Last week I had acupuncture for the first time in thirteen years.
As I lay on the table for the doctor to inject foreign objects into my arms and legs, I told myself that it might hurt a little, but it would be okay because I’d done it before and it worked.
The doctor placed the first few needles into my hands. He said that if I felt a heavy pain from a needle, that’s good — that means it’s in the right place. That it’s going to unblock the energy there, free up the meridian channel.
The next needle he inserted seemed to hit just the right nerve, because my hand jerked and my upper body jolted as I tried to keep my composure.
“You are sensitive,” he said, to which I agreed with some laughter.
In that moment I knew that in order to make it through the treatment, I would have to do a better job of talking myself into enduring these sharp pokes and prods — I didn’t remember being this sensitive thirteen years ago.
Reframing pain into gain
So I responded to the needle by saying, “You’re in the right place.”
At each new jolt of pain — and there were some excruciating ones in my legs — I made the choice to reframe it into positive statement. Instead of thinking to myself:
“Man, that hurt! Why am I doing this?”
“Ooh, that’s the right spot. I’m so glad I came in for this treatment today. I can’t wait to see the results.”
The pain would only last for a few seconds at insertion anyway. Once the needle was in place, the sensation would slowly dull or go away. The needle was bearable. It was only the negative anticipation of it that could do me any real harm by making the situation worse than it really was.
Social framing of pain
After the treatment, the doctor told me that it was good I had had some acupuncture experience. Most people who come in for the first time, he said, are uncomfortable with the idea. So he usually goes very gently the first time, and lets the positive effects bring them in for another treatment.
I replied, “It must be a weird concept for Westerners to undergo acupuncture — voluntarily subjecting themselves to pain.”
“Chinese people,” he explained, “have a different perspective. They want to feel the painful sensation. If they don’t feel it, they tell me to make adjustments. They know the feeling means the work is being done.”
“Well, Americans usually avoid pain as much as they can,” I said.
“Yes,” he said, “but they also believe in no pain no gain.”
Social avoidance of pain
“Americans are probably the most pain-conscious people on the face of the earth. For years we have had it drummed into us — in print, on radio, over television, in everyday conversation — that any hint of pain is to be banished as though it were the ultimate evil. As a result, we are becoming a nation of pill-grabbers and hypochondriacs, escalating the slightest ache into a searing ordeal.”
- Norman Cousins, Anatomy of an Illness
As a society, we are trained at a young age to avoid pain at all costs.
Pain is bad, useless, ugly, harmful, not worth our time.
If you have a headache, the logical thing to do is take some pain-killer. Did you get that? Pain-killer. The pain not only need be banished, but killed, obliterated, destroyed. Such violent metaphorical language can only mean one thing: Americans are afraid of pain.
And when you talk about emotional pain? Nothing could exemplify this fear even more.
But what if we could just sit still and feel the pain for a moment?
Maybe we’d notice that it isn’t as bad as we make it out to be. That it can tell us who we are, show us where we need to be.
That it can catalyze positive change if we are just willing to listen to, feel, and work with it.
That it can mobilize us in ways that nothing else can — not even positive affirmations, meditation, happy thoughts, or love and light thinking.
That it can shake us to our core, jolt us to the lives we are really living, and push us to see if we are living the lives we really want.
A different perspective of pain
Pain is only a symptom. Like the needle sensation my doctor was aiming for, it only communicates a block in chi flow — of life flow. The problem is not the pain, it’s the blockage. The pain is a good thing because it let’s us know that the problem exists.
When we become obsessed with treating the symptoms of our emotional pain, we ensure that the problem will persist. And we will prolong our pain even more than was possible without the supposed killers of pain.
Think about that next time you find yourself mad or frustrated with yourself because you are in emotional pain. Notice how being upset that you are hurt actually perpetuates the feeling of being hurt. It’s culture that has taught you that the pain must be avoided, and that if you are feeling it, something is wrong with you.
That cultural program is not going to help you find the right solutions to the real problems behind the pain. It is only going to do one thing: alienate you from your emotions so that you instead try to suppress them — which, won’t be very successful, and actually harmful.
The next time something hurts, ask yourself if you are fussing over the needles or the mere anticipation of the needles. When you stop negatively judging pain, you may just find that sensation is only momentary, that the pain is in fact bearable. And that once you feel it move through you, it will slowly dull or go away.