Do You Listen To Your Pain?

A couple of weeks ago, I took both my kids to the doctor’s office. When it came time for the flu shots, the tech asked me to pick which child should go first. I picked my 3-year-old son. He reacted with an “ouch” and then was on to the next thing.

My 7-year-old daughter went next and probably because her brother didn’t cry out, she didn’t scream or cry when she got the shot but spent the next 20 minutes telling us how much it hurt. Then she saw her grandmother and started in on the spiel all over again.

My kids have completely unique reactions to pain. That’s even with taking into account gender and birth order differences that may exist despite my best efforts to treat them the same. It makes me think – we all express our pain differently.

This brings to mind some observations I read from animal behaviorist Temple Grandin about how animals mask their pain. In her book, Animals in Translation she talks about how sheep are the ultimate stoics – she’s witnessed a sheep that’s undergone an excruciating bone procedure return to the herd and blend totally in. Because of course for prey, that’s the point to make sure you aren’t distinguishable to predators based on weakness.

And another example she told was the story of a bull being castrated, who when left alone was writhing on the ground in utter agony. And yet when a researcher walked up, he jumped up and pretended nothing was wrong.

We all mask our pain, physical and psychological, whether its nature or nurture. As Plato said, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” It just might not be observable.

And perhaps pain is most dangerous when we mask it so much that we forget to listen to it. I have a spot behind my left shoulder blade that is incredibly knotted and tense from too much time spent in front a computer. I’ve had it for so long that for the most part I just tune it out which seems like an effective strategy until it hurts so badly that I have to get a massage. At which point my massage therapist, who has been my massage therapist for 25 years and is ultra-patient, asks “Are you ever stretching?” Duh – if I tended to it, perhaps it wouldn’t be so bad!

And I won’t even get started on my examples of psychological discomfort because we’d be here all day. I’m just saying, pain is instructive. It tells us what not to do and it also shows us where we need to heal. When we listen to our pain, we can create a relationship with it and maybe even start a dialogue – something different than just ignoring it.

“Our bodies often give us messages we fail to pay attention to. Ironically, we are all so aware of pain, can hardly ignore it, but we rarely hear what it has to say. It is true that we may need to withstand great pain, great heartache, great disappointment and loss in order to unfold into the rest of our lives. But our pain may also be showing us exactly where we need to change.”

The Book of Awakening by Mark Nepo

That day in the doctor’s office, I picked the order of the shots for my kids knowing that my son would have the smaller reaction. I didn’t want him to learn from his sister all the demonstrativeness. More than that, I didn’t want to endure the pain of having two kids crying.

But I think now I was wrong – I would much rather bear witness to their short-term outburst than to long-term suppressed agony. It’s one of the hardest things that I have to do to lead by example, to unmask my own pain and make it both visible and instructive. But I’m hoping that by working on it, it helps both of my kids know that exhibiting pain will gain one comfort, at least from your mom.

How do you handle pain in yourself? What about with others?

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(featured photo from Pexels)

37 thoughts on “Do You Listen To Your Pain?

  1. I’m still working on how to handle pain in my kids – and they’re in their 20’s now! 😰 Interesting post Wynne!

    1. Oh dear – I should have opened with that. Sorry, Julia!! 🙂 Thanks for following the link to the new site name. We thought it merited more consideration than just overthinking. 🙂

  2. Morning, Wynne. First — listen, blogging girlfriend, stretch, stretch, stretch. Your description of your shoulder pain was potent. Wowza.
    So, with that out of the way 😉 I’ll share that I love your statement, “But I think now I was wrong – I would much rather bear witness to their short-term outburst than to long-term suppressed agony. It’s one of the hardest things that I have to do to lead by example, to unmask my own pain and make it both visible and instructive.”
    Oh yeah – that ‘long suppressed agony”. Deal with what’s front and center and move on…I like that…but I also recognize it’s hard to be vulnerable mama and show you’re hurting.
    What I know for sure is that your attention to this will forge a path that’s just right for you, D and O. Thanks for a great post. ❤

    1. Oh, I love your comment that my attention will forge the path. That is profound my friend. I know, I need to stretch – you are so right!! Thank you, dear Vicki!

  3. Wow, but this hits me where I am living! The most prominent tie-in to my life right now relates to autistic burnout.

    Five or six years ago, I wrote–on an esrlier blog–about burnout so deep I forever had “Nothing left for the dog.” Nothing in my life was so, so hard I should be that burnt out, I figurd, so I kept pushing.

    I wish I’d understood that the pain then was a signal, telling me to re-align my life to be less painful. Alas, it took me several more years and overwhelm so deep I can now lose my words to take that pain seriously, work to understand its origins, and adjust course accordingly.

    i hope I will use this is a prompt to take pain as a signal quicker in the future. In the meantime, I will be grateful for the animal examples you shared here; I know exactly what that is like.

    Thanks for the great food for thought!

    1. Oh Deborah, you are lovely to provide this example. I’m so sorry about those years of overwhelm and burnout. I can just feel how that must have compounded.

      I think about the years I was married and drinking a bottle of wine a night just to make it manageable and I wish I’d learned sooner too. But we did learn and yowzsa, we are going to do better, right? Thanks for reading and commenting!

  4. Thank you for sharing this insight! I’m also learning that pain in the body is just information. Aches and pains can many a time be stuck emotions too so not suppressing and stuffing (or unlearning/learning not to) is a whole thing! I recently had emotional pain and instead of masking it when caught in the moment I explained to my boys that I was really sad and that I just needed a minute to be with myself. Showing them that it’s ok to have big emotions and express them healthily is super important. You got this Mama xx

  5. When my children were young and they would complain about something hurting i would tell them “you arent bleeding, you’ll live.” My son fell and broke his arm, he never said a thing. When he went tos chool 2 days later he complained and the nurse called us. I was sure child protective services were going to pay us a visit. When he was 27, he died from an aneurysm – right in front of us. Apparently, he had been having massive headaches but never told anyone. The lesson is simple, listen to your pain but how do you not become a hypercondriac

    1. Oh Danny, I’m so sorry about the loss of your son. How heartbreaking to lose a child. And thank you for sharing that lesson with us. Yes, listen but don’t become a hypercondriac – you’re right, it’s a balance.

  6. I can’t “heart” this post enough. I’ve had a close relationship with pain, and everything you said is on point. But I also loved the animal part. I’ve never heard that about sheep and bulls before. Fascinating! Lastly, right before I saw this post, I’d read something by Ryan Leak, talking about being vulnerable. It’s all in perfect sync today. Thanks for another insightful and lovely post!

    1. Oh, thank you, Kendra. You are always so encouraging and I appreciate it. I haven’t heard of Ryan Leak – I’ll look him up. Hope your close relationship with pain means that you have listened and its manageable! Sending my best!

  7. Totally agree that it’s so important to listen to the pain and do what’s necessary to get back to feeling better. I’ve learned that it’s important to listen not only to the physical pain, but the emotional and mental pain. It means something isn’t working well, and needs to be adjusted.

  8. Interesting perspective on pain. I love the quotes from Grandin too. The responses you used to illustrate (the bull and the sheep) are similar to how many men hide their pain from the world because we are taught that showing our emotions is improper. I am typically a stoic, but I also understand the need to let our deepest pains and emotions flow and show. We all need help at times. Great post, Wynne.

    1. What an interesting comment! Yes, I couldn’t agree more – that men are taught to bury their pain and that we all need help at times. Exactly! Thanks for reading and commenting!

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