Why Experiencing Pain is the Pathway to Growth
In the world of self-improvement, we often discuss “resiliency” as a barometer for mental performance. But, it wasn’t until I confronted some challenging experiences from my own life that I understood how much experiencing pain could be a doorway to growth. In reflecting on that experience, however, I had a profound realization — recognizing how far I have come on my personal journey toward building resiliency and self-improvement.
I have previously discussed the concept of transition points. Transition points are moments that occur between the significant, life-altering moments that happen as we go from one stage of life to another. These critical moments could include losing a loved one or close friend, experiencing adversity, being in combat, enduring sexual abuse, changing your career path, getting divorced, ending a long-term relationship, or a mid-life crisis.
As significant an impact as the event itself, I believe these transition points along our journey and the choices we make during them are what truly create personal growth or lead us down the path of personal descent. During times of transition and these sometimes painful and abrupt periods of change, we cease to be our past selves and are not quite yet our future selves.
Transitions form a core part of our psyche. They come when you are most vulnerable. When you are faced with the question: Will you build resilience and extreme grit or succumb to the events in your life and become a victim of them?
Transition points occur when you need to develop new character traits that will make you stronger. Befriend these transition points for what they are: a necessary condition that will promote your evolution to becoming your best self.
Experiencing pain in life is actually a medium required for the vast, dormant power within you to awaken and express itself. I will expand on this premise by discussing how I experienced pain and grew from it. But, more importantly, I will explain how my story applies to you and how you can turn your pain into a pathway for growth.
Experiencing pain required me to own my toughness
Seven years ago, I desperately needed to change the direction of my life. I knew my life needed to change, but I was afraid to face the work such a change would require. So my psyche pushed me head-first into it, presenting me with an entire slate of traumatic experiences — a messy end to a 22-year marriage, the loss of what I thought was my dream job, dealing with the fallout from personal assault when I confronted an armed burglar in my home and losing my best friend to suicide — all within the span of one year.
I have to admit. My emotional cup was full, and I felt like one more thing would ultimately push me over the edge. I also had become really great at suppressing my emotions and internalizing my pain instead of properly confronting it and choosing to deal with it by seeking external help.
Ultimately, I sought out that help. I went through a long period of therapy, including talk therapy, neuropsychological testing, cognitive processing therapy, and prolonged exposure therapy. It was one of the darkest periods of my life as I confronted not only my current pain but also that which I had experienced long ago during combat and as a child.
Eventually, I was able to process the traumas and get past my stuck points. I faced the darkest corners and hidden places inside me. I chose to embrace this experience as a season of learning that was a gift and something that would make me a much better and stronger person on the other side. I incorporated it into my sense of self as I emerged as a more secure, self-aware, and resilient person. It was as if I had gone through a (metaphorical) journey of putting my old self to rest and awakening on the other side as a new, improved version of myself.
I emerged knowing that if I could come out at the other end of a traumatic year, I could overcome experiencing pain from just about anything life threw at me.
However, I made the mistake of thinking that my transition was complete after that one traumatic year. I thought I had become a stronger and improved self, only to come face-to-face with the reality that I was still using old defense and coping strategies. Additionally, I was still deeply attached to my past comforts, past perceptions of value, and past self. To grow, I needed to question my beliefs about myself and realize that what I used to value no longer served me.
I realized that fully embracing my life’s path and direction requires that I focus less on myself and dedicate my life to helping others overcome their hurdles to become their best selves.
So, how does my story apply to you?
When our personal security is endangered or we are experiencing pain, most of us default to going on the attack, becoming defensive while numbing our pain in order to soothe ourselves. This feeling of safety isn’t only in the physical sense. You can also feel unsafe when you sense an attack on your beliefs, values, and the awareness through which you see yourself and the world around you.
To develop resiliency in childhood, you need to feel love and acceptance. This went beyond just being seen to also feeling that you are protected. As you grow older, you receive subtle signals that you might need to adapt from the person you used to be. You may feel like you need to be more intelligent, more stunning, bolder, more mentally tough, and more like those you see around you.
