’s more difficult to make the distinction.
Who hasn’t experienced that with a personal trainer or in some yoga or fitness class? The trainer is shouting; “feel the pain, go into the pain, just a little more, make it hurt…” or something similar and you, in an effort to yield gain from the pain, go a little too far beyond your abilities and injure yourself. It’s not that the trainer is incompetent. He’s referring to something different than what you’re feeling because an important distinction is completely missing!
Anyone in a truly loving, long-term relationship will recognize the importance of this distinction as well. There is a kind of love-pain in a long relationship that longs to be worked through. Avoid this and the relationship is in jeopardy. As I probably don’t need to tell you, there are at the same time power mechanisms at work in a relationship that have to do with immaturity, subjugation and one-upmanship. That results in a pain to be avoided. Understanding this difference is not easy. Understanding this difference is essential in knowing what to avoid and what to pursue, what to ignore and what to call forth, when to shut the f**k up and when to speak. Not always easy!
A lot of our traditional wisdom derives from pre-modern concepts, often in the form of scripture, which derives from a one-dimensional understanding of pain.
“The aim of the wise is not to secure pleasure, but to avoid pain.”
“Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding.”
Obviously these gentlemen are speaking of two distinct things, yet using the same word for both. They are not contradicting each other. They are speaking of two similar, yet separate, phenomenon. Sometimes oversimplifying is just dumbing down. Imagine embracing both these quotes at the same time and to the same extent and you are imagining a post-modern understanding of language. When someone uses the word ‘pain’, we need to ask exactly which one s/he’s talking about!
The same is true for FEAR. Fear is one of the most important and vital emotions we have. It charges us up. It motivates us. It gives our entire system, body and soul, the energy to act decisively. It quickens our spirit and enlivens our mind. It makes our hearts beat faster and our senses sharper. It gives us a honed ability to make decisions. At the same time, fear paralyses us. It stiffens and cramps our muscles. It deadens our heart. It shuts down our higher nature and makes us act impulsively and without thought. As with pain, it’s obvious I’m speaking of two very distinct functions here, one to be avoided, one to be invited. There are similarities, to be sure, but as with pain, making the important distinction between the two is vital in understanding our own motivational structure.
Here again, the wisdom of our ages is obviously speaking of two distinct functions:
“The first duty of man is to conquer fear; he must get rid of it, he cannot act till then.
“My fear is my substance, and probably the best part of me.”
I’m sure everyone out there can relate fully to both these sentiments. What exactly is the difference? As any professional singer can tell you, there is a form of fear we all feel when going onstage. For some, this fear is a high form of motivation, excitement and self-expression. For others, it is paralyzing. Perhaps it’s merely a question of degree. Perhaps it’s merely a question of how we talk to ourselves that makes the difference. Perhaps these are two distinct emotions, similar, yet different enough in important ways to warrant a learnable, conscious distinction.
Consider for a moment the idea of “Courage”. How often, before going on stage have we singers heard “CORAGGIO” from our colleagues. For anyone free of any variety of fear (there are actually disorders of the amygdala, a part of the limbic system, which make feeling fear impossible) and going onstage, or into battle (which going onstage often feels like) or engaging in a dangerous sports event, is it really ‘courage’ that they are exhibiting? Is being courageous merely an activity? Or is it a process? It depends on your definition, of course, but true courage, at least as I’ve come to understand it, is the overcoming or transforming of fear and going into action.
This is precisely where this distinction is important, both for fear and for pain. The more consciousness we have of the subtle varieties of our own pain and fear, the more actual regulation we have within them.
The more sense we have of skillfully surfing the waves of our own stronger emotions, the more joyfully we can live our life and cope with anything this life presents us.
Evan Bortnick Gesangsunterricht Wiesbaden