It was probably the case that you were taught that you could not trust your true self. It may even be that you feel ashamed of those pieces of yourself that brought comfort to your parents, teachers, and others. You may have even found yourself wearing a mask of pretense covering up who you were inside. This is not because your parents were terrible people. They most likely did their best with the knowledge they possessed at the time. As we know, parenting is most often learned by examining your own parents, grandparents, relatives, and how you were raised.
Through this lifetime journey of developing yourself, you devise a narrow construct of who you are, the path you are following, and what your life should look and feel like. When any of this is questioned, sometimes in the slightest way, it can throw you into a tailspin and an emotional rollercoaster. When we cannot incorporate challenges caused by experiencing pain, they halt our progress.
We have a limited range of resiliency and little tolerance for processing that pain. It is essential to understand that real growth isn’t just about recovering from the situation that causes your pain. It’s about understanding and accepting that pain and adversity actually help you grow.
Every great thing in life comes on the other side of experiencing pain.
It is common to recognize experiencing pain as a negative experience and, in your desire to avoid pain as much as possible, run from it. Yet pain is an unavoidable consequence of life, and you have to handle hardship whether you like it or not and try as much as possible to turn it into a positive learning experience.
Sort of like the common phrase, ‘What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.’ Understanding what comes on the other side of experiencing pain can help us do this better.
In a recent interview with Rachel Hollis, #1 NY Times bestselling author, podcaster, and speaker explained it in these terms, “The last two years, two and a half years for me have been filled with those defining moments. It’s been a really hard couple of years on personal levels and professional levels. I’ve experienced a lot of loss, a lot of grief. And in that process, as brutal as it’s been. I am a completely different person. I’m a completely different mama. I’m a completely different writer. I’m a completely different everything.
And not that I would want to go through something that hard again, but I think that the last couple of years have really served as a reminder that every great thing I have in my life came on the other side of hardship came on the other side have a difficult season or a hard lesson to learn. And I find that again and again, it’s not fun to walk through those hard times. But I wouldn’t trade it for all that I’ve learned in the process or the life I get to live now because of what I’ve gone through.”
As Rachel described, experiencing pain and transversing hardship allows you to stand outside your pain and choose to treat the experience as one of growth and self-awareness. When you allow these seasons of transition and the emotions around them to happen without fighting them or wishing they were different, you take yourself out of the victim role and instead ask yourself, “How can this painful experience serve my growth?”
Create a future vision for your life
I want to take you through an exercise that helped me, and I hope it will help you.
I will help you write down your vision of the future you.
Hopefully, through this article, you have begun to see a vision for the kind of future that you feel is worth creating. Something that is not only worth enabling but worth experiencing pain and fighting for.
If you need some help coming up with ideas for how to grow through hardship, grab a notebook and try completing these prompts:
- What are the things you love most about your life?
- If you had one major regret, what would that be?
In both of these instances, I will ask you to focus on the present as well as the possibilities of your future self. If you write down those things you hoped would have happened or how you wish things would be different, it will not serve you.
Instead, dream of what your life could be outside of your pain and try to be as specific as possible. Ask yourself and jot down the answers to these questions:
How would the new version of you approach the next three months?
What would comprise your days?
With whom would you spend your time?
What were great things in your life before your painful experience that you have begun to rebuild?
What is no longer in your life because you intentionally let it go?
What does the best future version of yourself look like?
I am asking you to do this exercise because something powerful happens when you begin to express your dreams. It allows you to cement them in your mind and provides a purpose to move towards. By taking these steps forward, you are intentionally not taking control of every part of your life but giving yourself the understanding that you are in control of how you move through it.
Grow through your hardships
I don’t have any more clarity or control over where my life will lead me now than I did before, but I know that I will not allow something or someone else to define me. Or rather, in those moments when I do break (and God, is it necessary to let yourself break sometimes), I know I can sew myself back together more robustly than before.
I know that I can sit with myself and observe the beliefs, fears, and emotions that dance around me like the flames of a fire.
I know that I can feel a seemingly bottomless intensity of pain, anxiety, and loss, but that I will be able to breathe again as soon as I stop searching for the bottom and instead allow myself to float in the waters of it all, knowing that the shore is always there.
I hope you will see that personal growth comes on the other side of experiencing pain.
This article is based on an episode of Passion Struck with John R. Miles.
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